How to Disable iCloud Desktop & Documents on Mac

Jul 6, 2017 - 15 Comments

iCloud Drive Desktop and Documents folders

The most recent versions of MacOS have an iCloud feature which allows the Desktop and Documents folders on a Mac to be synced to iCloud Drive. This allows a Macs desktop and documents folders to be accessed from other Macs, iOS devices, or iCloud. A fair amount of users turn this feature on when updating or installing MacOS High Sierra or Sierra, but later some Mac users may wish to disable iCloud Desktop & Documents folders.

It’s easy to turn off the iCloud Desktop & Documents feature on MacOS, but in doing so you may find that your files are no longer on your computer. That can be alarming since it may be incorrectly interpreted as data loss.

We’ll show you how to turn off iCloud Desktop & Documents on MacOS and then how to get your files back from iCloud and back onto your local Mac again.

Warning: you should have a local backup of all of your files made before proceeding, it is easy to backup with Time Machine. If you do not have a ton of bandwidth and a very high speed internet connection (and patience), do not casually turn this off and on. If you do not want to use iCloud Desktop & Documents do NOT toggle this setting on in iCloud System Preferences on a Mac and then off again. Even quickly toggling on/off will immediately attempt to upload every single item in your Desktop and Documents folder into iCloud Drive. Disabling this will require you to download every file from iCloud to your local Mac. This is very bandwidth intensive and requires a high speed reliable internet connection to use. Do not casually enable or disable this feature without understanding the ramifications of any of this. If in doubt, do not change any of your settings.

How to Turn Off iCloud Desktop & Documents on MacOS

  1. Go to the  Apple menu in Mac OS and choose “System Preferences”
  2. Go to ‘iCloud’ preference panel
  3. Look for ‘iCloud Drive’ and click the “Options…” button next to it
  4. Uncheck the box next to ‘Desktop & Documents Folder’ to disable iCloud Documents & Desktop in Mac OS
  5. Disable iCloud Desktop and Documents Folders in MacOS

  6. Confirm that you want to disable iCloud Desktop & Documents by choosing “Turn Off” *

* Note the language in this dialog states the files will be kept on iCloud…. this is important.

iCloud Desktop & Documents will be now be turned off, but you’re not done yet if you want your files to be kept on your Mac.

When you turn off iCloud Desktop & Documents Folders, you’ll find those files are now stored in iCloud rather than locally. That’s a bit counterintuitive which is perhaps why it leads some users to believe they have lost their files – but chances are good that you didn’t lose any documents or files, you just have to copy them from iCloud to the local Mac.

iCloud desktop and documents

Getting All Files from iCloud Desktop & Documents Back from iCloud to the Local Mac

  1. Open the Finder in MacOS and go to “iCloud Drive” (navigate via Finder or select “iCloud Drive” from the ‘Go’ menu)
  2. Locate the “Documents” folder in iCloud Drive
  3. Open another new Finder window and navigate to the local “Documents” folder
  4. Select every file from the iCloud Drive Documents folder and manually transfer it to your Mac local Documents folder with drag & drop
  5. Repeat the same process with “Desktop” on iCloud to get all contents from “Desktop” on iCloud to “Desktop” on the local Mac
  6. Moving files from iCloud Drive to local Mac

Since this requires downloading all of the files from iCloud Drive to the local Mac, it may take a very long time, depending on the number and size of the files. For example I have a 55GB documents folder and it takes multiple days of nonstop downloading to complete that file transfer on my internet connection, this requires the computer to always be on and connected to the internet to accomplish. If you have just a handful of files in Documents or Desktop folders it would be a lot faster, however.

You can either copy or just move the files from iCloud Drive, that is up to you. Note the difference between copying to and from iCloud Drive and moving to and from iCloud. Copying a file means the same file is stored in both iCloud Drive and locally, whereas moving the file to/from iCloud means the file is only stored either remotely in iCloud or locally. This is important to differentiate so you do not misplace files or lose anything.

The iCloud Drive and iCloud Desktop & Documents features really require a constantly on, highly reliable, high speed internet connection to use. This is because every file in iCloud Drive must be downloaded to access locally, then uploaded again if it is saved or changed. If you have anything less than a great internet connection, or if you just don’t want to have your files dependent on a cloud service, you may not want to use the service as a place to store your important documents or desktop items. Just remember if you do turn this off to download your files from iCloud so that you have them locally again.

Do you have any tips, questions, or comments about iCloud Drive or the iCloud Desktop & Documents Folders? Let us know!

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks

15 Comments

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  1. Jane says:

    Thats scary!

  2. Cindy Cooper says:

    Hi. I have stopped my phone from getting all my files from iCloud because I have thousands of photos on my iMac and also some on my MacBook Pro. I did not want the photos to be downloaded to my phone as I think it would have exploded!! But I do have a problem that when I delete emails on my phone I have to go and delete again on my iMac. Will you be doing a Tip on how to manage the emails in due course.
    Kind regards

  3. Ogles of Kansas says:

    This is a good idea but the feature is so poorly implemented that I would never use it.

    Eddy’s Cloud needs a lot of work.

    Why doesn’t apple just mimic Dropbox or some other service which makes sense?

  4. BossMan696 says:

    I’m dealing with this issue right now. I wish I had found this article a day sooner. I appreciate the info and this should help me finish getting my data back on my local drive.

  5. Michael Brussow says:

    I was afraid to continue with this because I have been unable to locate a ‘bandwidth scale’ so I can’t weigh my bandwidth [If you do not have a ton of bandwidth] to see if I have a “ton”! 🙂

  6. Ed Gould says:

    To make a long story short. I received an alert from APPLE saying my ICLOUD was nearly full and did I want to increase the size for X amount of dollars. I didn’t even know that I had an ICLOUD account! I didn’t even know how the files got uploaded to ther ICLOUD. I am certian I didn’t do it! After much guessing and trial and error I figured out that somehow two large folders got put up in the ICLOUD! I was able to get them back to my local HD.
    I do NOT have a clue on how they got into the ICLOUD.
    I am extremely unhappy that Apple put things there without telling me.
    There should have been some notification that somehow Apple was saving files to the ICLOUD. I should not have to find out by accident.

  7. iConfused says:

    iConfused! Apple should buy DropBox and just rebrand that as iCloud.

    The iCloud system in its current implementation is so confusing and weird. Who thought it was a good idea to delete your local data but save it into iCloud when you turn off an iCloud feature? Amazing, are they still employed?

    iCloud and the whole online service division needs to be dropped and started over.

    I use iCloud for backups but I don’t trust it there either. Have ever tried restoring a 128GB or 256GB iOS device from iCloud? You won’t be using it for a looooooooong time! Even a USB restore with a 64GB device took me 6 hours last time I had to go through that mess….. now imagine having to download it all instead!

    iMessage works great, however, and Contacts are generally fairly reliably synced too, that’s the bright spot. But even Reminders are a mess, I get reminders from a year ago constantly.

  8. Briar says:

    My understanding of how iCloud works is not the same as yours.
    My MBA is using iCloud and syncing both the desktop and documents folders. The native files are available both online and offline. When I disable iCloud syncing, these files are still available on my MBA. I think this is much different that what you were saying. What gives?

  9. Philip Earvolino says:

    I’ve been wondering over the last few weeks why my Mac’s performance has been so sluggish (Finder beachballing all of the time, e.g.). It finally dawned on me that it’s this iCloud “feature”. I already have Dropbox and CrashPlan but I thought “hey, redundancy in backups is the key.” So, I decided to uncheck the Documents and Desktop folder backup option in the Preferences, as above. A message alerted me that I needed to finish an update before I could turn the feature off. I went to sleep. Upon waking, the message was still there. I had no option but to Cancel and get back to work.

    After noticing this morning that the “bird” process in Activity Monitor was grabbing 98% of CPU, I looked it up (figuring that it was, indeed, iCloud effectively shutting me down again. I was right.). I have unchecked Desktop and Documents again and will begin the painful process of moving files back to my Mac. As Comcast decided a few months back to implement data transfer limits, this process (I love the way the above article airily mentions that this could take “multiple days of nonstop downloading”. Hmmm… do you think?). My download speeds are fast, peaking at 150 Mbs, but this will almost certainly put me over my monthly limit, so it will cost me (in dollars, in addition to time lost and performance degraded).

    What a disastrous implementation. I’ve used Dropbox for years and it has almost always behaved seamlessly and with minimal impact on performance. iCloud may be great for Apple’s own apps, but it is a mess for locally saved folders.

  10. Danny Nguyen says:

    I’ve used iCloud for long but I have one important question to ask. How can I create a draft folder to work on locally but not want to upload it to iCloud?

  11. Julio says:

    Hi Guys, A quick question I have.

    I use iCloud with a $9.99 monthly subscription (2Tb) – I recently started making a bunch of videos so my idea was that I’d need that storage space soon. Currently more than 1.5Tb is available.

    My Macbook Air says that I hardly have 30Gb free space (500Gb flash disk).

    What should I do to keep certain big files in iCloud only? Maybe I misunderstand how the whole thing works. (In System Preferences – iCloud everything is checked with the exception of Optimize Mac Storage.)

    Your help is appreciated.

    • Simon Elwell says:

      @Julio, you may want to consider keeping a second, ‘easy-access’ copy of these large files on an external hard drive.

      I’ve got large files (videos & large presentations) sitting in my iCloud drive, which I can not access immediately (or even within 30 minutes). I have to wait for them to download back to my local drive before they open. – this can really suck if for some reason I need that file when in a hotel lobby / cafe, or anywhere offline.

      I am now facing the inevitable chore of having to download all of these files back to my local drives so I can make some ‘easy access’ copies.

      Now to really mess with my mind I can foresee what will happen: I’ve been backing up files to iCloud for so long that the size of my iCloud storage will supersede the available storage on my MBA – So when I go to download everything it will get to certain point and tell me I have no space left on my MBA and I can not continue the process… …

      It is at that point (after two days of downloading), as my finger hovers over the ‘cancel download’ option that i will quietly lose my S4it.

  12. J. Uhlman says:

    Great article! Worked for me, Big Thanks. I searched for directions to move documents from icloud to mac and found confusing and complicated stuff (requiring code changes way beyond my capabilities and interest). This article got my stuff moved in a matter of minutes. Again, thanks a heap.

  13. KImie says:

    This worked but I have a question. My desktop folder doesn’t show under favorites side bar in Finder? How can I get that to appear there?

    Thank you so much from preventing me from having a heart attack.

    • Linh says:

      Hi Klmie, you can go to your home folder (i.e. folder with your name), there you’ll see all the main folder: applications, documents, music, etc. then you’ll just need to drag your preferred folder (in this case the Desktop folder) to the Favourites sidebar. Hope this helps!

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