How to Disable iCloud Desktop & Documents on Mac

Jul 6, 2017 - 41 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

41 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.

    • Graham P says:

      I cannot recall signing up for iCloud but it is probably a default setting but once stuff is in iCloud it seems they have access to everything. Getting away from its grip is not as easy knowing I have to download everything back onto my computer. They are my files damn it!

  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!

  14. kt says:

    I haven’t bothered to read all the comments. But I will say this. I am on satellite internet with limited data allowance. I did a local clone of my hard drive using Carbon Copy Cloner (excellent program by the way) to an external disk, just to be careful. Then I copied and pasted the contents of the Documents folder and the Desktop folder, on to the external hard drive. Then I disabled Apple iCloud storage for them, because I don’t want my information on the cloud. Then I copied and pasted the contents of the Documents and the Desktop folders back to my laptop. Worked great, took two hours for 40+GB of data. None of it required internet bandwidth or data. As far as I an tell, all of my data is intact.

  15. Martin Putnam says:

    I have wasted a weekend, and counting, because I believed that iCloud was a normal backup service. Apple gives no warnings that a simple check-mark on “iCloud” may require days of effort and complicated manual file transfers to remedy. Even when first turned on, iCloud immediately scrambles your file system and forces you to do things far more slowly than before, going to and from the “cloud” when you had no reason to expect this.
    This is the kind of thing that supposedly went out in the 1980s. In the very earliest days of personal computing, people lost files or spent days trying to undo operating system failures. It is outrageous and inexcusable that Apple does not post explicit warnings and descriptions before allowing anyone to start this monster in motion. Who is going to compensate me for dozens of hours of file transfers, still not done? I have now followed all instructions to re-transfer files from the cloud to my mac. All seemed to be well. Forty gigabytes back on my drive – just a message from iCloud that it was finishing up. Then it froze. For hours. So I closed iCloud. Now all my files are gone again. How many times do I have to continue this Sisyphean task?

    • verbo says:

      What you describe is exactly why I never recommend anyone use iCloud Desktop and Documents. I have 150gb of Documents, iCloud can’t handle it, but if you accidentally toggle it on it sets in motion a disastrous series of events that are very hard to undo. Upload, download, re-download, hope for the best.

      Maybe just format and start over with your data from an external hard drive, who knows. There is no good solution to what you describe and I have been through it myself. I also have a slow broadband connection, Apple apparently assumes everyone is in Cupertino with fiber into their house, but most of America is on internet that is slower than the third world. Out of touch.

      I don’t know who iCloud Desktop Documents was designed for, but it wasn’t how anyone I know uses a Mac. I bet it works fine if you have about 2 mb of files though.

  16. Lee says:

    Well this should not have been set by default. I work in Africa where cell data is a massive £100 per 10 gb!!!! Thanks apple for costing me a packet! Without even asking. Everything was just fine before. Been wondering what has been chewing my data – 10gb a week for the last 2 months! The reason i ditched your phones and pads was your control on peoples setup without transparency. I will be the judge of what i want and where i want it thanks!. The £3000 MB pro may be going the same way!!!

  17. Chrismo says:

    This is such a terrible feature! My wife was complaining that her laptop conection was slow so I checked and realized it was copying her imac’s desktop folder to the cloud and the laptop. I assumed she had accidentally copied it to the cloud and so deleted the desktop folder. Later I turned off the icloud desktop feature on her laptop, and saw that there was still the desktop in her icloud folder so deleted it again. So now it has deleted all her actual desktop files not just the cloud backup. OOh my god. So much work gone and the icloud undelete function doesnt list any of those files.
    What a stupid implementation of the cloud. I’m in shock. She is goig to kill me. Her whole business was on that desktop and her time machine drive had been unplugged for 2 months.
    Any chance I can get those files back?

    Why arent they in icloud undelete?

    • OITN says:

      If you disable iCloud Desktop then it must re download all of the files from iCloud back to the Desktop. I agree with you, it is a terrible feature for 90% of users and it is not well explained. I almost lost many files to this as well. Let it all re-download the files, the computer must be turned on and connected to a network for however many hours is necessary to re-download the files. If its many GB it will take a very long time.

    • Jorge says:

      This is exactly what I needed. Thanks a million.

  18. James Tea says:

    Gentlemen, allow me to give some free advice. Since many or most of these files are stored on your computer already, go into i-cloud drive and drag and drop them into your downloads folder. I would advise not dropping the actual desktop or documents folders, but their contents. When you drag the contents to your downloads folder, you will be prompted that they will be removed from icloud drive but remain on your computer. As many or most of these files already reside on your local drive, the move will be instantaneous. When this is complete, disable i-cloud for documents and desktop, and you won’t have any downloading to do at all. After this you are free to move them back to your desktop and local documents folder. Best regards, Have a great day.

    • MarcG says:

      That is exactly how I planned to do it, just move them off the desktop first to somewhere else on the Mac.

      Obviously, having backups of files is a great idea, but when turning off wiping the local is just plain stupid. Of course, I wouldn’t want to turn it off if it hadn’t killed my Macs performance and I have fast internet…

    • Emily says:

      Fantastic solution – thank you so much!

    • Simon says:

      Brilliant , simple, takes seconds… cheers ‘bro

    • Natalie T says:

      Amazing! Took a bit to move things around but worked flawlessly – nothing was lost! Helped to clean up my documents as well

      Many Thanks!

  19. David says:

    Is it possible to have two pathways leading to two separate amd discreet document folders, one that resides locally on my MacBook Air and one that resides in iCloud?

    That way whenever I “Save As” a document I would be the one pdetermining its fate with respect to automatic backups and local vs. remote storage and access.

  20. Mandy says:

    This would be helpful if it was more explicit about how to transfer your files to “mac local documents.” Where is this option? The only thing showing in Finder is iCloud. Please help!

    • GregM says:

      Prior to disabling iCloud sync of your Desktop & Documents, create another local folder Documents2 and move (not copy) all files from iCloud Documents there. Do the same thing for Desktop with Desktop2 folder.

      Then disable iCloud sync. This is when Apple deletes your files in local Documents & Desktop to keep them in iCloud – to make it more difficult for you to turn that sync feature off (which of course fills up your iCloud drive to make you upgrade to buy more storage). But fear not, you’ve already moved your Documents to Documents2 locally.

      Switch to local Documents2. That’s where your files are. Move all files from Documents2 to Documents, and from Desktop2 to Desktop. Delete empty Documents2 and Desktop2 folders (those where temporary folders anyway).

      You should now have all your files locally without any need to re-download them from iCloud.

      • PatE says:

        A question for GregM. Apple support put me in iCloud and I want out. Currently the Documents and Desktop are shown under iCloud in the Finder window. Other folders they did not snatch (documents, apps, pictures, etc) are listed under Favorites. I like your idea of making local Documents2 and Desktop2 folders. On Mojave. How do I create these two new local files outside of iCloud’s reach? The desktop won’t work. This is obviously over my head!

  21. Dami says:

    Thanks for this. I loathe iCloud Drive. 380 gigabytes of my local files forced off my computer to Icloud when I turned it off. I have ZERO files on my hard drive and need to download all of them again.
    And I still don’t have the space back on my computer!!!

  22. Rob says:

    What happened to the Apple I used to love? Oh, that’s right, Steve Jobs died. And so did the best part of Apple. I lost data due to the poor implementation of iCloud Drive. It pisses me off!

  23. Jello says:

    What The Heck? My desktop on iCloud? exactly what perchance would I use my desktop items on a watch? an iPhone? are you kidding me? Apple has the ability to hand over my desktop papers to felonious government employed mafia? And there’s 10 different places you have to go to turn crap off, and you have to verify your identity to yourself a 1000 times, to prove you are who you are to prevent people from stealing. Yet Apple is giving it all away. I would have preferred knowing about this before upgrading to Mohave. I got ripped off and left in the Apple Desert. Apple has made a turn for the worse. I wake up and my desktop is on the cloud. WTF. No Nope, na-uh. nein. I’m not doing it. I don’t have anything worth anything but my desktop is my space, you have to come and sit at my desk if you want to fondle with my papers.

    • Woino says:

      I agree completely, I do not like the idea of iCloud Desktop or iCloud Documents for many reasons, privacy included, but for many of us our internet connections are not even fast enough to be able to support such a cloud feature. Apple is in a bubble designing for their own executives bubble. The reality is the cloud is not viable for 95% of Americans who live even barely outside of a big city (and even in some big cities) where there is insufficient broadband services, no competition, overpriced service, and slow speeds. The USA is far behind in broadband, trying to create services that depend on reliable fast broadband is incredibly presumptuous, not rooted in reality or data, and very user hostile. Likewise having tiny hard drives in the Macs is very user hostile, they have been shrinking the hard drive space for years which is lunacy.

      When I accidentally clicked the iCloud Desktop thing, it started trying to upload about 4gb of documents in carefully arranged desktop folders. It totally messed things up. I had to disable it and then it was trying to download and upload from iCloud. I hope I did not lose any documents in that process.

      Another failed cloud example is I tried using iCloud backup to restore an iPhone one time, 64gb model with about 50gb used, and the time estimate was 14 hours – and of course it failed. It’s just not doable. Not reliable.

      And don’t even get me started on the fact that iCloud is a nickle and dime additional fee to even use…. I have been a Mac user since 1986 and the company is more frustrating and confused today than ever before.

  24. Henrik Manoochehri says:

    Please, everyone who is reading this thread and is disgusted with this situation, take a moment to post a comment on iCloud feedback and let them know they need to remedy this ASAP or feel some hurt. They can go from a $trillion company to worthless in no time flat if we, their enablers act!

  25. Patrick W. Mackay says:

    I have a MacBook running MacOS 10.5.8 and I have an iDisk below my Mac drive but it will not run but I presume that many of my files are on that iDisk since since my aprox 250 GB hard drive shows about 90 GB used and the rest 140 GB is available free space and when I have downloaded or created large files, the available space is about the same yet the files must be on the iDisk but I can not open it… I have backup on Time Machine to a plugin 1 TB disk … but I can not open iDisk when I click on it because it tries to start up but stops and return a problem so I can not see the files that presumably are whats on the iDisk. I have Norton antivirus and I learned that I have some type of Cloud capacity but not sure how much nor where to see the files on the Norton backup capacity nor do I see any symbol to the effect of the Norton capacity. Any ideas of what to do? Also, I can not update OS beyond 10.5.8 my technitian is puzled that he could not update even to 10.6 I am puzzled. I am in Monterrey, N. L., Mexico.

  26. Jon says:

    Wow, why the hell would apple make that the default?! To remove all the files from the local mac to be stored exclusively on the cloud when you turn it on. Apple is rapidly becoming the most evil company in the world.

  27. S K says:

    Yes, absolutely agree! This iCloud drive has absolute evil intentions, and then they have the cheek to threaten to delete your own documents from your Mac if you don’t want iCloud Drive to take them from you.

    Also Mac running slow constantly and suspect the whole system is up to no good now. I have lost faith in Apple.

    The worse thing is that I did not enable iCloud Drive, but when I visited the apple store, due to slow problems, the genius advised me to do so. When I objected she kindly did it “for me”!

  28. Bruce says:

    I too received the out of icloud room. I would like to get rid of it, and the instructions are very good, except for I cannot find a Desktop on my computer. Only icloud. Is it hidden somewhere?

    Thanks for any help

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