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Downloading and saving files or documents to a computer is something we don’t think about. Click, click, done. It’s saved on the hard drive and ready to be accessed when needed. On iOS though, it’s a little more complicated than that. The lack of a proper file system can be confusing, and something as simple as downloading a file can all the sudden become a daunting task.

How do I download a file to my iPhone? Where do I download it to? These are questions I’ve recently been asked, but also problems I have faced myself. In this post, I’ll try to share different options for downloading files to an iPhone or iPad.

Where to download files to on an iPhone or iPad

As mentioned above, there is no easily accessible file system on iOS, which means we can’t just download files to a default Documents folder or similar on the drive. Apple has made the lack of accessible file system a little easier to swallow over the past couple years, specifically with the expansion of iCloud services but also with the Files app, a front facing app for most files stored in iCloud.

Apple has also opened things up to third-party applications. Dropbox is probably the most familiar name in the space. Google Drive is also a popular option, and for those users who have limited iCloud storage, these two services might be the best options to download files.

By default, these files won’t be on the device. They will be stored in the cloud and accessible from the device, and in some cases, users will be able to download them for offline access. In which case, they will be on the device itself as well.

No matter what, files will have to be downloaded to a cloud service. It can be iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, or other similar services. In this post, we’ll be working with Dropbox, but the principle is the same regardless of the service used. All the screenshots will be from an iPhone, but again, the basic principles are identical regardless of the iOS device you’re using, be it an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

How to download files on iPhone and iPad

The basic principle to download files from your iPhone or iPad is fairly simple, regardless of the file you’re trying to download. You can for example download PDFs, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, .zip, .txt, .mp3, .M4a, .wav, .mov, and much more. If it’s a file, it can be downloaded.

While Apple will let you put any file type in your iCloud Drive, the company won’t let you easily download any file type from your iOS device to iCloud, which is why using a third-party service such as Dropbox is still the best option, in my opinion anyway. If you don’t have a Dropbox account, you should sign up for a free one, or look into using Google Drive, which also offers a free tier.

1. On your iPhone or iPad, go to Safari and open the file you are trying to download.

2. Tap on the Share button, which will bring up the Share sheet.

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3. Select “Save to Dropbox.” If you don’t see that option, swipe all the way to the right and tap on the More button. From there, you will be able to enable the Dropbox extension.

4. Now tap the Save button, or choose a different folder where to save the file, then tap Save.

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That’s it. The file has now been saved to your Dropbox account and will be available for easy access across all your devices, such as your computer, your iPhone, iPad, etc.

Once it’s in Dropbox (or Google Drive, or whatever other service you may use), you can easily access and share this file from anywhere, assuming you have an Internet connection. If you don’t, you can make specific files available offline.

Downloading files from a password-protected website

The steps mentioned above work great if the file you are trying to download is available publicly from a website. But things can get a little tricky if you are trying to download a file or document that is stored on a password-protected website.

If that’s the case, we’ll need to use another third-party application to do the job. That applications is called Documents 5, and it’s free to download from the App Store.

Documents 5 is an amazing application that is primarily a file manager, but it’s more powerful than it sounds. Here is how to use it to download a file from a password-protected site.

1. Launch Documents 5 and open the app’s browser.

2. Login to whatever website you need to use to download a file or document.

3. Locate the file you want to download, and tap on it to load it.

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4. In the top right corner of the screen, tap on the upload button. From there you can change the name of the document and select its destination, either locally to the Documents/Download folder of Documents 5, or to iCloud.

5. Documents 5 will then let you change the file name, if necessary, and select where you want to download the file to. By default, it will save it to the Downloads folder of the Documents 5 application, but by tapping on Documents/Downloads, you can also select to download the file to iCloud.

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If you choose to download the file to the Documents/Download folder, then the file will be stored locally on your device. From Documents 5, you will then be able to move it to iCloud or Dropbox, or Google Drive, for example. You will also be able to share it via email.

Why Documents 5 is a must-have application

Despite the fact that it is completely free, Documents 5 is a great application to have if you’re handling files on your iPhone or iPad. It makes downloading and moving files around a breeze.

Because it can tie in to various cloud services, and let you access and move files between them, Documents 5 can be the central location for all your file handling needs. Although not as simple as a drag and drop gesture would be on a computer, As pointed out by ProllyWild in the comments section, Documents 5 can even let you move files around folders and cloud services by using a drag and drop gesture, making file handling almost as simple as it would be on a desktop computer. To move a file, simply tap and hold your finger on it, then drag it to your destination of choice. It can be a folder, or a cloud service such as iCloud, Dropbox, etc.

Downloading files on iPhone or iPad is a pain

No matter how good you are at getting this workflow down, it still feels like downloading files and documents from an iPhone or iPad is a giant pain in the butt. It’s not complex per say, but it’s an inelegant process that needs some work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy to be able to download files this way, but I wish Apple would let me access part of the drive of my iPhone or iPad so I can painlessly download stuff to my liking. Maybe this will be part of a future software update, especially now that Apple is trying hard to pitch iPad as a work machine.

As always, any questions or comments you may have are more than welcome.