How to download files and documents to iPhone or iPad

By , Apr 14, 2016


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 user 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 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 iCloud Drive, 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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning (much) more about how to download files on iOS, I suggest you listen to this episode of Canvas where Federico Viticci and Fraser Speirs talk about this topic in great details.

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

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  • ProllyWild

    “Although not as simple as a drag and drop gesture would be on a computer, Documents can effectively let you access all your files and maybe more importantly, move them around.”

    you actually can drag and drop with documents 5…..I’ve found that lately it’s gotten a lot easier to download most files.

    • OMG. This is awesome!

      Makes moving files easier than ever. Thanks for the tip

      • ProllyWild

        Yeah you can drag one file at a time or select the edit option, choose multiple files and then drag the lot.

        Also I found that many of the lighting-to-USB flash drives lately allow for extension share so you can move the stored files from documents into the supported apps for that kind of USB stick and save to USB flash drive.

        Also the wifi drive/network drive options is good for uploading and downloading files between your iOS device and networked drives/computers.

        Lastly for people carrying multiple iOS devices, if both devices are on the same wifi network (or if you connect them by tethering to one of the devices) and both have documents 5 open, you can access and transfer files between devices from the “network” menu as if it was a networked drive.

      • ProllyWild

        Forgot you can also select the user agent for the documents 5 browser so it acts as mobile safari, Mac OS safari, chrome, Firefox etc. can help to avoid those sites that have files you want to download but keep kicking to the mobile site.

      • Looks like Readdle should hire you as a PR guy 🙂

        All jokes apart, thanks a lot for sharing more details about Documents 5. I’m very new at all this, notably because of my experiment to get work done from my new iPad. Dealing with files is something I never really had to worry about until this iPad came along since I would typically do my actual work from a Mac.

      • ProllyWild

        Haha I feel like it lately but it only really comes from a similar experiment I decided to do over a year ago on my iPad Air and now my iPad Pro. Since I’m always on the road I wanted to live from my iPad instead of carrying a MacBook. Not wanting to jailbreak my device but needing a good file manager i stumbled on documents 5. It’s scary how much I rely on this app now, but it’s really that functional. It’s actually given me a greater sense of productivity and security because of its functionality and the fact that the files in the app (with the exception of synced folders) tend to also be backed up in encrypted iOS backups, and maybe iCloud backups as well (I can’t recall). So even in the odd case where you need to restore your iOS device, or say if you lose it or its stolen, you can generally restore or transfer to a new device without skipping a beat.

        Anyways, for the sake of your experiment I would highly recommend you utilize documents 5’s full features.

        Also I don’t know if it’ll benefit you, but if you should ever find yourself in a situation where your iPads cellular service and wifi service are slow, you can use the camera connector kit with a USB-to-Ethernet extension (for the MacBook Air) to connect the iPad to a LAN line. It generally prompts an error message but then connects to the line.

      • ProllyWild

        I forgot one last feature if you’re looking for finder-like features. you can select the edit button in the file browser and if you scroll to the top beside the option to sort by name, date or size, is also the options to change to list view, thumbnail view, and to assign colored tags to the files. I don’t think there’s a way to search for the colored tags, but at least when you are searching for file so or trying to note priority files, tags are an option.

  • extensions

    As iCloud folders are app-specific, I got round the restrictions by adding a folder to iCloud in Finder on the Mac which I named Transfers. I drop files in there and when they appear on the iOS device they can be opened by a suitable app (or iOS with a screenshot) just by tapping on the file.

  • RK

    Wow that is a neat solution natively (without jailbreak). Thanks a lot Sebastien for the information!

  • Beto Bañuelos

    If you are jailbroken just use Safari Downloader+

  • Nice.

  • David Cawthorne

    If you are jailbroken, use iFile, the camera connection kit and a USB stick.
    If you are not jailbroken, use the iTransfer app, the camera connection kit and a USB stick.
    For non jailbroken, do the following…
    Zip any files you want and place them in a DCIM folder on the USB stick.
    Rename the zip to something like ZIP_1234.JPG
    Connect iPad, camera connection kit and USB stick together.
    Import the JPG with the photo app, then use iTransfer to “open in” your desired app.
    Change the .JPG back to .ZIP and unzip file.
    A few steps to follow, but handy if you have no wifi or if you are not allowed to join your customers wifi.

    • Joshfei

      David, can you please elaborate on how the steps for a jailbroken phone? I haven’t used the connection kit.

      • David Cawthorne

        Hi, I have an iPad on iOS7.1.2. The camera connection kit from Apple only worked with the iPad, but I believe that since about iOS9.2, it now works with the iPhone too. One end of the adaptor plugs into your iDevice and the other end accepts a USB stick. Once plugged in iFile will see it and allow you to transfer files to and from it. The 30 pin adaptor was called the camera connection kit and comes with two adapters, one for USB and the other for SD cards. The adaptor for the lightning port is called Lightning to USB camera adaptor.

      • Joshfei

        Thanks very much, I am going to give it a shot.

  • rmcq

    Documents 5 also appears as an option in the iCloud Drive document picker über “Locations”, so most apps can access files stored locally in Documents 5, there is no need to move them to a cloud service unless you want to share them with other devices.

    • ProllyWild

      Yeah this allows you to also attach files from the documents 5 main directory into emails.

  • Steve London

    You folks are getting close to what I need, but not quite there…What I really want is to go from an iPhone 5s to a Windows PC using a lightning-to-USB cable, and have the Documents 5 “file system” appear on the PC, and be able to move files between the PC and iPhone. I do forest fire communications work, and more-often-than-not, I have no internet access. Without direct USB access, about all I can do is set up an ad-hoc IP connection between the iPhone and the PC. That’s really not a good way to go, especially when it is someone else’s PC. Lacking direct USB access, can you elaborate on how to move files between Document 5 and a lightning/USB flash drive ?

    • rmcq

      If the PC has iTunes installed, then all the Documents 5 files appear in there. Or, ir you have a local WiFi network, then Documents 5 can act as a local web server.

      • Steve London

        Only the Documents 5 files in “iTunes Files” show up in iTunes. In my case, I have a folder inside iTunes Files. Only the folder shows up in iTunes. I don’t see a way to get to the files inside that folder from iTunes.