iPhones and iPads don’t have file systems you can access. Instead, each app has its own “library” of files. iTunes File Sharing allows you to copy files to and from these per-app libraries.
As of iOS 8.3, it’s no longer possible to use desktop file manager applications to access an app’s files unless that app specifically opts into iTunes File Sharing. You can’t go around this limitation unless you jailbreak.
When To Use This
This feature helps make up for the lack of a file system on iOS — just as the new “document provider” extension system does. Rather than relying on the cloud or various third-party apps, individual apps can make their document library available to you via iTunes. This means you can copy files back and forth to your computer. In other words, it’s as if each app has its own little file system and those apps can give you access to that file system in iTunes.
This only works for apps that specifically allow it. However, it can be immensely helpful when an app allows it. It’s a secure way to get your VPN configuration files when connecting your iPhone to an OpenVPN VPN, for example. Or, you can drop eBook files directly into the Kindle app on your device without uploading them to your Amazon file storage first. Or, dump media files directly into your VLC library.
Apple now recommends you consider using iCloud Drive instead of iTunes File Sharing, but iTunes File Sharing can still be a powerful feature.
How to Use iTunes File Sharing
This feature is built into iTunes, so you’ll unfortunately need to use iTunes for this. Connect your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to a PC or Mac with iTunes installed via a USB cable. Launch the iTunes application, unlock your iOS device, and click its icon on the toolbar in iTunes.
Select the “Apps” category in the sidebar and scroll down in the right pane. After the list of home screens, you’ll eventually come to the “File Sharing” section.
Click one of the apps under File Sharing, and you’ll see its document library. Drag and drop these files to a folder to copy them from your device to your computer. Drag and drop files from your PC or Mac to the library view on the right to copy them to your device.
Apps only appear here if their developer has specifically allowed them to function with iTunes File Sharing. if you have an app on your device but it doesn’t appear in this list, there’s not much you can do — it’s up to the developer to enable this function.
How to Enable Wireless iTunes File Sharing
Like other modern iTunes features, you can do this entirely wirelessly so you don’t have to connect your iPhone or iPad to your Mac.
First, connect your iPhone or iPad to your computer once, select it in iTunes, and click the Summary category under Settings. Scroll down to the Options section and enable the “Sync with this [iPhone or iPad] over Wi-Fi” option. Click Apply to save the setting.
Assuming your iPhone or iPad is charging, iTunes is open on your PC or Mac, and both are on the same Wi-Fi network, your iPhone or iPad will appear as an option in iTunes. You can then head to Apps > File Sharing and copy files back and forth, just as if the device was connected to your PC or Mac with a cable. It all happens over Wi-Fi.
Remember, this only happens when the iPhone or iPad is charging. This prevents the Wi-Fi sync feature from draining precious battery power.
This feature helps alleviate the lack of a user-accessible file system on iOS, allowing you to copy files back and forth with apps. It does only work with apps that specifically allow it — that’s the big limitation here.
Image Credit: Patrick Strandberg on Flickr
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