Keeping track of thousands of files on a Mac can be tricky. Luckily, macOS makes it a little easier with a feature called “tags,” which lets you color-code your files.

A Brief History of Macintosh Labels and Tags

Going way back, the “tags” feature in macOS originated as a feature called “Labels” in classic Mac OS System 7 in 1991. The labels feature allowed people to assign one of seven colors to files or folders to make them easier to sort or find. Mac OS X didn’t include labels until 10.3 Panther in 2003.

Beginning with Mac OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple changed labels into tags. With labels, each file could only have one colored label at a time. With tags, files can have more than one color associated with them—and you can also rename the tags from colors into other names for better categorization.

How to Color-Code Files with Tags in macOS

Adding tags to files is easy in macOS. First, open Finder by clicking its icon in your Dock.

Then, navigate to the folder that holds the files that you’d like to tag. Select one of the files or folders and click “File” in the top menu bar, and then select one of the seven colored circles in the menu.

You can also right-click a file and click a colored circle from the pop-up menu.

Once it’s tagged, you can keep tagging it with multiple different colors.

To quickly sort by tags, open a Finder window and scroll down in the sidebar until you see the “Tags” section. Click a tag (color), and you’ll instantly only see files and folders that match that tag in the current Finder window.

Pretty handy! But the fun doesn’t end here.

More Tagging Possibilities

Now that you’re familiar with tags, you can get more advanced if you’d like.

It’s possible to rename tags in Finder by opening Finder Preferences (click Finder > Preferences in the menu bar) and clicking the “Tags” tab.

Right-click any tag entry in the list, select “Rename,” and then type in the name for the new tag. Some ideas include “Photos,” “Money,” “Family,” or anything you want.

In Finder preferences, you can rename tags.

Using this interface, you can also add a completely new tag using the plus (“+”) button just below the tags list. You can assign your new tag any one of the seven colors provided by macOS. Sadly, you can’t choose a custom color.

And finally, if you ever want to search by tag, just open Spotlight search by clicking the magnifying glass in the menu bar or pressing Command+Space. When the search bar pops up, type your search keywords and include a tag name (or color) in the tag:blue format. Or, you can just search for a tag name with no other search criteria.

In Spotlight Search, type "tag:" then the tag name (or color) to see matching results.

You’ll instantly see all results that match the tag search, and you can click any file, folder, or application to instantly open it.

There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist of it. As you explore macOS more, you’ll likely see tags pop up in more places, and now you know how to use them. Tag—you’re it!

RELATED: How to Make Mac Finder Tags Work for You

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
Read Full Bio »