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How to use external storage with an iPhone or iPad

Does your iPhone or iPad not have enough storage for you? Well, thankfully, despite the proprietary Lightning connector on iPhones and most iPads, you can still access files stored on an external drive. If you have large files you don't need on a day-to-day basis or just want to offload a bunch of pictures and videos and free up space, you can plug an external hard drive in and send those files across.




10 minutes

What You Need

  • iOS 13 or newer

  • Compatible wires or adapters

  • External hard drive or USB stick

Apple made this possible with the release of iOS 13 in 2019, adding native support for external storage devices using both Lightning and USB-C connectors. In this article, we'll show you what you need to get your iPhone or iPad working with an external drive, including which Apple devices it's compatible with and what adapters you may need.

How to make sure iOS is up-to-date

To gain native compatibility with external storage devices, your iPhone or iPad will need iOS 13 or a later operating system, like iOS 16. However, not all devices are compatible with the latest versions of iOS and iPadOS. If your device can't upgrade beyond iOS 12 (so if it's an iPhone 6, for instance), then you can't use an external storage device.

Every device that could update to iOS 13 or iPadOS 13 can also update to iOS 14/iPadOS 14, iOS 15/iPadOS 15, and iOS 16/iPadOS 16, so you can check out our list of iOS 16 and iPadOS 16 compatible devices to see whether your device qualifies.

If you have a compatible device but you're not sure which version of iOS or iPadOS it's running, here's how to check:

Step 1: Tap to open the Settings app.

Step 2: Scroll down and tap General.

Step 3: Tap About. Check the number next to Software Version. If it's lower than 13, move on to the next step. If it's version 13 or higher, move to the next section of this guide.

iOS 16 select About, then check iOS version
Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Step 4: Return to the General screen in the Settings app.

Step 5: Tap Software Update.

iOS 16 Settings, select General, select software update
Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Step 6: If an update is available, tap Download and Install. If your device is already up-to-date, it will state as such, along with the current version installed.

usb c coming to iphone when explained portsios

Lightning vs. USB-C

Before plugging an external device into your iPhone or iPad, check which connector it's using. Apple introduced the Lightning port in 2012 as part of the company's goal to make the iPhone slimmer. It's smaller than the now more-common USB-C port introduced two years later. While Apple was part of the overall USB-C design process, Lightning and USB-C are separate technologies, so they're not interchangeable, and you'll need different cables for both.

Apple's Lightning port is slimmer than USB-C, perfect for iPhones and iPads. The connector, flatter in design, has exposed pins, whereas a USB-C connector encloses the pins. Lightning can handle roughly up to 12 watts of power, likely more, whereas USB-C supports over 100 watts. All modern iPhones still use the Lightning port, but all of the new iPads (iPad Pro, iPad Air, iPad mini, and 10th-generation iPad) now use USB-C. The 9th-generation base model iPad, which Apple still currently sells, continues to use the old Lightning port.

How to physically connect your external storage

Before unlocking your iPad or iPhone and jumping into the software, you must establish a physical connection between your external storage device and your tablet or smartphone. If your iPhone or iPad and external device have matching plugs, connect both by plugging them into one another using the bottom connector of your Apple device.

For example, a thumb drive might also use a Lighting connector, allowing it to plug directly into iPhones and most iPads. Or, an external hard drive might use a USB-C connector, allowing it to plug directly into iPad Pro devices. Otherwise, if the connectors are different, you will need to purchase an adapter so that your external device can connect to your iPad or iPhone.

If you have an Apple device with a Lightning connector and need to plug in an external device with either a USB-C or USB-A connector, one option is Apple’s Lighting to USB 3 Camera Adapter. This adapter lets you plug more than just external USB-C and USB-A camera devices into your Apple device.

If you have an Apple device with a USB-C connector, such as the iPad Pro, and need to plug in an external device with a USB-A connector, Apple sells a USB-C to USB adapter.

How to browse files from your external storage

Once your external device is physically connected to your Apple device, you can use the native Files app to access the external device.

Note: To select multiple files or folders, tap the Select option in the upper-right corner, and then tap each file or folder you wish to manipulate.

Step 1: Tap to open the Files app on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch.

Step 2: Under Locations, tap the name of your external drive. In this example, it’s simply labeled Drive. On the iPad, the contents of your external device appear on the right. On the iPhone and the iPod Touch, the contents appear on the following screen.

Step 3: Tap any folder or file with your finger to open it or tap and hold with your finger on any visible folder or file to open a submenu for additional management options, including copying, duplicating, moving, deleting, renaming, tagging, and favoriting.

What if you can't access your storage device?

If you’re unable to access documents stored on a connected device, try these troubleshooting options.

Check the connection: Double-check that your devices are correctly plugged in with the appropriate plugs and adapters. If you have extra cords and adapters, try using them or plug into different ports if you can.

Check the drive’s file format: Ensure that your external storage device is formatted so that both Mac and iOS devices can read it. Windows assumes the NTFS file format, but that isn’t the case with Mac and iOS. Both platforms support exFAT, but this format only supports files up to 4GB.

Check the power requirements: Sometimes your devices don’t have enough power to support external hard drives. Solid-state drives, hard drives, and some other devices may need more power than your iPhone or iPad can output.

Consult Apple: As a last resort, you can always reach out to Apple directly with any questions you have concerning problems that inhibit your use of external storage. Either consult the Apple Support website or talk to an expert at your local in-store Genius Bar.

As you can see, your iPhone or iPad can access your files on external storage devices, as long as you have the right equipment to do so. With this in mind, your iPhone or iPad can act as a great solution for viewing or editing those files while you're on-the-go and away from a computer.

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Michael Archambault
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Michael Archambault is a technology writer and digital marketer located in Long Island, New York. For the past decade…
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