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How to use external storage with an iPhone or iPad

If you’re looking to use an external storage device, such as a thumb drive, hard drive, or card reader, with your iPhone or iPad, our guide will get you on your way. With the release of iOS 13 in 2019, Apple added native support for several external devices, including some of the most common storage solutions; we’ve even seen people hookup old-school floppy drives. Whether you’re using an iPhone or an iPad with either a Lightning or USB-C port, here’s how you get connected.

Upgrading Your iPad or iPhone to iOS 13

Your iOS/iPadOS version number should be 13 or greater

To gain native compatibility with external storage devices, your iPhone or iPad will need to be updated to at least iOS 13. To verify the current version of iOS running on your device, begin by opening the Settings app, navigate to General, then select the About option. Your device will specify its current iOS version under Software Version. If your version number is lower than 13, follow the steps below to update your device.

Note that not all iPhone and iPad devices are compatible with iOS 13. Compatible iPhones include the iPhone 6s and later devices, while compatible iPads include the iPad Air 2 and later devices. Apple’s iOS 13 operating system may also be referred to as iPadOS.

To upgrade your device to the latest version of iOS, begin by opening the Settings app on your iPhone or iPad, next select General, and finally, select the Software Update option. If an update is available for your device, your iPhone or iPad will notify you, allowing you to download and install it. Otherwise, if your device is already up to date, it will state such, along with the current version of iOS installed.

Understanding Lighting vs. USB-C

Before plugging an external device into your iPhone or iPad, it is essential to understand which connector is available to you. All iPhone devices and most iPads currently house Apple’s proprietary Lightning port, while iPad Pro devices opt for the more powerful USB-C connector. Use the photographs above for assistance in recognizing the two ports — Apple’s Lighting port is thinner and appears hollow, while the USB-C port is slightly thicker and has a slim connector in its center.

Physically Connecting Your External Device

Before unlocking your iPad or iPhone and jumping into the software, we need to establish a physical connection between your external storage solution 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 plug properly into 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; ignore the name, as the adapter allows you to 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.

Browsing Files From Your External Device

Select your external drive from the Locations list

Once your external device is physically connected to your iPad or iPhone, you can use Apple’s Files app to browse the external device. Locate and open the Files app on your iPhone or iPad, next, on the left-hand side, select the name of your device under the Locations header. The Files app will now show the contents of your external device on the left-hand side of the screen where you can view or manipulate them.

The submenu offers additional options for file manipulation

Merely tap any folder or file with your finger to open it. Hold down with your finger on any visible folder or file to open a submenu and get additional management options, including copying, duplicating, moving, deleting, renaming, tagging, and favoriting. You can even select multiple files or folders by first selecting the Select option in the upper right-hand corner, then tapping each file or folder you wish to manipulate.

If Your iPad or iPhone Isn’t Seeing Your Device

Apple has given examples of devices that will work with iOS 13 but has not specified precisely which devices may not work. As a result, your device may not be compatible with your iPad or iPhone; however, give these few options a try before abandoning your quest.

Double-check that your devices are correctly plugged in together with the appropriate plugs and adapters. Try different adapters or cables if you have the option.
Ensure that your external storage device is formatted so that Mac and iOS devices may read it. For example, the standard NTFS file format, commonly used by Windows, is not supported by the system.
See if your external device is requiring too much power. Large hard drive units and some other devices may require more power than your iPhone or iPad can output.

If you are still having issues connecting your external storage device with your iPhone or iPad, you may wish to reach out to Apple with your concerns as free support is available via the company’s in-store Genius Bars.


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