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How to Access an External Drive on iPhone or iPad

by Sarah Dobson on July 19, 2021

A useful feature of the iPhone or iPad is support for external storage devices. But it’s not easy to find or figure out—and you likely need a special adapter for your existing USB devices.


It’s inevitable. There comes a time when we get dangerously close to maxing out the available storage on our iPhone or iPad. When this happens, we typically start deleting apps and data so that we can free up more space to collect new photos, apps, and music. With laptops and desktop computers, we can add external drives to remedy this issue and enjoy added storage space, but did you know that you can also add external storage devices to iPhones and iPads?

An unexpected and near-invisible feature of iOS 13 and iPadOS 13 allows the Files app to “see” external storage devices. With this feature, you can move data to and from an iPhone or iPad using standard flash drives, SD card readers, or even powered USB hard drives. Sure, cloud storage is always an option for data backup, but now you can keep those treasured family photos on compatible external storage devices. As long as you know how to access app files on iPhones or iPads, you’re good to go! (If not, we discuss it later on, so keep reading.)

What is an External Hard Drive?

An external hard drive is a portable device that adds more storage capacity to your iPad or iPhone. While external hard drives are the most common type of mobile storage device, flash drives, memory sticks, and pen drives are alternative external storage options.

External Hard Drive for iPhone and Other Options

There are plenty of external storage options that allow you to transfer files, photos, and more from your iPhone. Here are a few suggestions:

  • LaCie Rugged Mini External Hard Drive for iPhone
  • Flash Drive for iPhone
  • iPhone memory sticks
  • Thumb drives for iPhone
  • Pendrive for iPhone

External Hard Drive for iPad and Other Options

There’s no doubt that the iPadOS 13’s external storage support is one of its greatest features. This means that you can hook up virtually any USB storage device to your iPad, such as:

  • External USB 3.0 portable hard drives for iPad
  • Flash Drive for iPad
  • Portable SSD external storage drives


Necessary Hardware

If you plan to use a flash drive with an iPhone or iPad regularly, it’s worth buying a new MFi Lightning flash drive that you can plug in directly. Apple’s MFi program should ensure that drives with that label meet the necessary power and file system requirements. Or, if you have a 2018 iPad Pro model with USB-C, get a USB-C flash drive.

But what about all those USB flash drives and hard drives you already have? To connect those to a Lightning-based iPhone or iPad, you’ll need Apple’s Lightning to USB-C Adapter

There is one big gotcha, which is that many USB flash drives require 500 milliamps (mA) of power, which is more than the iPhone or iPad can provide. When that’s the case, iOS will usually alert you to the problem (or the drive simply won’t show up in Files). You’ll need to provide extra power by plugging a standard Lightning-to-USB cable into the adapter and a power source. That passthrough power should usually be enough to charge the device and run the flash drive.

Happily, flash drives that require only 100 mA of power work fine without additional power. To learn how much power a drive requires, connect it to your Mac, open the System Information app (in the Applications folder’s Utilities folder), click USB in the sidebar, select the drive in the USB Device Tree at the top, and then read the Current Required line.

Accessing Your Drive

Can an iPad access an external hard drive? Yes. Thanks to a useful feature in iPad OS 13, iPads can now “see” external storage devices.

Once you’ve connected a drive to your device, you can access it in Files. On the iPhone, or if you’re using your iPad in portrait orientation, tap the Browse tab at the bottom of the screen. On an iPad in landscape orientation, Browse appears automatically in the sidebar.

Either way, you can find your drive in the list of locations—remember that flash drives are often called Untitled or have funky names.

Copying Files to and from Your Drive

The Files app works a bit like the Mac’s Finder in that it lets you copy files by dragging or by using Copy and Paste. This latter approach is often easier:

  1. In Files, navigate to the file you want to copy.
  2. Tap and hold it until a popover appears with commands.
  3. Tap Copy in the popover.
  4. Tap the Browse tab to return to the Browse screen, and then tap your flash drive.
  5. Tap a blank spot in the flash drive’s directory, and then tap Paste in the popover.

Moving a file works similarly, except that once you tap Move in the popover, iOS displays a list of destinations.

Dragging to copy a file is easier on the iPad if you open two Files windows showing different locations in Split View. With Files as the frontmost app, swipe up to reveal the Dock, and then tap and hold the Files icon briefly so you can drag it to the left or right edge of the screen. Then, to copy files, simply drag them from one view to the other.

How to Access Files on iPhone

  1. First, you’ll need to connect your external drive to your iPhone via an adapter or USB-C port. You can also use a Lightning to USB 3 camera adapter.
  2. Then you just open the Files app and choose the file’s location that you’re looking for.

Even without Split View, you can also drag to copy files on the iPhone. Here’s how:

  1. Tap and hold the file you want to copy, but instead of letting up or working with the popover, start dragging.
  2. Then, with another finger (your thumb may work well), tap the Browse tab to switch back to the Browse screen.
  3. Then keep dragging the file onto your flash drive. If you’re dexterous, you can even tap the flash drive with another finger to open it—do this to nest the dragged file into a subfolder on the flash drive.

You can also use the commands in the tap-and-hold popover to perform numerous other actions on files. These commands include:

  • Duplicate
  • Delete
  • Info
  • Quick Look
  • Tags
  • Rename
  • Share
  • Compres
  • Create PDF

Ejecting External Storage

On the Mac, you need to eject external storage devices manually by dragging their icons to the Trash, Control-clicking them and choosing Eject, or pressing Command-E. Once you’ve done that, you can unplug the drive. Happily, that’s not necessary for drives mounted in iOS—just use common sense and don’t remove a flash drive while files are being read or written.

Wrapping Up

Now that you know how to access an external hard drive on an iPhone or iPad, you are freed from restrictive storage capacities.Your digital world is free to expand and grow with you, photo after photo, and file after file.