How to Use External Storage on iPad or iPhone

Add more space with an external hard drive

It's no secret that Apple does not include expansion slots in any of its iOS products. There's no microSD slot to add extra memory to an iPhone or iPad like many Android devices. But since iOS 13, it has been possible to add external storage to your iPhone or iPad, albeit temporarily, which makes it easy to move files back and forth. Here is how to do that.

What You Need to Use External Storage for an iPad or iPhone

There are only a few requirements for adding external storage to your iOS device:

  • Your device needs to be running iOS 13 or higher.
  • You need a storage device to connect to your iPhone or iPad. Most often, this will be a media card (like an SD card or microSD card) or a USB flash drive, though it may be possible to attach some external USB hard drives as well.
  • You need a connection cable that can bridge the gap between the iOS device and the storage device. In this case, that will most likely be a USB-C to USB-A cable or a Lightning to USB cable.

Keep reading for more details on each of these requirements. Assuming you have all the things you need, though, you can now connect an external storage device to your iPhone or iPad.

Connecting an External Storage Device

  1. Plug one end of your connection cable to the iOS device and the other end to the media you want to use as external storage. 

    An iPhone with a USB flash drive attached
  2. On your iPhone or iPad, start the Files app. Usually, you can find this rarely used app in the Utilities folder, or you can swipe down on the Home screen to display the Search bar, then type Files. When you see the Files app appear, tap it.

  3. In the Files app, tap Browse at the bottom of the screen. You should see the Browse pane appear.

  4. Find the external device and tap it to see its content. If you're not sure which location in the list is the external device, remove the device from the connection cable, wait a moment, and re-insert it. Watch for which location reappears.

    A screenshot of the Files app on iOS.
  5. You can drag files from the external device to the iPad or iPhone's internal storage, or vice-versa. 

Updating to iOS 13 for Native Support 

iOS 13 is the first version of Apple's mobile operating system to support reading and writing to external storage from your iPhone or iPad. Check to see what version of iOS you are running:

  1. Start the Settings app.

  2. Tap General and then tap About.

  3. Look on the Software Version line to see which version of iOS you are running. If it's not at least 13, then update to the latest version of iOS.

    Steps to take to check the iOS version in Settings.

Not all iOS devices can be updated to iOS 13. If you have a very old iPhone or iPad (such as an iPhone 5 or older), Apple may no longer support upgrading it. 

Getting a Compatible Storage Device and Connection Cable

 

Virtually all iPhones and iPads currently use Apple's standard Lightning port for charging, syncing, and data transfer. If you have one of these devices, you need a connection cable that plugs into the Lightning port at one end and accepts the storage device you want to use at the other end.

There are a lot of cables and hubs available, but one of the most popular (and reliable) options is an Apple Lightning to USB Camera Adapter. There are many less expensive alternatives but be sure to read the customer reviews carefully, since many are somewhat unreliable.

A couple of the latest iPad Pro models have a USB-C port, and so you will want to use a USB-C connection cable if you own one. You can use any USB-C-to-USB-A cable or a USB-C media card reader.

Using an External Storage Device

Not all external storage devices will work perfectly with your iPad or iPhone. Some devices require more power than your iOS device's Lightning port can deliver, and connecting it will result in an error message. Most external hard drives require too much power, for example, and even some flash drives won't work.

If you try to connect a device and see an error message that the accessory uses too much power, use a storage device with a smaller capacity instead. For example, you might find that a large-capacity 32 GB flash drive doesn't work with your iPhone. Instead, try an 8GB flash drive.

Another option: You might find that you can use a connection cable that includes both a port for the media device and a second USB-C port. For example, the Apple Lightning to USB3 Camera Adapter contains both a USB-A and USB-C port. You can plug the USB-C into a power port or AC adapter, and that can supply enough power to allow a flash drive or external hard drive to work. Even so, some external storage devices, especially hard drives, will require simply too much power to work with some iOS devices.