What Is AirDrop? How Does It Work?

Airdop on iPhone

AirDrop is a feature that lets Macs and iOS devices share files wirelessly with a minimum of fuss.

AirDrop is extremely cool and useful, but is one of those features most people don't know about. Not because it is hard to use (it isn't) but because most people don't think to look for it. Usually when we want to share a photo with someone, we just send it in a text message. But when that someone is standing right beside you, it is even easier to use AirDrop.

AirDrop isn't just for photos, of course. You can use it to transfer almost anything that you can share. For example, you can AirDrop a website from your iPad to your friend's phone, which is great if they want to bookmark to read later. Or what about a grocery list? You can Airdrop text from Notes to someone else's iPad or iPhone. You can AirDrop anything from a playlist to a location you've pinned in Apple Maps. Want to share your contact information? AirDrop it.

How Does AirDrop Work?

AirDrop uses Bluetooth to create a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi network between the devices. Each device creates a firewall around the connection and files are sent encrypted, which actually makes it safer than transferring via email. AirDrop will automatically detect nearby supported devices, and the devices only need to be close enough to establish a good Wi-Fi connection, making it possible to share files across several rooms.

One advantage to AirDrop is the use of Wi-Fi to make the connection. Some apps provide a similar file sharing capability using Bluetooth. And some Android devices use a combination of Near Field Communications (NFC) and Bluetooth to share files. But both Bluetooth and NFC are relatively slow compared Wi-Fi, which makes sharing larger files using AirDrop much faster and more convenient.

AirDrop Supported Devices:

AirDrop is supported on current iPads going back to iPad 4 and iPad Mini. It also works on current iPhones going back to the iPhone 5 (and, yes, it even works on the iPod Touch 5). It is also supported on Macs with OS X Lion or newer versions of OS X, although Macs released earlier than 2010 may not be supported.

How to Turn On AirDrop

A screenshot of the Control Panel

Having trouble finding out where to turn on AirDrop? If you have found yourself hunting through your iPad's settings, you are looking in the wrong place. Apple wanted to make it easy to turn AirDrop on or off, so they put the setting in the control panel.

  • You can access the control panel by sliding up from the very bottom of your iPhone or iPad's screen. You need to start at the very edge where the screen meets the bezel.
  • Once the control panel is revealed, you will have access to the AirDrop settings. But you will need to know where to look. Each panel in the control panel can be expanded to view more detailed options.
  • Press and hold your finger on the upper-left box with the airplane buttons. This will expand to show a menu that includes the AirDrop button.
  • Tap the AirDrop button to reveal the permissions. You can turn it On, Off or Contacts Only, which is the default setting. Contact Only means only people in your contacts list will be allowed to send you an AirDrop request.

If you're having troubles with AirDrop not working properly, try these troubleshooting tips to get it working again

How to Use AirDrop on the iPhone or iPad

A screenshot of an iPhone with AirDrop displayed

You will need to be near the person you are sharing with and they must have their device turned on for it to register. However, you don't need to be right next to them. AirDrop can even reach into the next room. Both devices should have AirDrop set to Contacts Only or Everyone.

  • First, navigate to what you want to share. This can be a photo, web page, app in the app store, etc. If you want to share a photo, you'll need to open that photo in the Photos app.
  • Next, tap the Share button. The Share button is the box with the arrow sticking straight up. This Share button accesses the Share menu, which allows you to share via AirDrop, Facebook, iMessage, etc.
  • Locate the device you want to receive your AirDrop. This is the top portion of the Share menu. Devices will show up as a circle with an identifying label under it. This will be the contact's photo with their name under it, but if you don't have a photo attached to this contact, it will show up as a gray circle with their initials in it.
  • Last, tap the circle. Tapping will initiate sending the document to the recipient, who will then be prompted whether or not to accept the AirDrop.

That's it. You can drop anything from photos to web pages. You can even share a contact by tapping the Share Contact button at the end of the contact's information in the contacts app.