What Is AirDrop? How Does It Work?

Share files with friends without email or text messages

AirDrop is a feature that lets Macs and iOS devices share files wirelessly with one another with a minimum of fuss. Often when you want to share photos with someone, you'll either text it or email it. While that will work, it can be much faster to just use AirDrop to send the picture(s) to them. The only requirement is that both devices have to be from Apple.

AirDrop isn't just for photos. 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 it to read later. You can also AirDrop text from Notes to someone else's iPad or iPhone. The feature can even handle information like playlists, contact information, and locations you've pinned in Apple Maps.

Person using Airdrop to move files to and from a Mac and an iPad
Ellen Lindner / Lifewire

These instructions apply to devices running iOS 7 or later and post-2012 Macs running OS X Yosemite and newer.

How Does AirDrop Work?

AirDrop uses Bluetooth to create a peer-to-peer Wi-Fi network between the devices. That means you don't need to be connected to your router or even the internet in order to have an AirDrop connection. You do have to have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on, however.

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 to Wi-Fi, which makes sharing larger files using AirDrop much faster and more convenient.

How to Turn On AirDrop

Apple wanted to make it easy to turn AirDrop on or off, so they put the setting in the control panel. Here's how to access it and adjust its settings.

  1. Open the control panel by sliding up from the very bottom of your device's screen.

    On iPhone X and later and all iPads, swipe down from the upper-right corner of the screen.

    A screenshot of an iPad with an arrow indicating swiping to open the Control Center
  2. Press and hold your finger on the upper-left box with the airplane buttons.

    Control Center on an iPad with the Airplane Mode panel highlighted
  3. In the next menu, tap the AirDrop button.

    The AirDrop setting on an iPad
  4. The next screen reveals your options for the permissions. The settings are Receiving Off, which turns off AirDrop completely; Contacts Only, which only lets you receive files from people in your contacts list; and Everyone, which lets anyone in range send you things via AirDrop.

    AirDrop settings on an iPad
  5. The safest option is Contacts Only. AirDrop doesn't present any security risks on its own, but you may not want strangers sending you unsolicited files in public.

How to Use AirDrop on the iPhone or iPad

To use AirDrop, you'll need to be near the person you are sharing with, and they must have their device turned on. However, you don't need to be right next to them. AirDrop has an effective range that can reach several rooms away. Both devices should have AirDrop set to Contacts Only or Everyone.

  1. Navigate to the item you want to share, for example, a photo in the Photos app.

  2. Tap the Share button (it looks like a square with an arrow pointing up).

  3. Locate the device you want to receive your AirDrop in the top portion of the Share menu. Devices will show up as a circle with an identifying label under it. It will usually 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.

    A screenshot of the share menu on an iPad with an AirDrop target highlighted
  4. Tapping the circle will initiate sending the document to the recipient, who will then be prompted whether or not to accept the AirDrop.

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