iCloud Drive ate my Documents folder

I mistakenly turned on iCloud storage and had it store my Documents and Desktop files on iCloudDrive. I was under the impression that iCloudDrive simply made a backup of the Documents folder but did not move those files, which it seems to have done. (From the command line, the folder is still on my iMac by the way, but in the Finder it is on iCloudDrive.) So, where are my documents, which are work related? Are they in both locations? Have they been moved to Apple’s servers? I must have them stored locally and locally accessible. Can someone tell my how to get it back so it appears on my local drive (and then I can turn off iCloudDrive storage)? This is rather critical, I have work files in that group.

Yes your files are now in iCloud Drive with local copies which are sync’d with iCloud Drive.
The actual local files are in ~/Library/Mobile Documents with a shortcut in the iCloud Drive location in Finder sidebar. You can create a shortcut direct to Documents in the Sidebar if you wish.
I love having Documents and Desktop syncd between devices.
If you want to be sure you have full size local copies make sure “Optimise Storage” is turned off.
If you want to undo the change look here for example

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I believe that when you turn on iCloud Drive that your desktop and documents folder is moved on the Mac and also starts to copy those files to the cloud. One of Apple’s pages about iCloud below with the most pertinent info right here:

Find your Desktop and Documents files on all of your devices

When you add your Desktop and Documents to iCloud Drive, all of your files move to iCloud and any new files you create are automatically stored in iCloud too. Then you can find your files on all of your devices.

Your files upload to iCloud each time your device connects to the Internet. Depending on your Internet speed, the time it takes for you to see your files on your other devices might vary.

On your Mac

You can find your Desktop and Documents folders in the iCloud section of the Finder sidebar. If you add a second Mac Desktop, you can find those files in the Desktop folder in iCloud Drive. Look for a folder with the same name as your second Mac. You can also use Spotlight to search for specific file names.

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Your files are always accessible and in actual use I don’t see any difference. There is no delay in their accessibility. They don’t have to be downloaded to be opened. There can be some delay in their being sync’d to other devices, as there is with Dropbox and Onedrive.
You have local copies which are being backed up by Time Machine or whatever.
The main reason for undoing might be if your work has a rule about no documents being in any cloud location.

Thanks. I’m curious though. A command line search using ls shows the Documents directory where it always was, with the same subfolders and files. Is this an illusion? I see a DocumentsApp file in that Mobile Documents folder.

Yes, there’s a Documents and Desktop folder in the Finder window under the iCloudDrive icon. But I don’t want them there. I want them where they were before–in my User folder on my physical hard drive.

OK. So what happens when I do a local backup of my hard drive to another local (external) hard drive? Right now, I still have a Documents and Desktop folder on that backup. If I backup again now, those directories are going to be removed, effectively deleting critical files. I was unaware that iCloudDrive moved all local files to the cloud and then removed them from local storage.

OK. The best solution was provided by a commenter on the OS X Daily site. This was to create two new folders in the local Downloads folder (I named them new-Desktop and new-Documents). I went to iCloudDrive and dragged all the folders into these local folders. After completing the transfer, I turned off the option to store Documents and Desktop on iCloudDrive (this restored empty Desktop and Documents folder locally). I then dragged the files from the two new folders into the respective Desktop and Documents folders locally. Fortunately, I have a very fast Internet connection.

It doesn’t remove them from local storage and no data is deleted. It moves them to a different place still in your user directory, and presents them to you in the Finder sidebar. The local copies of your docs are still on your hard drive in ~/Library/Mobile Documents. They are there so that you can still acess them when there is no internet. They are backed up by Time Machine so you can restore from an earlier date, like you can with them in the normal place. Apple does do some trickery so that Finder shows them to you in the Finder sidebar. If you browse a non booted CCC back up, the ~/Library/Mobile Documents does not look the same at all because the “trickery” doesn’t apply to a non booted volume.

Moving to another computer is not a problem I have done it many times, by install and migration from a CCC or TM backup. In practice the new computer downloads your docs from your iCloud so the docs on the backup are not actually needed. As far as Documents are concerned you can set up a new computer just by signing in to your iCloud account and letting them download, like iCloud Photos, Mail, Contacts and Calendar. In fact having as much as possible in iCloud simplifies the process of changing computer.

I understand that it is all less intuitive and clear cut than the standard way, but it all works. I have been doing it since it started and changed computers many times. I value having my Desktop and Docs sync’d across devices. If you only have a single device it is of questionable benefit. It is Apples answer to Dropbox and Onedrive and functions the same in many ways.

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Thanks for the response. I realized, having foolishly checked the box, that I have a number of personal and business that I don’t want stored remotely. I appreciate the convenience of being able to access the files from several devices but I really use them only on my desktop Mac. OK. about the local storage, because moving them from iCloud Drive to the local directory was just a drag and drop. It is a bit confusing and I think Apple could have done a better job of explaining the process to users. Ultimately, my fault because I didn’t first investigate all of the ramifications of the process.

It most definitely is an Apple screwup in the UI. If you accidentally set it to store your Desktop and Documents on iCloud, as you found, it’s a PITA to reverse it. And there is no warning beforehand! If you try to do the obvious, and uncheck the option, your entire Desktop and Documents folders are deleted on your local machine. What an idiotic move! I recovered the files from a recent TimeMachine backup, and all was fine again. But why would anyone want the same desktop files on every machine, especially when there’s no guarantee that screen sizes are the same? And the same Documents on all machines? Don’t get me started.

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Turning off Desktop and Documents creates new folder in the Users folder but doesn’t copy the files over. They do however remain in iCloud so they can be copied. Of course, if you knew you were going to do this you could copy the files from the local location mentioned above.

Turning off iCloud Drive allows you to save a local copy under iCloud Drive Archive. The procedures can be seen in the support note posted by SteveC above.

For the original poster there is always the option of storing ‘private’ files into another folder - anywhere other than the Documents or Desktop folder would stop them going to the cloud while allowing the rest to be synced.

I was reluctant to use iCloud for Docs and Desktop for a couple of years but once I committed to actually learning how it works it has been fantastic and I can’t imagine not doing it. The ease of working across multiple devices and the simplicity of upgrading machines makes it a no-brainer for me.

Almost all the iCloud issues people call me about are user related - they haven’t taken the time to properly understand how it works and they’ve panicked when something unexpected (but documented) happens.


Well, yes, point noted. I suppose one concern would be, in spite of the convenience, the need to always be connected to the Internet and, presumably, to iCloud Drive itself. I’ll check out the iCloud Drive Archive feature. I keep all of my legacy files in Documents under various subfolders, some work related, some not. I do appreciate the convenience and for the brief time I was using the Drive features, it was actually quite seamless. What about security, however?

There is no such need! As pointed out earlier, your files remain locally stored on your computer. You only need the internet to synchronize your iCloud Drive with your other devices (and Apple’s servers).

If you want to take your MacBook and live off the grid for 6 months, you can access your local files just fine. When you return from your sojourn, and reconnect, any changes you made will then be synced.


Ahh, yes. So, basically, MacOS changes the location of the files locally, more or less hiding them, while creating the live link to iCloud Drive for everyday use and archiving. I’m not sure how that works technically, but it’s interesting. So, in the event one unsynchs iCloud Drive’s “Documents and Desktop” option, why doesn’t apple simply restore those local files to their previous location in “Documents” and “Desktop” (locally) rather than providing us with empty folders. I mean, if the files are stored locally, all Apple had to do was change the links to the files or move them.

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Why store your files on iCloud where Apple holds the key and can let anyone access them?

I like being able to sit down at either computer I own to get work done without going through the hassle of manually transferring files from computer to computer and keeping track of the latest version of a file, etc. I don’t think I’m an outlier. There’s a reason why services like Dropbox are so popular. Apple likely chose to synchronize the desktop because that’s where a lot of users keep files they’re working on for easy access.

I learned a similar lesson when I was testing Mac OS X and doing clean installs once or twice a week. I realized having all my email stored on IMAP servers meant all I had to do was set up the account again in Mail and all my email would be there. I didn’t have to hassle with making sure I backed up local copies of messages and migrating them into Mail. I could also move between mail clients easily.

Consequently, I adopted iCloud Drive fairly quickly after trying it out on a limited basis to make sure Apple hadn’t messed up the implementation. I recall being fairly surprised with how smoothly it worked given Apple’s track record with online services up to that point.


From my experience it’s not just a simple matter of taking the time, unless you’re a pro or have experienced people around you to explain things, otherwise you have to go forensic to figure it out. Apple makes a point of documenting things so as to say “don’t worry your pretty little head, it just works.” Which it does most of the time. After twice unintentionally having turned on Documents and Desktop in iCloud (one case of which was having it turned on for me during a software update), I found the ominous warning about removing my local copy very scary. Though I figured it out, the process of having to first move the data to a holding place in order to turn off iCloud is non-intuitive, though it sounds simple to someone who’s done it a few times.

Apple put a lot of work into the process of turning on iCloud Desktop and Documents—automatically moving them all to the right place on your local storage—but when it comes to turning it off, well you’re on your own: you have to move the documents yourself, as presumably Apple’s assumption is the least likely scenario: that most customers simply don’t want the data on the Mac anymore and that they will understand how to get the data off iCloud after it’s been removed from their Mac.

If cloud vendors and their support staff understood the following distinction they could at least craft their communications and help material accordingly:

  • Cloud vendors’ perspective: The master copy is in the cloud, and various devices can sync to it.
  • Most cloud users’ perspective: The master copy is on my computer, and I use the cloud to sync to other devices.

Very insightful.


I’m the first to admit that Apple’s documentation on most things is often hidden away and can be ambiguous. I disagree you need a professional to hand hold through iCloud.

The Apple documentation linked earlier gives a clear explanation of what happens and where things are kept. It really is just taking the time to read through it (and many other resources on the web) to satisfy yourself you* understand what’s happening.

Rightly or wrongly, I believe Apple expects people to turn on Desktop & Documents and leave it on. Most people I’ve consulted on iCloud issues didn’t understand there was a local copy held - they assumed they had to be connected to the Internet to work on their documents. The ‘Optimise Mac Storage’ option confuses lots of people - although once you understand how it works it’s quite logical and can be used as a tool for file management. The confusion may of course be Apple’s fault for not making the system and docs clearer.

For anyone who’d like a good, clear explanation on how iCloud and its various incantations work, take a look at the MacMost channel on YouTube and search for iCloud. The guy (Gary) does some excellent videos with clear, concise information and his iCloud information is sound.

*Not you personally Richard, any user.