Issues with the home folder on an external drive

I’m wondering how throughly Apples testing is. I upgraded to Sonoma and the file open dialogs stopped working, and opening folders was erratic. Turns out that the problem is that I have my home folder on an external drive and also have iCloud Drive. Turning off iCloud Drive fixed the problem. Now I don’t now if the updates have fixed it, as it is beneath Apple to give this information. Maybe I’ll wait until after Christmas.

Putting your home folder on an external drive is an unusual configuration that undoubtedly doesn’t get that much development support or testing, so I’m not surprised it results in quirky behavior. That’s not to excuse Apple for bugs, but just to note that the farther you get from standard setups, the more likely you are to experience uncommon issues. And, unfortunately, Apple never goes into that level of detail in release notes, so there’s no way to know if the problems were fixed without testing.

Frankly, if it were me, I’d figure out how to juggle things so the home folder can be on the internal drive where everything expects it to be, offloading large quantities of data to the external drive in other ways.


Relocating a user space to an external drive has been officially supported by Apple probably ever since OS X replaced Classic Mac OS. It still is in MacOS Ventura. A major bug arose about a year ago. where updating System software would insert an alias for the external drive in the same directory with that drive’s actual root. The false alias did not point to anything, so on log in the user was presented with a new user space. The user’s old space with all the data etc. still existed, but the false alias prevented it being accessed. A workaround which apparently completely solves the problem is to log in to a different admin user space, and in Finder Go / Go To Folder… choose /Volumes. This opens the previously hidden directory /Volumes where the errant alias can be found and deleted. Afterwards, you can log out of the extra admin account and log in to and use the relocated user space as normal. (A reboot may be needed.)

This serious bug was reported to Apple by many people, and discussed extensively in Apple Discussions, but never fixed in updates to MacOS Monterey throughout the past year. I think it was still present when I updated to Ventura. My guess is the bug still exists in Sonoma.

I do not yet use Sonoma, but I do use iCloud, or at least try to use it. I found I could not set up a Shared folder, although I did that a year ago. When I tried to Create a Recovery Key, my software hung.

I think Sonoma and iCloud should be thought of as beta quality software, and not necessarily expected to work as advertised. Hopefully by next March (or maybe August?) they will become more reliable.

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@ace is the messenger here - and I agree with him having been burned by having my home folder on an external drive. I’ve also found a home folder to an external drive as very finicky - especially if you lose a connection to the external drive and it remounts to another folder. That required me to have to log on with another admin account in order to fix the issue as I couldn’t log on as long as the problem existed. Also, the account got trashed when I upgraded to Ventura - the upgrade didn’t handle that well at all, forcing me to relocate the home folder back to the boot drive.

Show me where Apple provides documentation on how to move an existing home folder. Most advice comes from third party sites, not Apple. That should give you some idea on how much Apple recommends its use.

Unpopular opinion follows:

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Apple can’t test everything for every configuration. Fact of life and that’s the state of the software industry. The more complex the software and the more you deviate from the norm, the more of a chance you have of exposing something that didn’t get tested extensively.

It’s your prerogrative to delay upgrading. Making the blanket characterization of software as “beta quality” is your opinion. Personally Sonoma has been very stable for me. No show-stopping bugs or annoyances.

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Let’s stay on the topic of relocating the home folder to an external drive. Everyone can make their own decision about when to upgrade, but millions of people are using Sonoma with no problems.


Click System Settings / Users & Groups /

Hold Control while clicking a User. Advanced Options button appears. Click it.

About the middle of the window that opens is the Home Directory item. The path to the existing Home directory folder (User space) is shown. Just below this is a Choose… button. On clicking Choose…, a standard file dialog opens allowing you to choose any subdirectory to be your User Space.

The ability to relocate a User Space I think is essentially derived from BSD UNIX, so has existed ever since we have had OS X. The steps above describe an Apple-created GUI which enables simple access to this more or less standard feature. None of this is third party advice nor software tricks. I do not see where Apple provides documentation for this long existing simple procedure. Perhaps the lack of detailed documentation is a holdover from the days when Apple considered documentation unnecessary for processes made relatively obvious by their GUI. Documentation is available for similar file relocation processes:
Move your Photos library to save space on your Mac
Set storage locations in Final Cut Pro for Mac

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There is this support document about renaming your user account: Change the name of your macOS user account and home folder - Apple Support

Which says, under the home directory, do not remove the “/users” when renaming the home folder. I think Apple really wants you to keep the home folder in /users. I agree with others; keep the home where it is and use methods to store files externally.

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I understand that’s there. What I was trying to get to was what @ddmiller was alluding to. They tell you how to change the name and/or change the folder. They don’t give you advice on how to actually move the folder - only warnings that amount to “you’re on your own if you do this”. The only advice you’ll get for that is on third party blogs, or Apple Community blogs (which are not official Apple responses). You won’t find more than what you posted in the macOS documentation or tech notes.

And you already highlighted the distinct difference between the semi-documented feature of changing the home directory name, and the more fully documented procedures for moving Music and Photos Libraries.

I don’t mean to get on a diatribe here, but I’ve been burned by moving the home directory. When you do it “right” it’ll work. And by “right” that means moving the entire home directory structure while retaining its permissions to the new location. You also need to ensure that permissions are proper in the path to get the new location. And you don’t use symlinks either.

Problem is that things work until they don’t. Then it can be a time-consuming effort to fix.

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I am thinking that it might be easier just to move everything around, but on the other hand that it is something that Apple allows and it is sensible for a lot of people. Essentially the problem is a result of Apple’s decision to have only SSD and fairly small ones at that in the base configurations, which means that a lot of people have to use external hard drives. You can move things to an external drive and keep the home folder on the boot drive, but you need to deal with Apple and other software vendors wanting to put things in certain places.


IMO, moving a home directory is dangerous. Even if macOS itself is OK with it, lots of apps storing files there (e.g. in your Library folder) may be storing paths to files, aliases and symlinks that could break if the location changes.

If you want to keep a home directory on an external volume, I would strongly recommend only doing this for a newly-created account. If it’s possible to directly create the account with its home directory in that location, that would be even better. This way any content stored there will (should) write files that it expects to find there.

If you want to move a home directory, don’t. Create a new account for the new location. Then copy your documents (only). And expect to have to manually reset your preferences for all your apps afterward.

If this is too much work (I think it is), then do what @ace recommended. Leave your home directory where it is and move your documents (including things like your Music/Photos libraries) to external storage as necessary.

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I’ve always read that moving the folder is problematic since that disk might not be mounted when you log in…and that causes problems. And while there may be a documented procedure for renaming a user…I’ve only needed to do it a couple of times and my process was to log in as an admin (or a different admin) user, duplicate the home directory to a new name matching the new user name, then create the new user name. macOS will notice the existing folder of the right name and offer to use it for you…then fix up all the permissions so it actually works as the homedir for the new user. Then the old user can be deleted and the associated old homedir either deleted as well or moved into the Deleted Users folder.

Back before we weren’t allowed do it under macOS anymore…I solved the basic problem of stuff needing to be available to every user by creating a folder named Junk at the root of the drive and giving all users R/W permissions on it…but a couple off versions back when /Users/Shared was created this got done away with…which IMO was an over regulation on Apple’s part. But…it is what it is so now my old Junk folder is inside Users/Shared and has been added to the sidebar for quicker access.


Now I’m curious about what macOS does in this situation.

Network-mounted home directories are a common thing in the Unix world and I had such a configuration at work for many years. One home directory shared by many different mutually-incompatible Unix systems (Linux, Solaris, SunOS, HP-UX, SGI IRIX and others). With a little bit of creative scripting in my ~/.login and ~/.cshrc files, it all worked fine.

And if there was a network glitch making the home directory unavailable at login, nothing broke. I would still be able to log in, but doing so would present an error message stating that my home directory is unavailable. The login would complete without running any of my per-user login scripts and I’d be dropped in the root directory. I couldn’t do much from there, but the system itself worked fine. Log out, wait for the server to come back and log in again and it’s all good.

I would like to think that Apple has a well-defined behavior for this situation, but since I’ve never tested it, I don’t know what really happens.

My memory of this is that you can’t login, so I always have an account on the internal drive as well.

Seems like most cautions in this Topic (about placing one’s Home directory on a drive other than the System drive) have mentioned problems related only to placing it on an external drive. However, perhaps these cautions also apply to Home directories on internal drives that are not the System drive.

My ancient iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2015) running macOS 12.7.1 Monterey has two internal drives because it is from the Fusion Drive era. Long, long ago I decoupled the Fusion Drive into its two components, a small SSD and a much larger HDD. I installed the operating system and applications on the SSD. From this System, I created two administrative users and one of them used a symbolic link to place its Home directory on the HDD. Over the years, through several operating system upgrades and a few HDD replacements, this configuration worked perfectly.

At some point, I had the impression that Apple supported having one’s Home and System on two different drives since it could be created via the Advanced Options GUI:

Recently DriveDx indicated that my 6 TB internal HDD was failing and I replaced it with a 8 TB SSD.

Unfortunately, I’m now having a number of minor problems with my iMac and perhaps the root problem is that my Home and System are on two different internal drives.

How should I put a System on (and move my applications to) my 8 TB SSD so that everything is on the same (internal) drive?

Thank you.

UPDATE December 12, 2023 10:56 PM
Disk Utility recognizes/categories both my SSDs as “Internal” as shown in this screenshot:

The disk listed under the label “External” is indeed an external drive connected by USB-A at 5Gbps.

The external vs internal distinction is corroberated by  → About This Mac … → System Report …

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I have observations which may be relevant. I do not understand much of what I see. Considering various errors we have seen elsewhere, I recommend proceeding with caution, and not believing what Apple says is necessarily correct.

The current place where caution is needed is in assuming a disk has distinct properties which can be determined by Apple’s description. Descriptive terms which to me seem doubtful are “internal” and “external”. “System” disk is probably more definitive, and probably equivalent to “Startup disk”, meaning the disk where the system files are kept. Changing file systems from HFS+ to APFS may have added to the confusion. Since most Apple devices have only one disk, unless something is done to connect to a disk outside the device, Internal and System and Startup descriptors are sometimes used interchangeably.

Disks in my MacPro7,1 have these descriptions given in Disk Utility:

APPLE SSD AP1024N Media PCI-Express Internal Physical Disk • GUID Partition Map

Samsung SSD 970 EVO Plus 2TB Media PCI-Express External Physical Disk • GUID Partition Map
(four of these mounted on a Sonnet PCIe card)

Promise Pegasus R4i Media SAS External Physical Disk • GUID Partition Map

Dual WDC WD101KFBX-68R56N0 Media USB External Physical Disk • GUID Partition Map

Dual WDC WUH721414ALE6L4 Media USB External Physical Disk • GUID Partition Map

The Apple disk is my System Disk, is mounted inside the Mac, and is labeled “Internal Physical Disk”, as expected. Two other disks run in external WDC drives, connect to the Mac by USB 3, are described as “USB External Physical Disk”, again as expected. However, my Promise Pegasus R4i Media is a hardware array, mounted on two PCIe slots, and described by Disk Utility as “SAS External Physical Disk • GUID Partition Map”. Also, my array of Samsung SSDs on a PCIe card are described as “PCI-Express External Physical Disks”.

I suggest caution because whatever the disk descriptors Internal or External mean to Apple, that meaning seems to not conform to common meaning of the words. I may be missing something, but I would think disks permanently mounted on PCIe cards inside the Mac would qualify as “Internal”. Apple says they are “External”.

Relevance to the current discussion is my User Space is relocated to my Pegasus R4i. According to Apple, this is an External disk. It works fine, unless Apple trashes directory trees when updating System software.

On a side note, the recent update from 13.6.2 to macOS 13.6.3 I did while logged in to the relocated user space. Afterwards, no problem. Looks like Apple finally fixed their faulty update procedure.

I suspect what Apple does in this situation is the same as when Apple can’t find the User Space because it has trashed the directory which should point to it. In those cases, a brand new user space is created. When the directory error has been corrected, the unneeded new user can be deleted.

This has been true since at least Snow Leopard – which I can still boot on my MacPro5,1. It shows my Samsung PCI-mounted SSD drives as “External.”