How to Move Files in Mac OS X

File handling in Mac OS X is generally a simple and intuitive business. Moving files is simply a matter of selecting the desired file or folder with the cursor, clicking on it and then dragging and dropping to the desired location. However, the file movement behavior of OS X differs depending on whether the destination is on the Macintosh HD drive or a secondary or external hard drive.

In this article, we’ll take you through the different methods of moving files in OS X, and show you some easy key modifiers to help you accomplish what you want.

Moving and Copying Files on the Same Drive in OS X

1.) The standard behavior when you drag and drop on the same drive in OS X is to Move the file in question. Select the file you wish to move by clicking on it:

Clicking on a File to Select it in OS X.png

Continue to hold down the mouse button and move the file by dragging and dropping it at its new location:

Dragging File to new Location in OS X.png

As we can see from the screenshot below, the file has moved from its original location on the desktop to its new destination in the folder:

Moved File in its New Location on OS X Drive.png

2.) If you wish to keep the original file at its present location and create a copy of it at the new destination, then hold down the Option key ( or Alt) while clicking on and then dragging the file to Copy the file:

Copying a File by holding down the Alt Key in OS X.png

As the screenshot above shows, two identical files now exist, one on the desktop and the new copy in the folder.

Moving and Copying Files to Another Drive in OS X

1.) When transferring files between the Macintosh HD drive and another drive, either a secondary internal drive or an external one, the default file handling behavior changes. The operating system assumes that you are wishing to back up a file, and so copies rather than moves it. Select a file or folder by clicking on it:

Clicking on a File on the DEsktop in Mac OS X.png

Then drag and drop to the new location on the other drive:

Copying a File to an External Drive by Drag and Drop in OS X.png

As you can see, rather than moving the original file, a copy had been placed on the other drive.

2.) There are times, though, where we want to Move a file to an external drive, rather than just copying it and then having to Trash the original to remove it. This is accomplished by holding down the Cmd () key when we click on the file and then drag and drop as before:

Moving a File by holding the Cmd Key to an External Drive in Mac OS X.png

Now we can see that the file has been moved and no longer exists on the desktop.

Understanding the difference in the way the file handling system works in OS X when moving between the same drive and external drives, and what key modifiers to use, will help speed up your workflow and make moving, copying and backing up important files and folders a breeze.

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Comments [18]

  1. Lucy says:

    I'm having a problem with moving files to an external hard drive. I want to use the external drive to store the files and then delete the original on my mac. However, when I trash the original, the file on the external drive disappears. Can you comment on how to avoid that?

    Thanks!

    • Jim B says:

      You seem to be moving an alias, not the file itself. My wife just accidentally did the same with a whole group of pictures. She was working with folders on the same drive, though. Rather than holding the option key while dragging, she held command + option and got an alias rather than a copy. Is it possible you held the option key along with the command key when you moved your files.

  2. Ken C says:

    I have a new 27inch IMac 3.4. When I try to move files from the built in HD to the Desktop it copies the files rather than moves the files to the Desktop. It also asks me to authenticate the process. What am I doing wrong?

  3. random says:

    thanks for the help

  4. pseudoprime says:

    simple & elegant. =)

  5. Headley says:

    This article is wrong. When I click and drag and drop it copies the file instead of moving it. There seems to be no way to move a file – which is pretty annoying. How do articles like this get written when they obviously have not been tested?

  6. Sophia says:

    It worked for me. Thanks!

  7. ScoJay says:

    Yeah, this guy is completely wrong. He definitely didn't try this before he wrote it.

  8. Ji says:

    Mac drives me crazy. Not nearly as intuitive and consistent as windows xp. The described process works if you want to move one file at a time, but not for multiple files. Also if you move a folder containing multiple files, the original file does not get deleted immediately after the target is written, rather, it waits until files have been finished. So if anything goes wrong in the middle, it is hard to figure out what has been successfully moved.

    I will never chose mac again even at a lower price compared to pc.

  9. ME says:

    How do you open the place to move files?

  10. Aleks says:

    Cool your jets Headley. It works. Are you reading the whole instructions? Hold CMD as you drag.

  11. dave says:

    @Headley

    From the above text…

    2.) There are times, though, where we want to Move a file to an external drive, rather than just copying it and then having to Trash the original to remove it. This is accomplished by holding down the Cmd (⌘) key when we click on the file and then drag and drop as before:

  12. John Umberger says:

    Moving files & directories(folders) in and out of drive.

    In 10.6 can these tasks be accomplished with keyboard commands? I find Drag and Drop to be clumsy and error prone. I much prefer keyboard commands. Once learned, they are much quicker. My personal network includes 2 macs both with virtual XP systems, one NAS drive, and one XP Pro laptop. Without a reliable MOVE my systems are a mess.

    OS 10.6 is a nice clean quick system but it seems to me that it dosen’t cater to those who use their computer for work and work only. Command X and Command V should be made to work globally.

  13. Robert Burns says:

    Thanks. You solved my problem, after I gave up with iMac help. ‘Tis not so intuitive coming from the Windows world.

  14. Tony says:

    I’ve been using a Macbook for 2 weeks and it’s the least user-friendly laptop I’ve ever seen. The most basic, straight-forward functions in windows turn into an adventure with this piece of crap. I’ve followed the instructions for moving files to an external HD and the stupid thing refuses to budge. Apple can shove this thing where the sun don’t shine.

  15. john says:

    “2.) There are times, though, where we want to Move a file to an external drive, rather than just copying it and then having to Trash the original to remove it. This is accomplished by holding down the Cmd (⌘) key when we click on the file and then drag and drop as before:”

    This simply does not work. I am running OSX Lion on a mini with wireless keyboard. The above copies the files/folders just as it I were dragging without holding down the command key.

  16. Ammanuel says:

    Although I fashion myself as a mac pro, there is always more to learn! This was a straightforward, easy to use guide.

    Thanks for the article!

    – Ammanuel

  17. Stylus says:

    Have long been pondering how the hell does this work in mac since i got myself one 4 years ago. actually embarrassed. after searching so many forums..finally a simple explanation. thank you!

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