How to share files between user accounts in OS X

FinderIconXOS X is designed to isolate users’ files from each other, so while you can have multiple user accounts on your Mac, out of convenience you might end up using services like e-mail, Dropbox, sending files through iMessage, or using other online options as a means of transferring files to other user accounts.

Even though these options can be convenient, they do use third-party solutions that are entirely unnecessary, and furthermore are limited in bandwidth (and sometimes have file size limitations) that can hinder instances where you might need to copy large files or large amounts of files to another user on your system. If you need to copy files to another user account, then you can do so using three local services in OS X.

The /Users/Shared folder

Shared user folder in OS X

This folder in the Users account can be accessed by all users on the system.

Along with user accounts, OS X hosts a “Shared” folder that is readable and writable by all users. Unfortunately access to this folder is not made obvious in the Finder with OS X’s default user account configuration, but can be found simply by opening the Finder to your home directory (press Shift-Command-H in the Finder), and then going up one directory level, or by opening the “Users” folder on your boot drive.

With this open, you will see the “Shared” folder, in which you might find a number of configuration files and folders. Do not delete any files in this folder for the sake of the applications that you use; however, you can create a new folder in here (name it whatever you like), and then be able to copy files for other users to access.

Note that even though this folder should be accessible by everyone, because it is on the local filesystem, access permissions restrictions might be applied to it that could prevent full access by others. If this is the case and files cannot be opened or copied, then select the files and press Command-i, and in the Sharing & Permissions section of the Info window, be sure the “Everyone” group has full access. If the item you are configuring is a folder, then once the permissions are set, you can choose Apply To Enclosed Items from the small gear menu at the bottom of the window, and these permissions will now be applied to the folder’s contents.

The user’s Public folder

Public and Shared folders in OS X

The Dropbox and Public folders in each user account can be places to receive files and make files available for copying to other user accounts.

If you wish to copy a file to a specific user’s account, then instead of using a common folder like the Shared directory, you can open the user’s home folder and locate his or her “Public” folder. In here, you should see a Dropbox folder, in which you can copy files. While you will not be able to open this folder, by dragging files to it they will be available to the user and will adopt permissions that will ensure the user can access the files. In addition to the Dropbox folder, if you want files to simply be available to all other users, then place them in your account’s Public folder so other users can simply go there to see them. While the files you place here by default will not be modifiable by other user accounts, they can be copied to another user’s home folder.

Ignore Ownership setting for hard drives in OS X

After authenticating, ensure this box is checked to ignore ownership on a volume you have mounted. This will only be available on drives that support permissions.

Because of the permissions restrictions of the Public folder, this is not a great place to store files for collaboration, and instead only files you wish to share by having others copy them when needed.

An External hard disk

This is perhaps the fastest and most intuitive way to share files between user accounts, you can attach an external hard drive, or USB flash drive that is formatted to FAT32, and use this as a medium for storing files you wish to share between users. You can also create a separate “Shared Disk” partition of your main boot drive, use a secondary internal drive, or use a networked storage drive for this purpose. While FAT32 is a great format to use for this purpose, you can also use an OS X-native format (ie, HFS+); however, for any filesystem format like HFS+ that supports permissions, be sure you get information on the drive and check the box to Ignore Ownership On This Volume, so no odd permissions configurations will prevent access to files on the drive.

2 thoughts on “How to share files between user accounts in OS X

  1. Don Eby

    I tried this but when I put a file in my wife’s Drop Box folder and then log in as her, I find that file has me as owner with read/write and she has read only Is that supposed to happen. It stays that way if she move the file to another folder.

    1. Topher Kessler Post author

      One way around this is to get information on the Shared folder, click the lock at the bottom-right to authenticate, and then choose “Apply To Enclosed Items” from the gear menu at the bottom. This will copy the folder’s permissions (default allowing full read and write access to the owner, group, and everyone) to be copied to all contents.

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