How to include system files in OS X searches

SpotlightIconXSearches in OS X will by default only include files you have access to, such as documents you have saved, and applications that you use; however, there may be times when you might want to search for system files as well, either by name or by content. These can include fonts, preference files, cache files, and other files you might not usually access directly in the Finder.

One of many reasons for this is if you are trying to investigate or clear out unwanted files from your system, such as trying to locate files pertaining to software you might want to remove that does not include an uninstaller. Granted this approach can be risky, but if you know what to look for, then using search queries can help you root out possible system files that are part of the program you are looking at.

If you use Spotlight for searches, the you will be limited to the default limited search behavior; however, if you instead use a Finder search, then you can include system files in your results:

  1. Press Command-F in the Finder to open a new search window.
  2. Set the scope of the search to “This Mac” to ensure the entire system is included in the search.
  3. Modify the default filter by clicking the “Kind” menu and selecting “Other…,” or by adding a new filter using the plus buttons to the right.
  4. Search for “System Files” and then select this attribute and click “OK” to add it.
  5. Change this option so system files “Are Included” in the search.

Now you can search for terms and find files by name or by content that match the search. As with any Finder search you can also add more filters to narrow down the results and reveal exactly what you are looking for.

Finder search showing optional filters

You can add new filters to Finder searches to narrow down what you are looking for. Note the second one from the top that includes system files in this search, per the instructions outlined here.

11 thoughts on “How to include system files in OS X searches

  1. Kevin Murphy

    .DS_Store files are a nightmare when copying/moving data from one drive to another. Is it possible to neutralize them?

  2. xAirbusdriver

    I suspect “neutralizing” them may be more work than it’s worth. If you open the directory the files are in, the .DS_Store file for that directory will be updated or created immediately. This assumes you open them in OS X. If you are transferring them to another OS you might try putting them in their own directory, deleting the .DS_Store (and any .localized) file and then compressing them, ASAP. Maybe Mr. Kessler has a simpler way. Either way, I don’t think you’ll be saving many bytes.

    1. Kevin Murphy

      Thanks for your input. Saving bytes is not my main concern, in this case, but saving time is. Major copying, or moving, results in repeated failures and fixing, which is a time-killer of major proportions. I keep hoping for a way to stop that. I am convinced that some earlier OS versions didn’t create that problem–but maybe my memory is flawed in that regard.

      1. Strod

        Quite frankly I don’t understand why you have problems at all with these files as they are hidden under OS X and other Unix-like systems. They are an annoyance, though, if you visit a Windows share from your Mac because Windows users do see them all over the place. Fortunately, you can tell OS X not to generate them on remote systems:

        The other scenario where I can see that the .DS_Store files may become intrusive is if you use a versioning system such as CVS, Subversion, or Git, as changes in these invisible files may fool the system into thinking they are legitimate changes in the project. For that reason, all these tools can be configured to ignore such files explicitly.

        1. Kevin Murphy

          Thank you for the article link. This is what resulted from that effort:

          Last login: Fri Sep 19 18:56:27 on console
          Kevins-MacBook-Pro:~ kevinmurphy$ defaults write true
          2014-09-20 00:05:50.024 defaults[662:507]
          Rep argument is not a dictionary
          Defaults have not been changed.

          I am not experienced enough in Terminal usage to know whether it is telling me that the effort failed, or succeeded.

          The second scenario does not apply to my situation.

          1. Strod

            Keivn, in your transcription there is no space between “.desktopservices” and “DSDontWriteNetworkStores”. There should be one.

            If everything works correctly you will not get any feedback at all, although you can check that the value was set by typing:
            defaults read DSDontWriteNetworkStores

    2. tingo

      Actually, my problem is rather that occasionally certain folders (on the Desktop usually) do not always retain the settings that should be saved in their .DS_Store files. Even locking these hasn’t helped.

  3. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

    First off, there are easier ways to search more thoroughly than Spotlight, with fewer argument customizations. I use Find Any File ( which, for old timers, works like Find File in the old Mac OS, before OS X. It searches everything, though you can narrow your search if you want to. Results are displayed in a hierarchical list wherein it’s easy to trace a file’s route to see exactly where it lives. FAF does not keep a database, like Spotlight, so it will take a few seconds to search your system (or external drives) with each new search, but that’s a small price to pay for a complete search. FAF is $6 shareware – though you can get it through the Mac App Store if you prefer. Unlike Spotlight it does not search (or archive) file contents, which can be a good thing, depending on what you need in a search utility.

    Another good search tool is EasyFind (, which is free. Tembo and Whouda Spot are more powerful search utilities that utilize Spotlight. These are for power users and cost more, $15 and $29 respectively.

    1. Topher Kessler Post author

      There are numerous ways to search a system. The point here was to outline some of those built into OS X without the need to install and use third-party software. I agree that there are often times when such tools are needed, but they are not always required.


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