Fix the inability to move files around in your Mac

FinderIconYosemiteXWhile OS X includes password security to prevent unauthorized changes to both system settings and access to your Mac, these features should not intrude on your standard workflow. When you log in to your Mac, for the most part you should be able to work password free, so if you are constantly met with requests to authenticate when managing files, or are denied access to an action you are attempting to perform, then something is likely wrong.

These actions include moving files, renaming files, and opening specific directories, but sometimes may not be global in nature. For instance, you might be able to edit the files in a directory with various programs, but despite this access, may have to authenticate when deleting the files or moving them from this directory.

If such problems are occurring on your Mac, then you are likely suffering from a hidden fault in the access permissions settings for the files and folders that you are working with. These are usually managed behind the scenes, and OS X is set up such that you should not have to deal with them under normal circumstances; however, if you access your Mac’s hard drive in Target Disk Mode, or perform major operations like restoring from backup, then you may encounter a permissions-related fault.

There are basically two approaches you can take for fixing this issue: directly and globally. If you have only one file or folder that is giving you these problems, then you can tackle it through the direct route:

  1. Select the file or folder in the Finder.

    Password Reset utility in OS X

    Click this button in the password reset utility to reset your home folder’s permissions settings.

  2. Press Command-i to get information on the item.
  3. Click the lock to authenticate, if needed.
  4. Expand the Sharing & Permissions section.
  5. Ensure your username is listed (click the plus symbol and add it, if not).
  6. Click the gear menu and choose the option to apply the settings to enclosing items.

This approach is best for specific folders and subdirectories that you have created in your account, such as those on your Desktop, or those in your various account folders (ie, Documents, Movies, Music, etc.). For most intents and purposes, the only thing that matters is that files within these folders are fully readable by you. Note this does not apply to your home folder itself, your account’s hidden Library folder, or to system folders, so be sure to not apply this procedure to any files or folders that encompass these areas.

Resetting home folder permissions in OS X

In Apple’s password reset tool, clicking this button will reset the selected account’s permissions to their defaults.

The second approach is to use a global route for adjusting permissions to ensure you have access where needed. Even though Apple supplies Disk Utility with its “Repair Permissions” routines, note that these are specific for system files and some applications you install, and will not affect your home folder’s permissions settings. To perform a global reset on your home folder’s permissions, you need to use another approach:

  1. Reboot your Mac and hold Command-R to enter Recovery Mode.
  2. Choose Terminal from the Utilities menu.
  3. Enter the command “resetpassword” (all one word, and lowercase).
  4. Select your hard drive in the tool that pops up.
  5. Select your user account from the drop-down menu.
  6. Click the button to reset home folder permissions.

This routine will not fix all permissions on all folders, but will ensure the core folders required for your account to function are properly accessible. This may fix any problems you have with files directly in the default home folder directories that were created with your account. When done, reboot your Mac to test the effect of this proceedure.

7 thoughts on “Fix the inability to move files around in your Mac

  1. Ken

    I change permissions on the Applications folder and the Utilities folder all to Read & Write. This cuts out a substantial amount of requests for authentication. I also do the same with my startup drive so as to be able to move its window to where I want it.

  2. Simon

    Interesting point. My startup drive has admin set to read-only. And I can’t get the Finder to remember my initial window setting after login either. Topher, is it a good idea to set the startup disk admin to read-write? Any other way to get the Finder to remember the window pref?

  3. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

    Setting the hard drive, Applications and Utilities folders to Read & Write may be convenient, but it’s a security risk unless you’re the only one who ever uses your computer. If anyone else accesses your Mac, like friends and family, they can add stuff and move stuff around without restriction – and without telling you about it, which may cause you serious problems down the road. Not to mention what it can mean if a stranger or non-trusted individual sits down at your desk while your computer is running.

    I find it annoying to have to authorize actions in the root folders on my system, but I prefer the security it offers to disabling the feature. But that’s me.

  4. Ken

    Security is not a problem for me. I’m the only one using the Mac at home. With El Capitan having automatic permissions I wonder how long my changes will hold. So far, so good.

  5. imrananwar

    I made the mistake of upgrading to El-©®@pitan and now I cannot even move a purchased app from Apps to Utilities. I am the only user and Administrator of my MacBook Pro. Using Command-I, and authenticating to add ME as a user it tells me “The operation can’t be completed because you don’t have the necessary permission.” which is beyond irritating. I have previously run Repair Permissions with the earlier Disk Utility and checked the disk with the cartoonish and useless new Disk Utility. Any thoughts on solving these new nightmare UX issues from Apple? Thanks.


  6. Babs

    Thank you, Topher! After moving all my files from one computer to another, I was having to type in my password whenever I wanted to move, rename, or delete a file — very annoying! I’d tried the Disk Utility trick first, based on another site’s recommendation, but “choose Terminal from the Utilities menu” wasn’t an option for me. Simply applying my permission settings to the enclosed items did the trick. I was going nuts having to type my password all the time, so I very much appreciate your sharing this with us!

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