What's the best way to sync to iTunes on my iPhone and iPad? Do I even need to sync with my Mac any more?

Welcome to our complete guide to syncing an iPhone or iPad with a Mac or PC. We explain how to sync to iTunes using a USB cable connection (this can be Lightning or an older 30-pin cable if you're using a pre-2012 device), or over Wi-Fi.

This tutorial covers the basics of syncing an iPhone or iPad to iTunes on a Mac or PC. But if the process goes wrong and you're looking for more in-depth troubleshooting help when syncing your iPhone or iPad, try Fixes for common iPhone syncing problems, iTunes syncing is broken: Apple, please fix it, and How to sync an iPhone with iTunes without deleting apps and other data.

And if all this hassle has got you thinking about getting rid of iTunes completely, read The best iTunes alternatives and how to delete iTunes.

How to sync to iTunes: Do I need to sync an iPhone or iPad with iTunes?

Since the launch of iOS 5 many years ago (to put that into context, we'll be switching to iOS 10 in autumn 2016), it's been possible to set up and use an iPhone or iPad without connecting to a Mac or PC at all: you can set up on the device and download apps and media you buy from Apple's stores directly on to the device. As Steve Jobs put it (rather prematurely, it turns out), it's a post-PC world.

But there are lots of occasions when it still makes sense to do things the old-fashioned way. Downloading hefty apps over Wi-Fi - or, worse still, 3G - can be a long-winded process, and it's often more sensible to download content via a wired broadband connection first. (In recent years we've found it more convenient to download major iOS updates to a Mac before syncing them to our iPhones and iPads. It's more space-efficient this way.) And if you've already got media stored on your Mac or PC and want to consume it on your iPad or iPhone, it makes most sense to connect the devices and sync them up. We'll walk you through this procedure in this article.

(When we say 'connect', this doesn't necessarily involve a physical cable between the computer and the mobile device. iOS 5 also brought in the ability to sync over Wi-Fi, and we'll cover that below too.)

How to sync to iTunes: Sync iPhone with Mac or PC

How to sync to iTunes: Types of data, media & content you can sync to your iPhone or iPad

Syncing between an iDevice and a Mac or PC can be a useful and efficient way of transferring a wide range of data and content. Here's what you can sync:

• Audio: Individual songs, music albums, and playlists (for more on syncing isues specific to music, see How to sync music from iMac to iPhone without deleting Apple Music playlists and songs); audiobooks; podcasts; ringtones
• Photos
• Video: TV, films, homemade video clips
• iBooks
• Contacts
• Calendars

What types of file and data can't you sync from iTunes? There are three main gaps - mail, notes and bookmarks - but these can be managed across multiple devices using iCloud.

Let's move on to the actual syncing process. It's straightforward, so don't worry.

How to sync to iTunes: Sync your iPhone or iPad via USB

1. Connect your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to the Mac or PC using a USB/Lightning or USB/30-pin cable. You can use the cable that came with the device, but there are plenty of third-party options out there that are cheaper, longer, more robust, offer different features etc - see Best Lightning cables for iPhone and iPad.

2. Open iTunes. (Apple recommends that you update iTunes to the latest version but most of the time you'll be fine with an earlier version. iTunes itself will let you know if it's having trouble syncing with your mobile device and urgently needs to be updated.) If everything is working correctly, an icon will appear in iTunes' top-left corner, denoting the type of device you plugged in.

How to sync to iTunes: Sync iPhone with Mac or PC

3. Click that icon. You'll see various details about the device - its model, serial number, iOS version number and so on - and the types of content you can sync with it will be listed down the lefthand pane of the window. This list will depend on the available content on your Mac or PC.

4. Click one of these - Music, Movies or whatever - and you'll see a list of available, syncable content of that kind that's stored on your Mac or PC. Look at the tickbox at the top of the page, next to the word Sync and the content type. If there's a tick in the box already, syncing is on; if not, tick it to switch on syncing for that content type.

How to sync to iTunes: USB

If syncing is on, this means that iTunes will sync the selected items of that type to the iPhone when you click Apply. (Don't click it yet - we'll set syncing options for all the content types we want, then apply them all at once.) Tick the individual items, playlists and so on that you want to sync, or tick the option at the top to automatically sync everything, or everything that is recent, unplayed or whatever.

Some problems may arise at this point: iTunes may warn you that your iPhone is synced with another iTunes library already, which will prevent syncing from taking place normally. You can get round this by picking the option 'Erase and Sync' but, as the wording suggests, this option will result in the content you synced from the other machine being wiped. Fortunately this process occurs by content type, so you can keep the films you synced from another Mac, say, while choosing Erase and Sync for music.

5. Click on another content type and set syncing options for that one. Continue until you've switched on and managed syncing for every content type you want to sync. When you're finished, click Apply at the bottom right of the window, then (if the syncing process doesn't start automatically) Sync.

6. Wait for syncing to complete, then eject your iPhone (the eject icon is to the right of your device's name at the top left) and unplug it from the Mac or PC. 

How to sync to iTunes: Sync your iPhone or iPad via Wi-Fi

Syncing over Wi-Fi, like almost all wireless operations, has advantages and disadvantages compared to its wired equivalent. Obviously it's more convenient not having to dig out the correct cable (and if the USB ports are around the back of a bulky desktop Mac or PC just getting to them can be a pain). But bear in mind that you still have to connect it via USB the first time, to set up the syncing process. Future syncs will take place wirelessly without you having to plug in the iPhone.

Finally, it's worth bearing in mind that if you're syncing large files you're likely to find the process noticeably slower, since transfers are limited by the speed of your Wi-Fi connection rather than the far quicker USB.

Here's how to sync your iPhone via Wi-Fi:

1. Connect your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch to the Mac or PC using a USB/Lightning or USB/30-pin cable.

2. Open iTunes and, as above, click on the little iPhone icon when it appears at the top left.

How to sync to iTunes: Wi-Fi

3. This time, instead of selecting a content type to sync, stay on the Summary tab (or click Summary at the top of the lefthand bar, if you've got lost). Under the Options section (the third box down), you'll see a tick box next to 'Sync with this iPhone over Wi-Fi'. Pop a tick in the box, then click Apply at the bottom-right. You can unplug the USB cable now.

4. Even though the iPhone is unplugged, you can carry on setting up syncing options in iTunes. As before, work your through the various content types, selecting in each cases the specific files to be synced, or the parameters to be applied when deciding whether to sync a file. When you've finished, click Sync.

5. You shouldn't have to plug the iPhone in again. In future, merely connecting the iPhone to the same Wi-Fi network as the Mac or PC will result in its icon appearing in iTunes, so you'll be able to change syncing options without any hassle. If you want to sync the iPhone again, just make sure it's on the same Wi-Fi network and plugged into mains power: provided iTunes is on, it will detect the iPhone and re-apply your syncing selections and parameters.

Read next: How to transfer or sync Voice Memos from an iPhone to a Mac