iCloud is one of Apple's more mysterious products - what it it, and what does it do? How do you set up an iCloud account, and how do you use all its features?

In this article we explain everything you need to know about iCloud. Read next: Is iCloud down?

What is iCloud?

iCloud is the name Apple gives to its range of cloud-based services, covering areas as diverse as email, contact and calendar syncing, the location of lost devices (Find My iPhone/iPad) and the storage of music in the cloud (iTunes Match).

The point of cloud services in general, and iCloud in particular, is the ability they give you to store information on a remote computer, known as a cloud server, rather than locally. This means you're not taking up storage space on any particular device, and also means you can access the information from any internet-connected device.

You can read definitions of more Apple-related jargon here: Apple user's dictionary of tech terms.

What does iCloud do?

In essence, iCloud lets you store information online, and then access this information from all of your devices - iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Mac, even Windows PCs. But if you visit iCloud.com and log into your account (we'll explain how to set one of these up in a moment) you can see this simple concept's wide range of applications.

Let's pick out a few highlights:

Contacts: If you let it, iCloud will sync Contacts across your iOS and macOS devices. This means you need to maintain only one list of contacts, because any changes to address, phone numbers etc that you make on your iPhone will apply to Contacts on your Mac.

Calendar: Likewise, iCloud (if allowed) syncs events across all of your devices.

iCloud Drive: A simple way of storing files in the cloud. See How to use iCloud Drive.

Notes: You can choose to save Notes locally, but syncing them across devices is brilliantly convenient. This is how we prepare notes for our weekly podcast: type them into Notes on Mac, then take an iPhone into the studio.

iWork: You can use Pages, Numbers and Keynote as web apps, thanks to iCloud.

iCloud also allows you to easily save TextEdit documents to the cloud, and access them from other devices.

iCloud UK pricing

iCloud is free - to start with. You can set up an iCloud without paying a penny, but this comes with a limited amount of cloud storage: 5GB across all your devices.

If you want more space - and if you plan to back up multiple devices to the cloud, or store significant collections of photos, videos or documents off-device, then you'll need it - then you'll have to cough up.

Here's what upgraded iCloud storage costs in the UK:

  • 50GB: 79p per month
  • 200GB: £2.49 per month
  • 1TB: £6.99 per month
  • 2TB: £13.99 per month

Read more: How much does iCloud cost?

How to upgrade your iCloud storage plan

Upgrading your iCloud plan is easy. You can do it from an iPhone or iPad, from a Mac, or even from a Windows PC.

On iPhone or iPad: Go to Settings, and tap your name at the top of the screen (or tap to sign in). In the second group of options, tap iCloud; at the top of the next screen, under the heading STORAGE, you'll see a little graph showing what your storage is being used on. Tap this graph, then select Buy More Storage or Change Storage Plan and follow the instructions.

How to use iCloud: Upgrade storage plan on iPhone or iPad

On Mac: Open System Preferences (click its icon in the Dock, or use the Apple icon at the top-left of the screen), click iCloud (in the third row) and hit Manage at the bottom right of the next screen - just next to a graph showing how your storage is being used. Now click Buy More Storage or Change Storage Plan (at the top right) and follow the instructions.

How to use iCloud: Mac System Preferences

On PC: Open iCloud for Windows, click Storage and select Buy More Storage or Change Storage Plan, and follow the instructions.

How to set up iCloud

Your iCloud account is based on your Apple ID. So if you haven't got an Apple ID already, you'll need to create one. You may also have to update the OS on your device (some iCloud features are only available on more recent OS versions). Your next step depends on what device you're using.

On iPad or iPhone: Partway through the setup process for an iPhone or iPad, iOS will ask if you want to use iCloud. If you didn't activate it during setup, you can go to Settings > iCloud later on, and then enter your Apple ID and password.

On Mac: Open System Preferences (as before, click the gears icon in the Dock, or use the Apple icon at the top-left of the screen) and click iCloud. Now sign in with your Apple ID and tick the services you want to use.

On Apple TV (fourth-gen): If you didn't choose to activate iCloud (by entering your Apple ID) when you first set up, go to Settings > Accounts > iCloud, then selecting Sign In.

On PC: Download and install iCloud for Windows. Open it and sign in with your Apple ID, then put a tick next to the iCloud services you want to use.

That's the bare bones, but we cover this process in far more depth elsewhere. Read: How to set up iCloud

How to use iCloud

A lot of the time, iCloud works quietly in the background; if you've allowed iCloud to do its thing (which in many cases is the default setting) you'll simply find that documents you created on one device are available on another, calendar events and contact details sync seamlessly and so on.

If you'd like to test out iCloud's capabilities in an app, make sure it's activated.

In iOS, open Settings and tap your ID at the top of the screen; you'll see all the apps and services that can use iCloud. Tap your chosen app so the slider turns green. (A few apps, such as Photos, are more complex - tap to see a list of permissions.)

On Mac, open System Preferences and click iCloud, and do likewise - except this time you're placing ticks instead of tapping sliders.