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 using iCloud and getting the most out of its many services and features.

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 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.

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 give permission, iCloud will sync Contacts across your iOS and macOS devices. This means you need to maintain only one list of contacts, because any changes you make on your iPhone will apply to Contacts on your Mac and other devices.

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

iCloud Drive: A simple way of storing files in the cloud. For more on this, 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 podcasts: type them into Notes on Mac, then take an iPhone into the studio and read them off that.

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 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.

That's not a lot of space. If you want more - 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 it costs to upgrade your iCloud storage:

  • 50GB: 79p/99c per month
  • 200GB: £2.49/$2.99 per month
  • 2TB: £6.99/$9.99 per month

For more details, read 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/picture at the top of the main menu (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 Manage Storage under the graph, then Upgrade (or Change Storage Plan) and follow the instructions.

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

If you already subscribe to a paid storage tier you can also downgrade on this screen.

On Mac: Open System Preferences (click its icon in the Dock, or use the Apple icon at the top-left of the screen), then select iCloud and hit Manage at the bottom right of the next screen. Now click Buy More Storage or Change Storage Plan (at the top right) and follow the instructions.

How to use iCloud: Mac System Preferences

Again, downgrade options will be offered (the button is at the bottom left) if you're already paying.

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 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 later go to Settings, tap your name at the top (or tap to sign in), select iCloud, then enter your Apple ID and password.

On Mac: Open System Preferences and click iCloud. Now sign in with your Apple ID and tick the services you want to use.

On Apple TV (fourth-gen or 4K): If you didn't choose to activate iCloud (by entering your Apple ID) when you first set up, go to Settings > Accounts > iCloud, then select 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: 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.