iOS has historically been extremely stringent about what you can and cannot do with your iPhone. This extends to what you can and cannot download onto the device. While that system has gradually relaxed over time, Apple’s security restrictions look prohibitively strict in comparison to Android’s “anything goes” policy.
While you can download a number of different files to your device, iOS users don’t have the USB-drive level access provided by either an Android device or a jailbroken iPhone. If that’s the level of access you want, you’ll need to apply a jailbreak to your iPhone, which is hopefully running an older version of iOS.
Do we really need to download ANY file type to your iPhone?
Fortunately, most reasonable needs are met by the existing application structure, especially by the introduction of the Files app in iOS 11. Its share extension allows users to save an enormous variety of web-based files to their device. There aren’t many reasons you’d specifically require your device to be able to download literally any file type, and it could represent a huge security hole if that was permitted. Perhaps not for experienced users.
But for the enormous population of people who don’t read technical posts like this one, downloading damaging files would likely happen with frustrating regularity. Witness Windows and Android’s own enormous anti-virus tool market, which is non-existent in part thanks to the greater degree of user restriction present in iOS.
Transferring Basic Files with iTunes
Surprisingly, transferring files with iTunes remains your most reliable tool. It now allows for a broad range of transfers to your iPhone, including file types previously prohibited. Provided you have an application on your device that is associated with a file’s extension, you can download that file to your device. This method will work on either macOS or Windows. If you want to transfer photos, music, videos, ringtones or similar common file types, this is your best bet.
1. Connect your device to your computer with a USB cable.
2. Open iTunes.
3. Click on the Device icon next to the media dropdown.
4. Click on “File Sharing” in the sidebar menu.
5. Select the appropriate application from the list. You can base this on your own intuition (epub files go with your ereader program, for example).
Transferring More File Types to Your iPhone
We can do more than just common file types by downloading one of several file browser apps in the iOS App Store. Our favorite was Documents by long-time iOS app developer Readdle. Browser and FileManager are also good choices, though the first can throw up some obnoxious ads if you don’t pay the $1 purchase fee for the ad-free version.
1. Navigate to File Sharing within iTunes following the previous steps.
2. Click on the “Documents” app in the pane on the right.
3. The Documents app can accept pretty much any kind of file, from Excel spreadsheets to video files. Click the “Add …” button at the bottom of the list module to select the file you’d like to add.
4. On your iOS device open the Documents app.
5. Click on the “iTunes Files” folder.
6. Access your transferred files. Tap on a file to open it and preview it within the Documents app.
Documents has even more ways of transferring files, including via a wireless server connection. Check that out (and more) in the “Documents Guide” document included with the Documents application.
What about going outside iOS?
There are apps available that claim to work outside of Apple’s iOS restrictions. They don’t. The security restrictions wouldn’t be worth much if they could be bypassed by publicly-accessible apps. The only way to lift those restrictions is via jailbreaking, which is certainly an option. But for the vast majority of users, working within Apple’s limits will be sufficient.