Syncing macOS and iOS: How Do They Connect?

Macos Mojave Ios12 Continuity Handoff Hero

Apple calls the interconnectivity features between macOS and iOS the “Continuity System.” Continuity is the universal name for many small wireless interconnections between your Mac and your iPhone. Continuity’s features let you create and transfer media between your devices seamlessly, in specific ways and contexts.

To use most Continuity features like AirDrop and Handoff, the devices must be on the same Wi-Fi network with Bluetooth enabled. The maximum range of service depends on the quality of the Bluetooth connection. Closer is generally better. All features (except AirDrop) also require both devices to be logged into the same Apple ID.

You’ll also need a relatively recent Mac: check if your device is compatible with Continuity. Note that different features have different minimum requirements, both in software and hardware. To access all features, make sure your Mac and iOS devices are updated to the most recent version of their operating systems.

1. AirDrop

AirDrop allows you to wirelessly transfer media between any two nearby Apple devices. The recipient will need to approve the share on their end, and they’ll see a preview of the content being shared. Once accepted, the shared media will be open in the appropriate app immediately. It’s a great way to quickly share notes or pictures with your Mac or with other Apple users.

If you have trouble getting AirDrop working, make sure both devices are on the same Wi-Fi network and in Bluetooth range. It’s also more reliable when AirDrop discovery is not limited to contacts. If you’re having trouble finding a recipient you know you should see, make sure the AirDrop discovery on the recipient’s device is set to “Everyone” rather than “Contacts Only.”

Universal Clipboard

With Universal Clipboard, copy text on one device, then paste it onto another. This is an automatic feature without an interface. There is no way for the user to trigger Universal Clipboard manually.

Macos Mojave Iphone Xs Continuity Universal Clipboard Hero

  1. On the source device, copy content as normal.
  2. The copied content will be automatically added to the clipboard of nearby device. Copying something else on either the source or destination device will overwrite the Universal Clipboard buffer.
  3. On the destination device, paste the content as normal.

Continuity Camera

With Continuity Camera, you can use your iOS device’s camera to capture images directly to a Mac running macOS Catalina or later or ingest them directly into supported applications.

Macos Mojave Keynote8 2 Import Continuity Camera

With one of those applications open, right-click in the document or window where you want the photo to appear. In the context menu, select “Import or Insert from iPhone or iPad -> Take Photo,” which opens the camera app on your iPhone or iPad. You can also choose “Scan Document” to use the iOS Document Scanner feature.

If you want to simply save an image to your Mac, right-click on the Desktop and choose “Import or Insert from iPhone or iPad -> Take Photo.”

Continuity Sketch/Markup

Macos Catalina Ipados13 Continuity Sketch Markup Hero

Continuity Sketch allows you to sketch on your iOS device and transfer those sketches to a Mac running macOS Catalina or later. To add a sketch, choose “File -> Insert from [device] -> Add Sketch” or right-click and choose “Add Sketch” from the context menu. This will open a sketch window on your iOS device, and the sketch will be transferred to your Mac once you tap “Done.”

Macos Catalina Preview Markup Annotate Callout

Continuity Markup is similar but launched differently. Open a file in Quick Look or Preview, and click the Annotate button in the menu bar as shown above. This will open the file on your iOS device, and changes will be transferred to your Mac instantly.

iPhone Cellular Calls

You can make calls using your iPhone’s cellular connectivity, even while the phone is stuffed in the bottom of your backpack. Provided your phone can get a Bluetooth signal from your device, you can place a call using your iPhone’s cell connection but your Mac’s speakers and microphone. This uses the FaceTime app to essentially “pipe” the call through your cellphone but forwards all the interaction to your Mac. For detailed instructions on setting up this process, learn how to set up your Mac to make phone calls through your iPhone.

Instant Hotspot

Instant Hotspot provides a way to share your cell phone’s data connection with other devices. It sends your iPhone’s wireless data connection (typically 4G LTE in most areas) through a Wi-Fi hotspot. Most devices need to enter a password to use the hotspot.

However, if your Mac and your iPhone are logged into the same Apple ID, your device can share Internet with your Mac without a password. To use instant hotspot, enable your Personal Hotspot on your iOS device with cellular connectivity. Then, select the device’s name from the list of wireless networks on your Mac. Once connected, the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar will show a set of chain links to indicate an Instant Hotspot connection mediated by your Apple ID.


The most rudimentary form of wireless connectivity, Handoff allows you to open media or links on your iPhone, then transfer them to your Mac. It’s an automatic system, and there’s no way the user can actively trigger it. If a Handoff-eligible situation is detected, the appropriate user interface elements will appear. Handoff requires the following conditions:

  • Eligible content has focus on your iPhone
  • iPhone is awake and unlocked
  • Mac is awake and logged in to the appropriate user
  • Mac has an app that can read the eligible media
  • Basic Continuity requirements are met (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, same Apple ID)
  • Strong connection between devices (largely outside user control)

If all those conditions are met, you’ll see the icon representing Handoff to the left of your Mac’s Dock (or on top, if you positioned the Dock vertically). Click on the Handoff icon, and the media will open in the associated app.

Macos Mojave Dock Handoff Safari Iphone

It’s also possible to get content from your Mac on your iPhone. Swipe up from the bottom to the middle of your screen and hold until you see the App Switcher. At the bottom, you’ll see any Handoff links.


Macos Catalina Sidecar Hero

Use your iPad as an additional display with Sidecar. With macOS Catalina and iOS 13, users can connect their iPad to their Mac as a supplementary display. If your devices are eligible, you can select your iPad as a secondary display under the Airplay menu bar icon or use Sidecar preferences to connect.

The above are the various ways that macOS and iOS connect to each other. Which ways do you use most often?

Alexander Fox
Alexander Fox

Alexander Fox is a tech and science writer based in Philadelphia, PA with one cat, three Macs and more USB cables than he could ever use.

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