How to Find Files and Folders on Your Mac: All the Methods Available

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finding files on mac

macOS is an operating system with super intuitive navigation, sorting, and file system organization. Even for non-tech-savvy users or users coming from a Windows environment, it’s fast and easy to get used to locating your files, folders, and apps.

In fact, macOS provides users with a lot of native functions that help users locate them using file names, dates, file types, and more. This article goes over all the ways you can find files on your MacBook – and even recover deleted ones.

Method When It’s Most Useful
Scan your Recents Folder When you’re looking for a file you recently opened or created
Browse Your Default Folders When you haven’t customized your folders
Check the Trash Folder When you accidentally deleted your file or folder
Use Terminal Commands When you want to know the the location path of your file or folder
Utilize Finder Advanced Search When you want to use a lot of parameters for searching
Use Spotlight Queries When you need to quickly narrow your search

Where Are Files Stored on Mac?

By default, your files and folders are stored in the folders within your user’s directory. Your main folders (Documents, Desktop, etc.) are called “Smart Folders” and they automatically organize files based on criteria that you can specify with searches. You can also create your own Smart folders based on your needs.

The main tool you can use to browse files on Mac is Finder – and its organization system can be accessed by different apps and functions on your Mac. We’ll be exploring this system (and how to efficiently navigate through it) below.

6 Methods to Search for Files and Folders On a Mac

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to find all files and folders on a Mac. Some of them require manually navigating, while others are as convenient as using hotkeys to pull up a quick search function.

If you suspect that you can’t see your files because they’re hidden, there’s an easy way to show them.

Method 1: Scan your Recents Folder

macOS makes it super easy to find files that you were recently working with or you recently created, especially if you forgot where you saved them. It’s also sorted by “Date Last Opened” so you can easily pick up work where you left off. Here’s how to use it:

Step 1 Open Finder by clicking its icon on your Dock.
finder icon

Step 2 Click the “Recents” folder on the left sidebar below AirDrop and within the Favorites category.
finder recents folder with a pointer towards recents in the sidebar

You can actually customize what folders appear in your Favorites sidebar by selecting them through Finder Preferences. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1 Make sure Finder is open. Then on the Apple menu bar, click Finder > Preferences.
finder apple menu bar with a pointer towards the preferences button

Step 2 In the Finder Preferences window, tick the box to the left of the “Recents” option.
finder preferences window with a pointer towards the recents checkbox

Method 2: Browse Your Default Folders

macOS already sets up default folders to make it easier for you to organize files by type – and they are usually pinned to your favorites sidebar within Finder so you can quickly navigate to them.

home folder with a pointer towards the favorites sidebar

Aside from your Finder sidebar, there are other ways you can access these folders as well. You can use the Finder > Go menu:

finder go menu with an outline highlighting all folders

And you can even navigate directly to folder paths by using the Finder > Go to Folder function. Simply Open the Finder > Go menu again on the Apple menu, but this time click “Go to folder” which is the second to the last option in the Go menu. This will open a window where you can type the folder’s path directly.

finder go to folder window with an outline highlighting the documents path

If your files are missing from their default folders, you might find them in your iCloud folder. When iCloud detects that your local Mac storage is running out of space, it may delete files locally and save them to iCloud. iCloud has its own section in the Finder sidebar so you can easily access it from anywhere in your file system.

Finder window with a pointer towards the iCloud Drive section of the sidebar

Method 3: Check the Trash Folder

macOs’ Trash folder is the equivalent of the Windows trash bin. This is the first place to look for your recently deleted photos, documents, videos, etc. The easiest way to open it is by clicking its icon on your Dock.

trash icon

If it’s missing from your Dock for some reason, you can use the Finder “Go to folder” function. Here’s how:

Step 1 Open Finder.

Step 2 On the Apple menu bar, click Go > Go to Folder…
finder go menu with a button towards go to folderStep 3 On the window that appears, there will be a text field. Type “~/.Trash” without the quotes, then press enter.
finder go to folder window with the trash path in the search field

If you find your files in the Trash folder, you can right-click them then click “Put Back” to return them to their original location.

Method 4: Use Terminal Commands

macOS Terminal app is a command tool that lets you access your Mac beyond what the graphical user interface shows you. We’re going to use two useful Terminal commands to folders and files on a Mac.

“find-name” Command

Use the “find” command to locate files in specific directories by file names. What makes this useful is that you can specify a directory further up the file structure to search through more locations. The Terminal window will then display the exact path for that file. For example, this command will search for texttxt.rtf in my entire home directory:

find /users/lex -name macgasmrocks.rtf

terminal window with the find command executed and outlined

“mdfind” Command

Use the “mdfind” command to search for files and folders. Like the “find” command, Terminal will help you find file and folder locations on a Mac and print the exact path. For example, let’s search for a folder:

mdfind testfolder

terminal window showing the mdfind command and the resulting path

For files, you’ll need to include the extension in the command, such as .pdf, .jpg, etc.

Finder is macOS graphical user interface organization system – Apple’s version of Windows Explorer. It’s fairly straightforward to navigate through Finder, but did you know that it also has an advanced search bar? Finder Advanced Search makes searching for files on Mac efficient. To access it, open Finder, then on the Apple menu bar, click File > Find.
finder file menu with a pointer towards the find function

Underneath the bar that says Search: This Mac, you’ll see two dropdown menus. On the left dropdown menu, you can choose a “condition” – in other words, what parameters you want to use to narrow your search.

To its right, you can define that condition. For example, you can set the condition to “Kind” using the left dropdown menu. Use the right dropdown menu to choose “Text”, so you will only get search results that are text files. You can click the + button on the top-right corner of the window to add even more conditions and use these parameters in conjunction with the search bar for a laser-focused search.
finder window with an outline highlighting the search bar and various parameters of advanced search

Method 6: Use Spotlight Queries

Spotlight is another intuitive native macOS function that lets you search for different types of files and apps. It’s very easy to pull up Spotlight – just press (CMD + Space). Once Spotlight is on-screen, you can proceed to try out different “queries.”

A query is a request from the user to the computer for specific data or information. Here are the most useful ones for Spotlight:

  • Regular Query – A regular query means you don’t use any specific query rules
  • “Name” Query – Search for a file on Mac by letters or numbers within the filename. On the Spotlight search field, type name:”string” and replace “string” with any part of your file name. For example, name:macgasmrocks.
    (spotlight window with an outline highlighting the name search query in the search field and one of the results
  • “Kind” Query – Search files by their file type. On the Spotlight search field, type kind:”file type” and replace “file type” with the file’s type. For example, kind:pdf.
  • “Date” Query – Search files and folders by the date you last opened it. On the Spotlight search field, type date:”date” and replace “date” with the date you last opened the file or folder. You can also use “today” or “yesterday.” For example: date:today.
  • “Author” Query – Search for files by the author that created them. On the Spotlight search field, type author:”author name” and replace “author name” with the user who created the file.

The cool thing about Spotlight queries is that you can “stack” multiple queries to selectively narrow down your search. For example, kind:text date:today.
spotlight window with an outline highlighting the kind and date search queries and outlines highlighting two text documents with their dates and file types

What To Do if You Can’t Find the Needed Files

If you’ve tried everything we discussed in this article and you still can’t find your files – or if you’ve emptied your Trash folder – then it’s likely that they were deleted by accident, by corruption, or by a nasty virus.

Fortunately, data recovery tools make it easy for even novice users to restore their data… But you need to act fast. Otherwise, you might end up overwriting your lost files while you continue using the drive. For this article, we’ll be using Disk Drill. Here’s how:

Step 1 Plug in an external storage device if you’re recovering files from your main drive.

Step 2 Download and install Disk Drill.

Step 3 Launch Disk Drill by opening Finder > Applications > Disk Drill.
finder applications window with a pointer towards disk drill

Step 4 Select the drive where your missing files were last stored. Next, leave all settings to default for the best possible chance to find your files. Finally, click Search for lost files to proceed with the scan.
disk drill window with pointers towards the main drive, the recovery method dropdown, and the search for lost data button

Step 5 Even if Disk Drill hasn’t completed its scan, you can start browsing through found data by clicking one of the file type boxes. Or you can wait for the scanning process to complete then click Review found items.
disk drill window showing scan results

Step 6 You’ll be greeted by a list of found data that continues to populate until the scan completes. You can browse through the results manually or you can narrow your search by using the search bar on the top right corner of the window, or by using the file type selection sidebar on the left.
disk drill window with pointers towards the search bar and the categories in the sidebar

Step 7 You can preview any file by hovering your mouse pointer beside the file name and clicking the eye button that appears.
disk drill results window with a pointer towards the preview eye button

Step 8 To select the files you want to recover, tick the checkboxes to the left of the file names. Finally, click Recover.
disk drill results window with pointers towards a file's checkbox and the recover button

Step 9 On the dialogue box that appears, use the dropdown menu to choose where you want to save your files. It’s always a good idea to save them to another storage device if you think the drive you’re scanning is corrupted.
disk drill select destination folder popup with pointer towards the destination selection dropdown menu and the ok button

Disk Drill Basic (the free version) doesn’t offer free data recovery. However, you can preview as many files as you want – this is super important for figuring out if you can actually recover your files using DIY recovery software.

Conclusion

The macOS navigation system was designed to be a tool for users to manage their files and folders efficiently. Once you get used to employing the different methods we mentioned in this article, you’ll find that you work way faster, spend less time mucking around the file system, and ultimately get more done.