How to use invisible files in macOS

Hidden files in macOS Ventura


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There are many hidden files and folders on macOS that you can still access if you know the method. Here's how to see invisible files.

There are many additional features beyond the basic use of the Finder. Mac users love their machines for their clean, simple design, ease of use, and minimalist user interface, but underneath all that elegance lies a full-blown, powerful UNIX operating system.

UNIX was invented at Bell Labs in 1969 and was originally designed to run on mainframe computers with time-sharing terminals. In 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company decided to move the Mac to a new modern UNIX-based system based on the NeXTSTEP OS, which had been developed at NeXT, another of Steve's companies.

NeXTStep and Mac_OS_9 were combined to create Mac OS X, which Apple released in 2000—now simply called macOS.

The original UNIX file system was complex, containing hundreds of directories, thousands of small programs, and many other tools, including terminal shells and scripting languages ​​— almost all are visible and usually available to the user.

On macOS today, much of the original UNIX system is still present, but hidden from the user, who rarely needs to see it.

There are various reasons why you might want to view the invisible parts of the file system on your Mac. These include installing third-party UNIX tools, installing developer tools and packages, modifying login scripts, removing hidden settings, or removing files installed by third-party macOS installers.

You can also hide files and folders in invisible places for security reasons.

Before we dive into how to show all invisible files on your Mac, please be aware that moving, deleting or renaming the invisible parts of the file system can cause your Mac to stop booting, so take action carefully. Accessing invisible parts of the OS is not recommended unless you know what you are doing.

Toggle invisible files in Finder

Easiest and The easiest way to turn invisible files on or off in macOS Ventura Finder is to press Command-Shift-Period at the same time.

You can also open a Terminal window and type:

default is AppleShowAllFiles true

After that press Go Back. This tells Finder to show all files on the file system.

You will need to restart the Finder for the changes to take effect. To do this, you can force quit and restart the Finder in the Apple Menu Force Quit window, or you can right-click or Control-Option-click the Finder icon in the Dock and choose Relaunch from the pop-up menu.

When you force quit the Finder, all running Finder operations, such as copying files, will be canceled immediately.

In the Terminal, you can disable invisible files later using the same Terminal command, but with a value of false:

The default is Finder AppleShowAllFiles false

Once you've shown invisible files and restarted Finder, you now have full access to all parts of the file system on all mounted volumes on all storage devices on your Mac.

The version of UNIX on which macOS is based is called Berkeley Sockets Distribution, which is a fusion of AT&T System V UNIX and the TCP/IP socket layers developed at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s. When NeXT developed NeXTStep, it chose FreeBSD as the system's kernel because of its networking capabilities.

When Apple bought NeXT in 1997, it slightly modified the core OS and called it Darwin, which is still the basis of macOS and iOS today. At their core, these operating systems are full-fledged, powerful UNIX systems. Darwin is a complete UNIX.

If you open your Mac's startup disk, after showing invisible files, you'll see additional folders in addition to the standard Applications, System, Library, and Users folders.

Key invisible folders:

  • bin
  • etc
  • sbin
  • tmp
  • usr
  • var

Apple has decided to move 3 of these folders (etc, tmp and var) to a new folder called private.

Hence, the etc, tmp, and var folders at the root of your boot drive are really just aliases. Most single-file binary UNIX tools are stored in the bin, sbin, usr/local/bin, or usr/local/sbin folders.

To further confuse things, there are also usr/local/etc and usr/local/var directories.

There are third party Mac UNIX tool managers such as Homebrew that manage the installation/uninstallation of additional third party UNIX tools in these locations for you.

There is also a traditional UNIX home folder at the root of your boot drive, but macOS doesn't use it like most other UNIX systems because Apple instead decided to move the home folders for all local users to the Users folder. for macOS only.

Another important invisible folder at the root of the boot drive is Volumes. In keeping with the traditional structure of the BSD storage subsystem, Volumes contains all UNIX mount points for all mounted volumes on your Mac.

The details of system mount points and technology are quite complex and beyond the scope of this article.

In modern versions of macOS, Finder windows now also display a small Eject arrow icon next to each mounted volume in the Volumes folder. Clicking the Eject icon ejects the volume next to it.

You can also view each volume's creation date and last modification date in the Volumes window.


When hidden files are disabled in the Finder, you can make any file or folder invisible by putting a dot in front of its name. This will hide the element and you won't be able to access it again until you turn invisible files back on or access it through the Terminal.

For example, storage volumes on your Mac store their custom Finder icons, if any, in a file at the root of the volume named .VolumeIcon.icns. The Finder reads this file, if present, when it mounts the volume and uses the icons it finds as the volume's icon on the desktop.

If you delete VolumeIcon.icns, the Finder uses a generic system icon for each volume. When invisible files are disabled, you don't see the VolumeIcon.icns file, but it's there nonetheless. .dmg disk images use a similar scheme for their mounted volumes.

Home folder, settings and application support

When you turn on invisible files in Finder, you will also notice a lot of invisible files and folders in your home folder. Third-party tools may store settings here in invisible files or folders, but macOS also has several of its own system configuration files in the user's home folder:

  • .cups (UNIX printing)< /li>
  • . ssh (SSH public and private keys)
  • .zsh_sessions (zsh shell session records)
  • .bash_profile
  • .bash_rc
  • .profile (login configuration scripts)
  • (additional terminal session information)
  • .zlogin
  • .zsh_history and . zshrc (additional login scripts).

When your Mac starts up and you log in, or when you log out and log back in, the system runs whatever is stored in bash_profile, .bash_rc , . profile,, .zlogin and .zshrc.

Preferences are stored in 3 places in the macOS file system:

  • /System/Library/Preferences
  • /Library Preferences
  • ~/Library/Settings

In UNIX, the “~” character means the user's home folder.

Most preference files display fine, but some of them are invisible and can only be viewed in the Finder if invisible files are enabled. The same goes for the application support folders located in /Library/Application Support and ~/Library/Application Support. Most third-party developers and Apple store additional files required by applications in these two locations.

Sometimes when browsing your system, library or home folder in Finder with invisible files enabled, you will see some folders with a small icon in the bottom right corner – these are system folders that should not be tampered with:

< p>If you try to double-click one of these folders, the Finder will warn you that you don't have permission to open it.

Don't change the permissions on these folders to view their contents unless you know exactly what you're doing. Setting the wrong permissions on system folders can cause your Mac to stop booting and the Finder may not work properly.

You can view and change the permissions for each folder in the Finder Get Info window or in the Terminal, but be extremely careful. UNIX file permissions are fickle and it only takes one mistake to keep your Mac from working properly.

UNIX is a very powerful operating system, and we've just scratched the surface of it. By using invisible files and folders in the Finder, you can do things on your Mac that you can't do otherwise.

For those more technically savvy, the best book on FreeBSD is Designing and Implementing the FreeBSD 4.4 Operating System by McKusik, et. al, but be warned: this is an extremely technical textbook for graduate students. You can also read it online on the FreeBSD website.

One last bit of historical advice: if you want to see what the original NeXTStep OS was like, you can run it today in Oracle VirtualBox or another virtualization application. AdaFruit has a great little guide on how to do this.

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