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There are a lot of hidden files and folders in macOS, which you can still access if you know the method. Here’s how to watch invisible files.
There are a lot of additional functions beyond using the basic Finder. Mac users love their machine for its clean, simple design, ease of use, and simple user interface, but underneath all that elegance is a powerful, fully-fledged 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 UNIX-based system based on NeXTSTEP OS, which had been developed at Steve’s other company, NeXT.
NeXTStep and Mac_OS_9 merged to create Mac OS X, which Apple shipped in 2000 – now called macOS.
The original UNIX file system was complex, containing hundreds of directories, thousands of small programs, and a variety of other tools, including a terminal shell and scripting languages–all virtually visible and routinely accessible to the user.
Today on macOS, most of the original UNIX system is still there but hidden away from the user, who rarely needs to see it.
There are many reasons why you might want to view the invisible parts of the file system on your Mac. This includes installing third-party UNIX tools, installing developer tools and packages, changing login scripts, removing hidden preferences, or removing files installed by third-party installers for macOS.
You may also want to hide files and folders in unseen locations for security reasons.
Before we dive into how to show all the invisible files on your Mac, you should be aware that moving, deleting, or renaming invisible parts of the file system can make your Mac unbootable, so proceed with caution. It is not recommended to access the invisible parts of the operating system unless you know what you are doing.
Toggle files not visible in Finder
The simplest and easiest way to toggle invisible files on or off in macOS Ventura Finder is to press the Command-Shift period keys simultaneously.
You can also open a terminal window and type:
Defaults Type com.apple.Finder AppleShowAllFiles as true
After that, press Back. This tells Finder to show all files on the file system.
You will need to restart Finder for the changes to take effect. To do this, you can either force quit and restart Finder in the Force Quit window from the Apple menu, or you can right-click or Control-Option-click the Finder icon in the Dock and select Restart from the pop-up menu.
When you force quit Finder, any running Finder operations, such as copying files, will be canceled immediately.
In Terminal, you can switch invisible files later using the same Terminal command but with the value set to false:
By default, type http://com.apple.Finder AppleShowAllFiles false
Once you view the invisible files and restart the Finder, you can now have full access to all parts of the file system on all installed volumes on all storage devices on your Mac.
The UNIX version of macOS is based on the name Berkeley Sockets Distribution, which itself was an amalgamation of AT&T System V UNIX and TCP/IP socket layers developed at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s. When NeXT Corporation was developing NeXTStep, it chose FreeBSD as the core of the system due to its networking capabilities.
When Apple bought NeXT in 1997, it modified the core operating system slightly and called it Darwin—which is still the foundation of macOS and iOS today. At their heart, these operating systems are complete and powerful UNIX systems. Darwin is full of UNIX.
If you open the Mac startup disk, then after viewing the invisible files, you will see additional folders in addition to the standard Applications, System, Library and Users folders.
The main invisible folders are:
Apple chose to move 3 of these folders (etc, tmp, and var) to a new folder called private.
Hence the etc, tmp and var folders in the root of your startup disk are really just aliases. Most single-file UNIX binary tools are stored in bin, sbin, usr/local/bin, or usr/local/sbin.
To confuse things further, there are also usr/local/etc and usr/local/var directories.
There are third-party Mac UNIX tool managers such as Homebrew, which manage the installation/removal of additional third-party UNIX tools in these locations for you.
There is also the traditional UNIX home folder in the root of the startup disk, but on macOS it is not used as it is on most other UNIX systems because Apple decided to move the home folders of all local users to the macOS-only users folder instead.
Another important invisible folder at the root of your startup disk is Folders. In keeping with traditional BSD storage subsystem arrangements, volumes contain all UNIX mount points for all mounted volumes on your Mac.
The details of system and technology installation points are very complex and are beyond the scope of this article.
In recent versions of macOS, Finder windows now also display a small eject arrow icon next to each mounted volume in the Volumes folder. Pressing the output icon will output the sound next to it.
You can also view the date each folder was created and the date it was last modified in the Folders window.
Make files and folders invisible normally
When hidden files are turned off in the Finder, you can make any file or folder invisible by adding a prefix to its name. This hides the item, and you won’t be able to access it again until you restart Invisible Files or access it via Terminal.
For example, Volumes on your Mac stores your custom Finder icons, if any, in a file at the root of the folder named .VolumeIcon.icns. Finder reads this file, if it exists, when it mounts the volume and uses the icons it finds in it as the volume’s desktop icon.
If you delete VolumeIcon.icns, Finder will use a generic system icon for each volume. When you turn off invisible files, you don’t see the VolumeIcon.icns file, but it is there nonetheless. .dmg disk images use a similar scheme to mounted volumes.
Home folder, preferences and application support
When you turn on Invisible Files in Finder, you will also notice a large number of invisible files and folders in your home folder. Third-party tools may store settings in files or folders that aren’t visible here, but macOS also has a few of its own system configuration files in the user’s home folder:
- .cups (UNIX printing)
- .ssh (SSH public and private keys)
- .zsh_sessions (zsh shell session logs)
- .profile (login configuration scripts)
- .inputrc.sh (more terminal session information)
- .zsh_history and .zshrc (more login scripts).
When you start up your Mac and log in, or when you log out and log back in, the system launches whatever is stored in bash_profile, .bash_rc, .profile, .inputrc.sh, .zlogin, and .zshrc.
Preferences are stored in 3 places in the macOS file system:
- / System / Library / Preferences
- / Library Preferences
In UNIX, the “~” character means the user’s home folder.
Most of the preference files are visible normally, but some are not visible and can only be viewed in the Finder by turning on the invisible files. The same applies to the Application Support folders located at /Library/Application Support and ~/Library/Application Support. Most third-party developers and Apple store additional files needed by apps in these two locations.
Occasionally while viewing the System, Library, or Home folder in Finder with Invisible Files turned on, you’ll see some folders with a small badge in the bottom right corner – these are system-restricted folders and shouldn’t be messed with:
If you try to double-click one of these folders, Finder will issue an alert saying that you don’t have permission to open it.
Do not change the permissions on these folders to view their contents unless you know exactly what you are doing. Setting incorrect permissions on system-restricted folders can make your Mac unbootable, and can prevent Finder from working properly.
You can view and change each folder’s permissions in its Finder Get Info window or in Terminal, but be very careful. UNIX file permissions are fickle, and it only takes one mistake to prevent your Mac from working properly.
UNIX is a very powerful operating system, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. With Files and Folders Invisible in Finder, you can do things you can’t do on your Mac otherwise.