how to use dropbox

If you’re looking for an easy-to-use, low-cost cloud storage platform, Dropbox could be for you. Those of you who’ve used the Windows File Explorer will already understand many of the functions you need to know to start operating the application.

In this beginner’s guide on how to use Dropbox, we’re going to go over the basic functions of the cloud storage provider and simple ways you can start interacting with it on your desktop. The guide will provide a broad overview of the platform, so it’ll be especially helpful for users who are new to it.

Dropbox is not only easy to use, but you may be able to get all you need from its free version. If you need more storage or more features than what the free Dropbox version offers, though, you’re going to end up spending more monthly on Dropbox than you would for the same storage from a competitor, such as or OneDrive.

If you want to learn more about Dropbox or see how it stacks up to its rivals, check out our Dropbox review. If you’re here to learn how you can get the most out of Dropbox, though, continue reading this guide.

What Is Dropbox?

Dropbox is a cloud storage service, which means you can copy your files to the cloud and access them later, even if you’re using a different device. Dropbox will not automatically copy all the files on your computer if you’re on a personal plan, so you will have to pick and choose which ones you want to save. 

Once you’ve done that, Dropbox will make those files available in the cloud if you need them again.

Dropbox Syncing

That doesn’t free space on your hard drive, though. A copy of the file you save to Dropbox will remain on your hard drive. If you change the file locally, it will be updated in the cloud.

It’s unfortunate that Dropbox doesn’t free up hard drive space, at least on its free plan. That comes with an upside, though. Dropbox syncs your data across all devices. As long as you can access your Dropbox account, you can download any file stored in your Dropbox folder on your local machine. 

This system keeps files secure against technical problems you may have with your computer. For instance, if your hard drive fails, your photos and other important documents won’t be lost forever if they’re stored in the cloud. Although you may think your computer is secure, there’s always a small chance it will be damaged, die of its own accord or even get stolen.

Dropbox makes it easy to transfer those important files, photos and folders to a new computer, which saves you a lot of time and frustration, as well.

It also makes it easy if you want to share a file with colleagues and family members. In addition to sharing, you can also use Dropbox to view files on multiple devices. For example, you can move pictures you took on your phone to Dropbox and look at the images on your computer later.

You can use Dropbox as pure cloud storage, too. As long as you use the web client, you can add files to your Dropbox account and store them only in the cloud. 

We have a guide in case you run into trouble with Dropbox not syncing.

Dropbox Account Tiers

You can try Dropbox for free by signing up for a Basic account on its website. Basic only comes with 2GB of free storage, which is enough to start using Dropbox, but not much else. We’ll show you how to sign up for the free Dropbox account in the next section.

Dropbox has multiple paid tiers for personal accounts, as well. The biggest difference between the Dropbox account options is the amount of storage you get.

The Plus plan costs $99 per year or $9.99 per month. It increases your Dropbox storage capacity to 1TB. The highest tier, Professional, bumps you up to 2TB for twice the price of the annual and monthly plans on the Plus plan.

how to use dropbox pricing

Dropbox Smart Sync

Another big difference between the personal and professional Dropbox tiers is that the latter unlocks “Smart Sync” (read our what is Dropbox Smart Sync? piece). When you open a document saved on your computer, Smart Sync moves the file to the cloud, freeing up hard drive space. You will still have access to the file, but it will be stored in the cloud from then on. You can also manually move files to the cloud without opening them.

Without Smart Sync, you’re forced to choose between two states for your files. The first state is “downloaded,” where you have access to use and edit the file on your computer. Dropbox keeps a copy of the file on its servers and automatically updates it when you make changes.

The second state is “online-only,” which allows you to move files directly to Dropbox’s servers. You can’t edit or view them on your computer without downloading them again, but you can look at them online. That saves a lot of hard drive space because the file is moved off your computer, leaving behind only the name, location and last date it was updated on Dropbox.

Smart Sync is the best of both worlds because it enables you to set files to “online-only” while retaining the ability to edit and view them. That said, if you want to use it, you have to upgrade to a more expensive Dropbox plan, as it’s not available on the free Basic plan. 

Signing Up for a Dropbox Account

If you’ve decided Dropbox is the right cloud storage service for you, the first thing you need to do to start is sign up for an account.

If you’re interested in a free plan, go to and click the link in the top-left corner that says “Get Dropbox Basic.”

Once you do that, you’ll be prompted to enter your name, email address and password. You can use one our best password managers to create a secure one. You can also sign up to Dropbox using your Google account, instead of your email address.

After clicking the “create an account” button, you’ll be taken to a screen that gives you the option to download Dropbox.

Once the executable has downloaded, click to open it and Dropbox will install automatically. It usually takes less than a minute from start to finish.

That’s it. You now have an account and Dropbox is on your computer, which means you’re just seconds away from moving your most important files to cloud storage.

Setting Up Dropbox

One of the first things you will notice after you’ve installed Dropbox is that it added an icon to your system tray. The tray icon is the easiest and fastest way to access Dropbox from your computer.

Left-click once or right-click to open Dropbox. There are two tabs in the upper-left corner and four buttons in the upper right.

The first tab is “notifications,” which will show you the notifications you want, as well as occasional messages from Dropbox.

The second tab is “recent files,” which shows the last 30 files you uploaded to Dropbox and lets you open files by clicking on them. You can get a link instead by clicking on “copy link” next to the file.

Note that clicking on a file to open it there will take you to the Dropbox folder on your computer, where you must double-click the file again to open it.

Dropbox Controls

The first button on the right, which looks like a sandwich, takes you to Dropbox Paper. That’s Dropbox’s version of a Google Docs or Microsoft Office Online.

The second button, a folder, takes you to your local Dropbox folder.

The third button, a globe, takes you to the Dropbox web client and automatically logs you in to your account. Just like in the folder on your computer, you can see the documents you have saved to the cloud. You’ll also get access to options you don’t get in the desktop folder.

The fourth and last button looks like a gear. It opens a menu with multiple entries including the percentage of total Dropbox space used, an invitation to upgrade your account, whether your local files are synced to the cloud, the option to pause or restart syncing, preferences, an online help center and, finally, an option to close Dropbox.

Note that you can’t upload files or download files with Dropbox when it is closed.

How to Use Dropbox on Desktop

Using Dropbox on your desktop is easy. Downloading the client adds a folder under your username titled “Dropbox,” and the files you add to that folder are automatically copied to your Dropbox account.

You can find the folder by opening File Explorer and navigating to the section called “This PC” on Windows. Then, you’ll double-click on the drive you installed Dropbox on. That will usually be your C: drive.

Next, double-click on the folder called “Users,” then the folder with your username. In that folder, you’ll find Dropbox. Double-clicking on its icon or name opens the Dropbox folder. This folder is the same one you access when you click the second button in the icon menu mentioned above.

In Windows, you will likely also find the Dropbox folder under “quick access.”

Transferring Files With Dropbox

If you want to move old files to Dropbox, navigate to them in a second window. Once you’ve found them, simply highlight the file you want to move, then click and drag it over to your Dropbox folder.

You can also copy and paste files or folders to Dropbox if you find that easier.

It may take a second or two to transfer files to the Dropbox folder. Once they’re done, Dropbox will show a blue icon in the lower left with arrows on it. The icon means it is copying the file and uploading it to the cloud. Once it’s done, the icon will turn green and display a checkmark.

If you wish to transfer multiple files at once, hold the “ctrl” button and click on each file you want to move. You’ll know you’ve done it right if the files you click on remain highlighted. Then, click and drag one of the files to move all those selected into the Dropbox folder.

If you want to create a new file and save it to Dropbox, you can do so when you save the file for the first time by navigating to the Dropbox folder and choosing it as the save location.

To open a file stored in Dropbox,  take the same steps you would to open any other file on your desktop. Just navigate to your Dropbox folder, or open it through the button on the icon menu, and double-click on the file.

Right-clicking on a file lets you share it through Dropbox, copy the Dropbox link to that file or view it in the web interface.

How to Use Dropbox on Mobile and Web

Using Dropbox from the web client is a similar experience to using it on the desktop. When you log in to your Dropbox account, you’re presented with the files recently changed on your desktop. It is the same list you’d find by clicking on the “recent files” tab in the icon menu.

If you want to see older files, click on the “files” on the left side of your screen. There you will see everything you have saved to your desktop Dropbox folder.

The web client has a couple of functions you won’t find on the desktop. To start, you can download a file to your desktop. You can also mark a file as important by clicking on the blue star next to the file name or going to the right side of the screen, clicking the ellipsis and then choosing the “star” option.

You can share, rename, move, copy or delete the file through the web interface, too. Keep in mind that deleting a file in the Dropbox folder on your desktop or the web client deletes it everywhere.

If you need a file and you don’t know where it is, you can use the search bar at the top of the page to find it.

You can download the mobile app for Android or iOS from the Google Play Store or App Store, respectively. It is almost identical to the web browser.

The first screen you see when you log in to the Dropbox app shows your recent files, and you can find the same screens when you click the menu icon in the top-left corner.

How to Use Dropbox to Share a File or Folder

There are multiple ways to share a file or folder through Dropbox. If you want a detailed look, check out our guide on how to share files with Dropbox. Although we can’t cover every sharing option in this guide, we’ll give you enough information to start.

From your desktop, navigate to the item in your Dropbox folder that you wish to share. Right-click on it, then select the option that says “share” and has a Dropbox icon next to it.

That will bring up a new window. Type the email address of the person — or people — with whom you want to share the file in the box below the question, “Who do you want to share with?” Then, grant the permissions you want to share. They can be set to view only or given the ability to edit the file.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll be able to write a message for the recipient(s), if you want to do so. You can also create a link to send to people yourself if you don’t want Dropbox to send the link via an email address.

If you want to share a folder through Dropbox's web interface, all you have to do is log in, find the file you want to share and click the big “share” button on the right side of the screen. That will bring up the same interface you used on your desktop to share files.

The person you’re sending a file to doesn’t have to have a Dropbox account to access it, which is convenient.

How to Use Dropbox to Download Files

Let’s say that you’re on a new device and you need access to a file you saved to Dropbox, but you don’t have Dropbox installed and don’t want to install it.

Once you’ve logged in to Dropbox in a browser, you can navigate to the file you want to download, click the ellipsis button on the right side of the screen and select “download” in the menu that pops up.

That will give you access to the file, but the changes you make to it won’t be reflected in Dropbox. They’ll only be saved locally. If you need to make changes to the file and copy them to the version in Dropbox, you’ll need to upload the file again.

You can do so by going to the “files” tab on the left side of the web interface, then clicking on the ellipsis in the top-right corner. The first option in the list is “upload files” and the second is “upload folder.” Click whichever is appropriate.

Dropbox doesn’t merge the new version with the old one, so you’ll have to manually rename files to make sure it’s clear which is which.

How to Use Dropbox to Restore Files

On most personal accounts, Dropbox keeps a copy of your deleted files for up to 30 days. You can find them by clicking on the “files” tab on the left side of the web client. From that page, click on the “deleted files” tab on the left side, which should be the fourth and last entry on the page.

If you use the free Basic plan or the Plus plan, Dropbox keeps a copy of deleted files for up to 30 days. If you upgrade to the Professional Dropbox plan, you get up to 120 days to decide to restore a file.

Once you’ve found the deleted file you want, click the empty checkbox to the left of the icon before the file name. When you click one of those checkboxes, it turns blue and a button that says “restore” appears on the right side of the page. Click that button to restore as many files as you want.

If you’re looking to delete a file permanently, click the checkbox for the file, then click on the “permanently delete” option that appears under the restore button.

How to Use Dropbox to Request Files 

File requests allow you to invite people who don’t have a Dropbox account to upload files to yours. You may find that useful when you need to get files from employees or relatives who don’t use Dropbox. It’s also a good way for teachers to collect files from students.

To request a file, log in to your online Dropbox account. Click the tab labeled “files” on the left side of your screen, then select the “file requests” link.

Click on the “create a file request” button. It opens a box that asks you to name the files you’re requesting. For example, you could call them “birthday photos” or “tax documents.” Once you’ve decided on a name, choose the folder you want Dropbox to put them in.

By default, it creates a folder named “file requests” in your main Dropbox folder, then a folder in that with the name you entered above.

Once you’ve done those things and clicked “next,” you’ll be taken to a box that gives you a link to share with the people you’re requesting documents from. You can enter the requestee’s email address, too.  

Final Thoughts

Dropbox can be a lifesaver if your computer dies, but it has more features than just backing up or sharing files. Whether you’re happy with the free Dropbox plan or you decide to subscribe to one of its paid tiers — or cancel Dropbox and delete your Dropbox account to get a better deal from a competitor — depends on your needs, though.

Hopefully, this guide helped you understand Dropbox and its features better and taught you how to use them. If you’re still looking for the cloud-based backup service that is right for you, check out our best online backup guide.

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That said, there’s a chance we haven’t covered every Dropbox feature you may have trouble with. If there’s something you can’t figure out and would like help with, tell us in the comments section below.

We’ll do our best to answer your questions and update this Dropbox guide to help users with the same issues in the future. Thanks for reading.

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46 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide on How to Use Dropbox”

  1. I am a member of a group which stores files on Dropbox. One of those files is a letterhead,. I now wish to put on the letterhead a Word document which has been through a drafting process with others in the group, that process not having been conducted on Dropbox. How do I [1] download the letterhead from Dropbox so that I can put the next version of the draft on letterhead and then store it as a numbered version of the draft in Word and [2] also out the numbered version of the draft on Dropbox?

    1. - Chief Editor

      Hi Charles, not exactly sure what you want to do, but I suggest downloading, then creating copies of the original before messing with it, that should work.

  2. Where money is being discussed I wonder what the $ sign means. Is it Australian dollars or US dollars?

    1. - Chief Editor

      American. Generally speaking, unless otherwise specified, our site and many others assume U.S. dollars.

  3. I have accidently hit a button on my machine that took Dropbox offline. How do I restore Dropbox to what it was?

  4. Hello. I am new to Dropbox and I still don’t get how it work? If I sync the files to cloud and then delete the original files on my PC, is the one on cloud still save to use ? I ask this because I aldready have 20GB of videos synced to dropbox but it still eat up my hard drive space. How can I save entirely on dropbox not on pc ? a specific instructions will be helpful. Thank you. 🙂

    1. - Chief Editor

      Switch off sync, then delete what you have on your HD. Good luck!

  5. As I received a warning that my Dropbox is nearly full I deleted some files from the Dropbox window. Will those files be permanently deleted from my laptop after 30 days?

    1. - Chief Editor

      No, only from your Dropbox. The stuff on your laptop will stay.

  6. Hello. I’ve had Dropbox for a couple or three years but very seldom use it. My question is that I never have to use a password! I click on the icon and there my stuff is!?! Looks like anyone could get it.

    1. - Chief Editor

      Hi Wayne, you probably set up Dropbox so your password gets remembered by the program. I can guarantee you Dropbox had you set up a password when you joined.

  7. Hello, my wedding video was sent to me via Dropbox by my videographer about a year ago. Every so often he takes back access to the video and I then have to re-request for access to be able to view it. This time I clicked on download to save the video to my computer but then when I click on the downloaded file, nothing plays. What am I doing wrong? I can’t figure out how to save the video to my own personal computer or USB and need to figure this out before another year goes by and I have to request access to it again or worse if he deletes the file on his end then I’ll be left with no video.

  8. Drop Box informed me that I needed to upgrade. I finally decided to try the upgrade on Sept 10th in the evening, but it did not seem to work. Later I realized that I had put a family wedding photographs folder in the dropbox just a couple of days before. I removed those files from my dropbox. I do not need an upgrade, and I want to get credit for the $119.88. and continue with just the basic free version. I have been charged for the amount, so please refund to the visa card. Thank you, Marinell Eva

    1. - Chief Editor

      Hi, this isn’t Dropbox customer support, I’m afraid, so you’ll have to contact them directly.

  9. I am needing some help understanding if this is the right program for me. I take pictures in groups, like 35-50 per group and I take them in a specific order. I am looking for a program that I can take the photos from my location and have them show up simultaneously on my desktop at home but in the group and order I took them in within the group. Forgive me as I am not techy at all and you didn’t talk about pictures only documents. HELP this has been frustrating finding an app that will do this. What I’ve tried rearranges photos when they are extracted or loaded whatever you all it.

  10. I find the statement under Smart Sync counter-intuitive: “When you open a document saved on your computer, Smart Sync moves the file to the cloud, freeing hard drive space.” Surely, when a file is opened it is needed on hard drive for processing. Does this apply only to files in Dropbox folder. I am trying to understand just how the Plus and the Professional versions behave.

  11. I try to upgrade my dropbox account, and would like to pay for it with my app store credit. My balance is $125, the yearly fee is $119.99. Still Dropbox is telling me that the remaining store credit is insuffisient. How come?

    1. - Chief Editor

      That sounds really weird… Have you been able to get an answer out of Dropbox support?

  12. First, I must apologize for being so tech illiterate. My organization shares files with Dropbox, which I have on my desktop at home. How do I sync this with my new laptop (Windows) so that I can use the files with the laptop? Thanks.

    1. - Chief Editor

      No need to apologize, sure. Just install Dropbox on your laptop and it should sync automatically.

  13. The instructions keep talking about using Dropbox with Windows. What if I don’t have Windows but a Macintosh instead? Does that mean I can’t use Dropbox? If I CAN use Dropbox, where do I find the instructions for that?

    1. - Chief Editor

      It works almost exactly the same, except for right clicking files.

  14. I installed Dropbox on my home computer. Have transferred some files. I tried to install on my laptop and it keeps saying that email has been used. I tried several other emails. Unable to install and not sure how to match them together. Thank you.

  15. I’m thinking of upgrading but have a question: If I were to copy a dozen complete directories to DB including hundreds (or thousands) of photos, then later RENAME or MOVE the directory in my PC but forget to do the same manually inside DB, will Dropbox lose the files? If not, how would DB handle something like that?

    1. - Chief Editor

      They need to have given you access, first, but then all you need do is use the Dropbox app to navigate to the files.

  16. A consultant has left files on drop box for me to view. I have no idea on how I can view them. I have obviously put drop box on my desk top but how do I access the files she has left for me to view or transfer to my machine?
    That should be an easy one for you 🙂

    1. - Chief Editor

      Easiest way? Use the link in the notification email you got. Otherwise, go into your file overview and find them there. Good luck!

  17. We have several sites that upload files for approval, once approved, the signed documents are now uploaded to a file in the site specific box (that only I and the site have access too) So we can have a copy of the finale signed docs, How long are these saved for? Does the Box dump these files?

    1. - Chief Editor

      It should keep them indefinitely, though note that this article talks about Dropbox, not Box, which is a different service altogether.

  18. Hi, I’m working in Google Chrome on a desktop but when I open Dropbox it opens with Microsoft Edge. Why is this? And does it matter?
    Thank you.

    1. - Chief Editor

      Edge is probably set as a default in Dropbox or your Windows system.

  19. I am running out of Dropbox memory so I would like to remove some of the saved photos. But I don’t want to delete the photos from my desk top. Is that possible?

    1. - Chief Editor

      Yup, just unsync them and you should be good to go.

  20. I use to transfer files to dropbox and share them and they were still on my hard drive. Now they are taken off my hard drive. How can I fix that! I don’t want to have to go to Dropbox to find what I usually have on my personal hard drive.

    1. - Chief Editor

      Switch off sync for that specific file or folder.

  21. You mention “switch off sync for that specific file or folder.” I’m having trouble locating sync for specific files or folders. You also said, “Keep in mind that deleting a file in the Dropbox folder on your desktop or the web client deletes it everywhere.” I’m trying to use Dropbox just to temporarily transfer files to clients. Then I’m removing them again. Will those files disappear from my laptop in 30 days? : / Thanks for your help!

    1. - Chief Editor

      Hi Sandy, just move your files out of the Dropbox folder and all will be well. As for the Sync switch, try right-clicking.

  22. I’m presuming from the list of instructions that users of Linux are not part of your marketing plan. 🙁

    1. - Deputy Editor

      Nothing to do with a “marketing plan.” A lot more people use Windows than Linux, so if someone wants to use Dropbox, they probably want to use it on Windows. Here’s a piece for Team Penguin:

      Plus, the information is easily transferable between operating systems.

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