Organizing iCloud accounts for the whole family

The problem: for Mac and iThing users, it’s non-obvious how to organize and share iCloud data in a couple or family. Many people end up with all or nothing, either using a just one iCloud account for multiple devices…or completely separate ones. But most people need a mix: you want to share some things, but not (eek) everything! For instance, it would be great to have access to a single family pool of contacts, but also maintain a list of business contacts that only one person uses.

Well, you can. It’s not even all that tricky.

(Is Apple’s new-in-iOS 8 “Family Sharing” feature the answer? Not even close, according to David Sparks: “I’m officially throwing in the towel on Family Sharing until it gets better.”)

The solution in principle

The key to the puzzle is a family iCloud account. You can use more than one account on any Mac, iPhone, or iPad: each family member can get data from a personal account and from a family account. So, for example, my wife and I use three iCloud accounts:

  1. hers
  2. his
  3. ours

We each use our own account as the main account on our own iPhone or iPad, and then add the “ours” account as an additional account.


I won’t go into the nitty gritty about how to set it up — it’s easy in principle once you have the idea, but a full tutorial would require many screenshots and details, and this is not that kind of blog. Here’s a rough outline though:

  1. Create the family account. Don’t use (which has great step-by-step setup walkthroughs for someone setting up their own primary iCloud account for the first time). To create extra accounts, use instead.
  2. Add the family account. All Apple devices assume that you will have a single main iCloud account, and this is what appears in the iCloud settings. However, you can get data onto a device from additional iCloud accounts. On Mac, extra iCloud accounts are added in the “Internet Accounts” preference pane; in iOS, you add them in the “Mail, Contacts, Calendars” area of the settings.
  3. Pick your data. Each iCloud account can sync several different types of information: contacts, mail, calendars, etc. Just pick the data you want from each account.

Oh, and just one more thing: What about buying apps?

The money is a major wrinkle. This is what Apple’s Family Sharing feature solves rather shabbily. The bottom line is that there is no good solution for most families.

Technically, you can separate buying things from the sharing of data. That is, you can buy apps, music, and movies from Apple using a completely independent iTunes Music Store account. They can even have the same login, which gets really confusing. Or it can be the same account as your primary iCloud account.

My wife and I share an iTMS account, so when either of us buys something, we’re both buying it: my app purchases show up on her phone, and vice versa. I can’t try a new game in secret! This usually works out for the best, but there are definitely times when I wish we had separate accounts! For contrast, my parents do have separate accounts, and they actually were a bit mystified when I suggested they share one — why would they want to do such a thing?

So not only is it a bit confusing technically, but different families are going to want to do it differently.