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How OneDrive Works: the Very Basics

Where to place your files and what OneDrive does with them.

Microsoft OneDrive Online
Microsoft OneDrive online. (Screenshot: askleo.com)
OneDrive is a free, useful service. Learn the basics here.
​I want to understand the ramifications of copying files to OneDrive versus moving files to OneDrive.

I think a good way to answer your question is to review what OneDrive does, how it works, how it relates to the files on your hard disk, and how all that relates to “the cloud”.

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TL;DR:

OneDrive Basics

OneDrive monitors a specific folder on your computer — C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive — for files, folders, and changes. Items added or changes made are automatically uploaded to OneDrive.com cloud storage, where you can access them online. Files not within the OneDrive folder on your computer are not involved in OneDrive in any way.

Life without OneDrive

Without OneDrive, your files are stored on your computer in the folder(s) you select.

For example, you might have a document — I’ll call it “example.docx” — in your Documents folder. On your hard drive, then, that file would live in the folder:

C:\Users\<login id>\Documents

And its full path would be

C:\Users\<login id>\Documents\example.docx

example.docx in Documents folder
example.docx in the Documents folder. Click for larger image. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

Until you back up your machine or make a copy of this file some other way, that’s the only place it lives; it’s the one and only copy of your file.

OneDrive starts with files in a folder on your machine

OneDrive starts out the same way; just in a different folder.

Say you put your example document in your OneDrive folder. On your hard drive, then, that file would live in the folder:

C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive

And its full path would be

C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\example.docx

example.docx in OneDrive.
example.docx in OneDrive. Click for larger image. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

There’s nothing really different about this. It’s just a file in a folder…

Until you have the OneDrive app running and are signed in to your Microsoft/OneDrive account.

OneDrive automatically copies to the cloud

Any file you put in your OneDrive folder is automatically copied to the OneDrive cloud servers and made available in your OneDrive account.1

What that means is that shortly after C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\example.docx has been created, you’ll find a copy of the file online in your OneDrive cloud storage at OneDrive.com.2

example.docx in OneDrive online.
example.docx in OneDrive online. Click for larger image. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

The file now exists in both places —

  • On your machine, in the OneDrive folder
  • In the cloud, in your OneDrive.com account

— because you placed the file in your OneDrive folder on your machine.

OneDrive counts subfolders

Let’s say you have many files and folders and sub-folders full of documents and more. As long as they’re “underneath” the OneDrive folder on your machine, they’re “in” OneDrive.

For example:

C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\Project1\Support Documents\Excuses\reasons-we-fail.docx

is “in” OneDrive, because it exists within, or “underneath” the OneDrive folder. That means that all the subfolders and all the files underneath the OneDrive folder are also automatically uploaded to your OneDrive account online.

A project document deep in OneDrive.
A project document deep in OneDrive. Click for larger image. (Screenshot: askleo.com)

All because you placed those files anywhere within your OneDrive folder.

Files elsewhere are unaffected

Only files within the OneDrive folder are managed by OneDrive.

What this means is that our original example:

C:\Users\<login id>\Documents\example.docx

is not within the OneDrive folder, and thus is not affected by and has nothing to do with OneDrive. OneDrive is nowhere in its path.

It’s just a file on your machine, and nothing more.

Now we can get to your answer.

Copying a file to OneDrive

Copying creates a duplicate of the original file.

So if we start with our example:

C:\Users\<login id>\Documents\example.docx

and copy it to OneDrive:

C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\example.docx

Then there are now two copies of the file: one within OneDrive, and one not.

In addition, after the copy is put into the OneDrive folder, OneDrive notices the new file and uploads it to OneDrive.com online.

There are now three copies of the file:

  • One in Documents, on your machine.
  • One in OneDrive, on your machine.
  • One in OneDrive.com, online.

If you delete or change the file in Documents, it will have no effect on the file on OneDrive, as they are completely separate files. Similarly, if you delete or change the file in OneDrive, it will have no effect on the file in Documents for the same reason.

Moving a file to OneDrive

By moving, we are simply changing the location of a file on your hard disk.

Once again starting with our example:

C:\Users\<login id>\Documents\example.docx

if we move it to OneDrive:

C:\Users\<login id>\OneDrive\example.docx

Then there is only one copy of the file on your hard disk: within OneDrive. Moving just changed its location.3

In addition, after the move is made, OneDrive notices the file and uploads it to OneDrive.com online.

There are now two copies of the file:

  • One in OneDrive, on your machine.
  • One in OneDrive.com, online.

OneDrive synchronization

One feature of OneDrive I’ve not yet talked about is synchronization. It is simply this:

  • If a file within your OneDrive folder changes or is deleted, it is uploaded to or deleted from your OneDrive.com online.4

This is one of the reasons I sometimes refer to OneDrive as “nearly continuous backup”. Every time you hit “save” on any document that is stored anywhere in the OneDrive folder on your machine, the saved file is then also uploaded to the cloud.

Perhaps as important in terms of your question, this is not true for any files or folders that are not within your OneDrive folder.

There’s more to OneDrive

OneDrive has many more features than what I’ve described above, but understanding this fundamental function is enough to begin putting it to use. With that under your belt, you’ll be able to explore what more you can do.

Do this

Take a few minutes to understand the basics of OneDrive. Consider using it for at least a minimal amount of near-real-time backup. It’s free and it’s useful. You don’t have to explore or understand its more complex features.

Then, subscribe to Confident Computing for more tips and explanations. Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

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Footnotes & References

1: This assumes you are connected to the internet.  If not, the upload will happen the next time you connect online.

2: The actual URL in the address bar will change after you go there — currently to a variation of “onedrive.live.com” — but “onedrive.com” is an easy-to-remember starting point.

3: A “move” is equivalent to copying the original to a new location followed by deleting the original, leaving only the copied file in its new location.

4: The reverse is also true: if the file changes in the cloud, it’s updated on your machine as well.

14 comments on “How OneDrive Works: the Very Basics”

  1. If I have two or three computers, all using my same Microsoft account, are files placed in OneDrive uploaded to separate cloud instances for each computer or is that a common location?

    If I have two computers in which a file, named xyz123, but with different contents in each computer, are placed in OneDrive, what happens in the cloud? Does it contain just one xyz123 file, and that has the contents of the last one loaded, or does it somehow contain a separate image for each computer?

    Reply
    • You have one OneDrive account for your LOGIN, Microsoft Account. So all three computers would share the single cloud storage, and everything placed in that OneDrive would appear on all three computers. That’s kinda the point of tools like OneDrive. Smile

      Reply
    • They will all be the same, OneDrive is associated with your Microsoft account. I have two computers and keep my documents and picture folders in OneDrive. Both computers will show the same files. OneDrive will synchronize the files when I login on either.
      If I haven’t used one for a couple of days, it takes OneDrive a few moments to synchronize. I’ve setup OneDrive to keep copies of my files on each computer. Along with regular backups, my files reside on 2 separate computers and on the OneDrive server. Gives me 4 copies of my files: 1 copy on each of my computers, 1 copy on the OneDrive server (remote location) and 1 in my backups.
      Deleting a file on one machine will also delete the file in OneDrive. When signing onto my alternate machine, during the synchronization process OneDrive will delete the file on that machine. OneDrive will keep the deleted files in the recycle bin for thirty days if you access OneDrive through a browser.

      Reply
    • In the applications of OneDrive outlined in this article, both OneDrive and Dropbox are the the same. For my needs, the main difference is, with OneDrive, for a similar cost, you get an MS Office license for five users and one terabyte of OneDrive storage for each of those five users. That’s why I’ve switched from Dropbox to OneDrive.
      And you can get Office with license for one user plus one TB of OneDrive for only $69. Cheaper than Dropbox.
      Concerning the free versions, OneDrive gives you 5 GB, and Dropbox gives you only 2 GB. If one cloud sync isn’t enough, you can install OneDrive, Dropbox, and Google Drive on your computer.

      Reply
    • I don’t *think* so, but it might be worth running a quick experiment to confirm if you need to rely on that.

      I could see OneDrive interfering with PC-based backup software if it played with the archive bit.

      Reply
  2. Your description above is good as far as it goes. You did not mention that OneDrive, all by itself, decides to backup your “Desktop”, “Documents” and “Pictures” folders to the cloud, AND deletes these three folders off your local hard drive. So now these folders are not available if your internet is not connected. You have to go to “OneDrive”, “Account”, “Choose Folders” and remove them from being automatically synced. I Turned off the sync by removing said check marks, now I had the Desktop, Documents or Picture folders but they were all empty because OneDrive had backed them up on the cloud. I had to reconnect to OneDrive, copy everything to a different local folder on MY hard drive and then cause the syncing to stop for these three folders. Now it is working like you described.

    Reply
  3. Leo, great video, one comment: at time 8:33 in the video you state that the file was removed from My Documents. I believe you meant to say it was removed from the OneDrive folder on your PC (and then from the cloud after sync) but remained as an independent copy in the My Documents folder on your PC.

    Reply
  4. Having just read an article of yours about One Drive folders, that documents can be on the device’s ‘hard drive’, that files saved or moved to the One Drive on a device creates a second copy of that document, then THAT document is then uploaded to Microsoft servers, it seems like a waste of device hard drive resources. I realize you don’t work for Microsoft but doesn’t that seem a little redundant saving documents in a folder labeled One Drive on a device when the same document is already in a separate device hard drive folder not synced with One Drive and then One Drive uploads it to the cloud. Why save actual documents in a One Drive folder when they’re being saved to the cloud? It would make more sense to not save actual documents in the device One Drive folder and One Drive just listing ‘links’ to the documents in the cloud. Any reason you can think of why Microsoft wouldn’t do that to save disk space on personal devices?

    Reply
    • OneDrive does not duplicate files on your hard drive. This is part of the frustrating design. They change what your “Documents” folder means, and move your content in to the OneDrive Documents folder.

      Reply

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