A while back I showed you how to remotely access your Mac’s screen, but what if you need to retrieve a file off that remote machine? There are a couple of options, but many of them rely on having a specific type of hardware or software already installed. Here’s how to turn your Mac into a SFTP server that you can access from pretty much any computer or platform.

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Show Notes

As mentioned above, my screen sharing video will show you how to view your screen remotely if you need to do so.

You may need to forward the SSH service (which runs on port 22) to your local Mac in order to access it from outside your local network. If you’re using one of Apple’s AirPort routers, you can access these settings in the AirPort Utility, under Wireless -> Port Settings. Owners of other routers should consult their manual or refer to PortForward.com, which provides instructions for an extensive list of router brands and models.

Once you’ve got Remote Login enabled, you’ll need an SFTP-capable client. While I like the free Cyberduck which works on Mac and Windows, Transmit and Fetch are good choices on the Mac as well. You can also use the command line sftp tool on any Mac or UNIX-based machine. On iOS, I recommend GoodReader for iPad and iPhone which has SFTP support, alongside lots of other nifty features.

Setting up a dynamic DNS account, which you can do for free, is a great way to make it easier to remember what URL to connect to when you’re far away. Here’s my guide walking you through the process of setting up the service.

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Show transcript

Hi, I’m Macworld senior editor Dan Moren and I’m here with this week’s video tip. Previously, I showed you how you can remotely view your Mac’s screen, just in case you need to retrieve information from it while you’re someplace else. But what if you need a file that’s on your remote machine?

Fortunately, OS X makes it pretty easy to set up remote file-sharing. Starting in Lion, you can use iCloud’s Back to my Mac feature (previously only available to Mobile Me subscribers), to make your Macs appear in the Finder’s sidebar even when you’re far away.

However, Back to my Mac doesn’t work in every scenario—certain network hardware can be incompatible, and it relies on you having another Mac set up with the same iCloud account. But, you can also easily set up your Mac as a remote file server that can be accessed from most computers. The most versatile way to do so is to set up your Mac as an SFTP server.

First, fire up System Preferences and click on the Sharing pane. Though it might be tempting to click File Sharing, what you actually want to enable is Remote Login. This will activate the SSH system on your Mac, which also enables secure FTP, also known as SFTP.

Once you’ve turned Remote Login on, you’ll have the ability to allow access for all users or only for specific users. Note that the users here are the local user accounts on your machine, so if you don’t want to use your own account, you’ll need to add a separate one in System Preferences’ Users & Groups panel.

The Sharing preference will tell you at what address people can reach your computer, but depending on your setup that will probably only apply to those on the same local network as you. You may need to configure your router to forward the correct ports; you can also set up a dynamic DNS service, which will give you an easier URL to remember. For more on these, see the show notes.

After you’ve enabled SFTP, you can use almost any FTP client on any platform to access your Mac remotely. Just remember to select SFTP as the connection type, and enter your Mac’s remote address and the username and password for the account you’re using. You’ll see your files and folders laid out exactly as they are on your own computer, and you should be able to download them directly to your device.

This is Macworld senior editor Dan Moren. Thanks for watching.

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