Can’t find a file in macOS? Here’s what to do

It’s time to use the Terminal.

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Macworld reader Lon has a problem finding a file on his Mac. He needs to remove it to avoid a compatibility problem, and no amount of Spotlight searches nor browsing through folders can find it.

Spotlight should let you find nearly any file you create or store in macOS with ease, but it doesn’t always work that way. There’s a way to search comprehensively through your macOS drive (or drives) using the Terminal, but I think of it as a last resort, because it involves tricky syntax and can be slow. It also may match a lot of files you’re not interested in.

In the Terminal, a command called find can perform a comprehensive and deep search across everything, including system files and other stuff that we don’t need to interact with and macOS doesn’t readily expose to users. (Find is something I’ve used for decades, and it feels like a tool designed for a computer with a teletypewriter attached.)

mac911 terminal find command IDG

The Unix find command shows the full path of matching files, wherever they exist on disk.

In this example, let’s assume I’m looking for a file I know is named easysolutions.mdl, and I’m going to search on just easysolutions as the unique portion. The search pattern I show below is case independent, so uppercase and lowercase letters get matched regardless of what you specify. If you need to use a space, enclose the text in quotation marks, like "easy solutions".

  1. Launch Terminal, which you’ll find in Applications > Utilities.
  2. Switch to superuser, which requires an administrative account. You enter
    sudo su -
    and press Return, and then enter the administrative password. If it’s the first time you’ve used sudo, macOS also warns you about the dangers of having system super powers.
  3. You can include part or all of a file name in the search. Type exactly
    find / -name easysolutions -print
  4. This may take some time to process. It could be several minutes as macOS matches against every one of hundreds of thousands or millions of individual files. Each result appears as a separate entry.
  5. When you see the file appear, it will be proceeded by its full path name. Copy the path from the first / to the last / before the file name, like /Library/Application Support/BingoBongo/settings/preferences/config/
  6. Now in the Finder, choose Go > Go To Folder, and paste in that path.
  7. The folder will open. In some cases, you may have to authorize opening the folder, entering an administrative account name and password.
  8. If you’re sure the file you see is the one you want to delete, move, or interact with, you’re all set.

During this find operation, you will see entries you can ignore, like:

find: /path/name/here/filename.txt: Operation not permitted


find: /dev/fd/3: Not a directory

Even though you’re a superuser, the underlying Unix operation system and Apple’s specific modifications prohibit some kinds of operations.

Once you’re done, return to Terminal and press Control-D or type exit and press Return to leave superuser status. (The # at the far left will change to a $.)

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