The Simple Way to ZIP and UNZIP Files on a Mac

How do you open a zip file on a Mac? There are several methods for creating archives, including in-build utility, Terminal-based options, and 3rd-party services.

The  macOS Archive Utility, installed with macOS and stored in Applications>Utilities,  is good enough for quickly zipping and unzipping files. If all you need to do is unzip archives sent to you by co-workers or to zip up a few files every now and again to upload to Dropbox or an FTP server, Archive Utility will do the job perfectly well. However, if you need to more than that, like preview the contents of an archive, merge two archives, or split a big one you’ll need to use a specialist archiving tool. Fortunately, there are several available for macOS.

Common way to compress or uncompress files and folders on macOS

Before we get talk about specialist tools, here’s the common way to zip and unzip files and folders on a Mac with macOS’ own Archive Utility (yes, file compression is built-in to the Mac OS)

Zipping files and folders with Archive Utility:

  1. If the files aren’t already in a folder, put them in one and give it a descriptive name
  2. Right-click on the folder and choose ‘Compress x’ where ‘x’ is the name of the folder
  3. There is no step 3. You now have a zipped folder!

The same way is for single file compression.

Compressing multiple items works just about the same as zipping a single file or folder. The only differences are in the names of the items that appear in the pop-up menu, and the name of the zip file that is created. 

To zip multiple files:

  1. Open the folder with files or folders you want to zip up
  2. Select the items you want to include in the zip file and right-click on any one of the items to select Compress from the pop-up menu. This time, the word Compress will be followed by the number of items you have selected, such as Compress 10 Items. 

When the compression is finished, the compressed items will be stored in a file called Archive.zip, which will be located in the same folder as the original items.

Once again, a progress bar will display. When the compression is finished, the items will be stored in a file called Archive.zip, which will be located in the same folder as the original items.

To unzip files:

  1. Right-click on the zip archive
  2. Choose “Open with” and then select Archive Utility
  3. The archive will be unzipped and folder available to use

Best compression tips for macOS

So far, so good. However, Archive Utility won’t, for example, allow you to password-protect zipped archives, nor does it support a lot of file types. If you want to open RAR archives, you’ll need to use something else. So what tool should you use? There are two we’d recommend.

BetterZip can do everything Archive Utility can do but also has lots of high-end features that you’ll find very useful if you work with zip archives regularly. It allows you to add comments to archives, delete files from archives without unzipping them, and is fully AppleScriptable, so you can integrate it into your workflows. BetterZip will also suggest passwords for you to use to encrypt archives, and you can tell it to automatically trash archives once you’ve unzipped them.

BetterZip isn’t the only tool that allows you to zip and unzip files on a Mac, of course. Archiver, also available in Setapp, is another great app for compressing and extracting files. If you are uncomfortable with BetterZip’s detail-heavy interface and would rather use a tool that has a simpler, more minimalist user interface, you should try Archiver. It’s sort of midway between Archive Utility and BetterZip in terms of features, but has a friendlier interface than the latter.

How to create an encrypted archive

Apple's Archive Utility doesn't provide ZIP archives' encryption with a password. However, there is a way to do this if needed.

To place a file or folder into an encrypted ZIP file, you'll need to use the Terminal and perform the following actions:

  1. Type the following command, followed by a single space: zip -e ~/Desktop/Archive.zip
  2. Drag the folder containing your desired files to the Terminal window, so the command looks like the following: zip -e ~/Desktop/Archive.zip /path-to-folder
  3. Press Enter and supply the password to use for the archive, and the encrypted file will appear on your desktop.

This method seems a bit complicated and not very convenient, so if you plan on encrypting files regularly, your best bet is to use alternative tools.

One of the best features of BetterZip is the ability to encrypt archives when you create them: 

  1. To set it up, open Preferences and click on the Presets tab. 
  2. With Clean and Zip (the option you’ll probably use most often) selected in the Q and T columns, go to the Encryption method menu and select ‘Strong.’
  3. If you want to use the same password for every archive, type it in the box beneath. If you’d rather choose a password when you create an archive, leave the box blank.  
  4. Close Preferences.

Unlike BetterZip, in Archiver you don’t need to set up encryption before you start: 

  1. So go ahead and drop a file or folder onto Archiver’s main window. In the next window, choose what type of archive you want to create, then give it a name. 
  2. Click Encrypt, if you want to encrypt it, and choose the level of encryption. Then press Archive.

Look inside the archive without extraction

You can preview each file and read the contents of a zipped file without extraction by clicking on it and then pressing the spacebar to invoke Quick Look via BetterZip app:

  1. In the Finder, right-click on the archive you want to look inside. 
  2. Select Quick Look from the drop down menu. The app will take over and show you a list of the files in the archive, with details of their names, types, and sizes. 
  3. If you want to see more, choose Open with BetterZip. The archive will then open and you can preview the contents of each file, all without extracting it.

Add additional files to an archive

You can add items into existing archive with BetterZip:

  1. Click the Add button in the toolbar and navigate to the file or files you want to add. 
  2. When you’ve selected one or more files (Command-click for multiple files), click Add. The new files will be added to the existing files in the archive.  
  3. Click and hold on Save and choose Clean and Zip to create a new zipped archive consisting of the existing files and the ones you just added.

How to split an archive

You need to send an email but the attachment is too big? You can easily split zipped archive into smaller zip files with Archiver app and combine files in just a few clicks. Just click the Split icon and follow steps.

Extract separate file from an archive

  1. In the Finder, right-click on the archive and select ‘Open in BetterZip’ or drag the archive onto BetterZip’s main window. 
  2. Select the file or files you want to extract. In the toolbar, click and hold on Extract and then choose ‘Extract to’ and navigate to where you want the files to be saved. Or right-click on the file and choose ‘Extract Selected...’ 

Here is an overview of  what else BetterZip has:

That’s it. Yes, it’s really that easy.

Once you’ve extracted archives, you might find you have a rather cluttered Desktop – if that’s where you choose to extract them to. Declutter, available in Setapp, will fix that for you. It will organize your Mac's desktop for you and make it neat, allowing you to create color-coded smart folders. It can even do it automatically, following rules you set up. If you need to rename files you’ve extracted in large batches, turn to Renamer, also available in Setapp, which makes it really easy to do just that.

Sign up to Setapp and try them for free.

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