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Contacts 101: A Beginner's Guide to Contacts on OS X

Read Time: 8 mins

Contacts is a staple part of most Mac users' docks, and its premise is simple: the virtual address book holds together all your contact information for you to review and add to at any time, including in other apps when needed. There's a lot more, however, to this simple app than just that and in this tutorial I'll show you why Contacts is a powerful contacts management app.

1. Getting to Know the Contacts App

Contacts — known as Address Book prior to the release of Mountain Lion — is the stock system contacts app for OS X. Each person or company saved into your Contacts app is stored in a card, which consolidates a variety of information on them, including contact numbers, email addresses and custom fields (I'll examine this later in the tutorial).

When you add a new contact, you'll be able to input basic information like a name and company. If you want, you can even designate a card as that of a company, and forego a traditional name in lieu of a corporate one. This information forms a card.


Each card can be made up of as much or as little information as you want. When you've selected a field, you can use the dropdown menu next to the text input area to further define the content, such as switching between entering home/work addresses or choosing the name of the social network you're entering a username for.


The Contacts app holds together all these cards into one, navigable place, consolidating all the information you have on family, friends and other contacts.

2. Beyond the Basics

By default, Contacts provides you with a straightforward way of adding personal contacts using a default template. But wait, there's more!

Customising the Default Template

When you create a new contact, the card will be setup according to a default template. You can customise this by going to Contacts > Preferences and selecting the Template tab. You can use this to add and remove fields so if you don't find yourself commonly using the URL field but do commonly assign Twitter usernames, it becomes a lot easier.

Contacts templateContacts templateContacts template

Marking a Contact as a Company

You can also create contacts for a company, where you assign email address, phone numbers and other data to an organisation rather than a person.

Mark as a CompanyMark as a CompanyMark as a Company

Setting up a company contact is achieved in the same was as adding one for a person. All you have to do is tick the Company checkbox when editing the card or select Card > Mark as a Company afterwards.


Contacts has a built-in method of importing and exporting your contacts, allowing you to move your information around between apps, services and machines.

To import contacts in multiples (through supported filetypes such as *.abbu) or as an individual entry (through a vCard), head to File > Import, select the file that holds your contact data and hit Open.

Contacts importContacts importContacts import

To export your contacts, click File > Export > Contacts Archive, set a name for your file and hit Save. This'll save your entire contact list as an *.abbu file which you can then use and share, or convert to a *.csv file with an app such as AB2CSV. Alternatively, you can export a single contact as a vCard either by dragging the name of your contact out of the list and into Finder, or by clicking through File > Export > Export vCard.

3. Syncing

While the Contacts app can run independently of any cloud-based support — storing your contacts locally on your Mac itself — there's a number of options for syncing with services and other devices, such as iCloud.


Apple's own iCloud offers a simplistic way of keeping your contacts in sync, especially if your other mobile devices run iOS. Syncing with iCloud, you'll also get access to your contacts through iCloud.com's Contacts app.

To get started, head to the System Preferences app and navigate to the iCloud panel. From there, you'll be able to login to your Apple ID (if you haven't done so already) and then check the Contacts checkbox to enable syncing.


From there, iCloud syncing is pretty automatic and self-explanatory: add or change a contact on your Mac, have the changes pushed to your iOS devices and the web and vice versa.


The most popular alternative to iCloud is Google, and Contacts has a built-in option for syncing with that. Firstly, head to Contacts > Preferences and select the Accounts tab. Then, select the Synchronize with Google option.


You'll need to agree to a short disclaimer detailing what syncing with Google might do to your contacts and then, after that, enter the credentials for your Google account to get the process started. Immediately after entering your credentials, your contacts should be uploaded into Google's cloud and you'll see that any changes executed in Contacts will be instantly reflected in both Google's Contacts web app and any other devices you're syncing with through the cloud.


Other Accounts

iCloud and Google are the two "preferred" syncing options that Contacts has native, checkboxed options for. However, Contacts can be synced with any CalDAV, Exchange or LDAP server account. To set up one of these types, again head to the Accounts tab in Contacts > Preferences and instead choose the + button in the lower-left corner.


As long as you know your personal login credentials and any applicable server information, Contacts will guide you through authentication and begin syncing with your respective service.

Further Reading

iCloud, Google and third-party servers are three of the biggest options for syncing. However, there are more and if you'd like to check out a complete guide to syncing your contacts, Paula DuPont has a tutorial, Sync and Manage Your Contacts in Address Book, covering that in-depth.

4. Groups

There's a likelihood that not all your contacts are going to be from the same real-world group of people. You might have contacts for work, social life, family or something completely bizarre. Fortunately, Contacts accommodates this with the option to separate contact cards into different, custom groups.

Manual Groups

To create a new group, head to File > New Group. If you haven't already got one, the action will add a column to the left side of the Contacts app, listing all your groups (you can easily toggle whether this is viewable by using the three button-toggle at the bottom of the app). Here, you'll be able to rename your new group by double-clicking.

Manual GroupingManual GroupingManual Grouping

To add contacts to your new group, head back to All Contacts and drag-drop the names of your contacts into the group you want them to be placed on. It's that easy!

Smart Groups

Contacts also has a cool feature called Smart Groups. Similar to Smart Playlists in iTunes, Smart Groups create dynamic groups based on custom criteria that you define, such as company name or city. So, for example, you could create a Smart Group for your company and have Contacts continuously pull in all the cards you create that are assigned to that company.

Smart GroupSmart GroupSmart Group

To create a new Smart Group, first go to File > New Smart Group. A window will appear, and you'll be able to name your Smart Group as well as set the criteria. By default, your criteria will only have one field, but you can add more by clicking the plus button on the right.

Furthermore, you can choose whether all of your criteria or just any bit of it, allowing you to, for example, add multiple companies to pull in or multiple states.

Smart Group resultSmart Group resultSmart Group result

You can create multiple Smart Groups and they'll all be listed under a separate Smart Groups title in the groups column.

Distribution Lists

When you create a new group, it'll also be useable as a distribution list in other apps like Mail. You don't have to do anything to get this setup and, once you've create a group using either of the aforementioned methods, you can jump right into Mail and compose a new email using your group as a mailing list.

Mail GroupMail GroupMail Group

There may be times, however, when you have multiple pieces of contact information for a single contact. Back in the Contacts app, heading to Edit > Edit Distribution List will bring up a list of your groups, the contacts within them and their email, phone number and address. By clicking on a contact's email/phone/address will turn it bold and select that entry for use in the distribution list. So, when you come to send an email using a distribution list, your contact will receive it through whatever address is bold.

5. Sharing

When the time comes that you want to share some contact information, you'll be happy to know that Contacts has some built-in sharing options that make the process incredibly straightforward.

From the bottom of any contact card, selecting the action button will allow you to export a vCard (the standard format for digital contact cards) and easily send it through either email, Messages or OS X's AirDrop feature.


If you'd prefer to export your vCard manually to use with another app or share through another means, clicking on the contact name in your list and then drag-dropping the contact onto your desktop or into a Finder window will create a copy for your use.

vCard ExportvCard ExportvCard Export

Customising vCards

You can customise your vCards to a slight extent under the vCard tab in Contacts > Preferences. In this panel, you can chose the vCard version if there are compatibility issues with the app you want to use the card in, in addition to choosing whether notes and photos are included in the exported card.

You're Now a Contacts Whiz!

In this tutorial I've examined many features that Contacts has to offer. I've shown how you can get your contacts - whether new or imported - into the Contacts app and how you customize the contact cards to your particular requirements.

Do you have any neat tips or tricks for working with Contacts? Let us know below!

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