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From the author of How Does AirDrop Work?

How Does AirDrop Work?

To use AirDrop, both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi must be turned on. AirDrop uses Bluetooth to locate other AirDrop-enabled devices nearby and uses the faster Wi-Fi network to transfer the files. Because AirDrop uses Bluetooth, it adheres to a common Bluetooth range, which requires devices to be within 33 feet/10 meters of each other.

When AirDrop is enabled, it triggers Bluetooth to look for other AirDrop-enabled iOS devices that are in the area. This process is similar to pairing your iPhone with your car’s Bluetooth system. The devices “advertise” that they are open for business, and if they are within range of each other, then they start the connection process. Once the connection is made, a simple device-to-device Wi-Fi link, called Wi-Fi Direct, is created between the two. The Wi-Fi Direct link can be created even if you are in the middle of nowhere, without a Wi-Fi network. So, you get the fast file transfer speed of Wi-Fi without a router or an internet connection.

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