Optimize your new iPhone experience with these expert setup tips

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iPhone Xs
Get your new iPhone set up the right way.
Photo: Apple

For many people, iPhone 12 will be radically different from previous iPhone models. Despite this, the iPhone setup process hasn’t changed much. However, while you might find yourself on familiar ground, there are still plenty of little things you really ought to do before you fire up your new phone for the first time (or pretty soon thereafter).

Let’s take a look at all the things you can do to get your iPhone set up exactly how you want it.

If you’re restoring from a backup of your old iPhone

Manual iCloud backups are easy.
Manual iCloud backups are easy.
Photo: Cult of Mac

With recent iPhones, you’ll be able to take advantage of Apple’s Automatic Setup feature. If you’re coming from an older iPhone without Face ID, you will find that Touch ID is gone. (That means you’ll only have to add one face, instead of several fingers, for the biometric security feature.)

If you have a brand-new iPhone 12, and you plan to restore it from a backup of your current iPhone (or iPad), then follow our companion guide: How to set up your new iPhone 12 or iPhone 12 Pro the right way

Set up iPhone 12 from scratch

iPhone setup: the basics

Re-download only the apps you need. This one is a must. We all have way too many apps on our iPhones that we just do not use. This is the big reason we do a clean setup. Tap into the App Store app and make sure you’re signed into your Apple account. (Tap the little icon of a head on the Updates panel to see which account you’re signed in as.) Only download apps you’ve used in the past six months. Or, be daring: Just download apps you use on a daily basis. We’re willing to bet it’ll be a very few.

Do Not Disturb is an essential setting for any iPhone.
Do Not Disturb is an essential setting for any iPhone.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Set up Do Not Disturb. If you’re like the rest of us, you’re constantly getting notifications, iMessages and other kinds of distractions on your iPhone. Set up Do Not Disturb in the Settings app (it’s in the second section down the page, just under Notifications and Control Center). You’ll want to schedule it for times when you need to not be bothered.

Toggle Scheduled to On and then set the times you want to keep Notifications out of your face. Try 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. if you can. Pro tip: Let some things through if there’s an emergency: Enable Allow Calls From your Favorites, and toggle Repeated Calls to On. You can also switch on Do Not Disturb at Bedtime, which mutes all alerts, and even hides them from the lock screen so you don’t get harassed when you pick up the phone to check the time.

Customize your iPhone setup

Go retro with your ringtone. Set your iPhone ringtone to something nobody else will have these days: Xylophone. Tap into Settings, then tap on Sounds. Swipe all the way to the bottom of the list and tap on Classic. You’ll go to a list of all the sounds from the original iPhone, including Xylophone, which sounds to me like something out of Law and Order. There’s nothing more distinctive. And since no one else uses this old and busted ringtone anymore, you’ll know which ringing iPhone is yours immediately.

What about your old ringtones? If you purchased them from iTunes, they’re easy to restore. Even better, why don’t you make your own ringtones using the free GarageBand app? You can start from scratch, or use any song in your music library.

Much easier to find when you have more than one device on the network.
Much easier to find when you have more than one device on the network.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Change your iPhone’s name. When you’re using connected services like Find My and you have several devices, you’ll want to change the name of your new iPhone so you can figure out which one to find. Tap into Settings > General. Once there, tap into About, then tap on Name, which usually defaults to something vague. Type in “iPhone 12” (0r whatever you want) to make sure you know what device you’re targeting over the network.

Set up Face ID

Face ID setup is much easier than Touch ID setup.
Face ID setup is much easier than Touch ID setup.
Photo: Apple

Face ID is much easier to use than Touch ID, and it’s also easier to set up. Instead of having to train your iPhone with your fingerprints, one by one, you just look into the camera and … that’s almost it. To set up Face ID on your iPhone, do the following when prompted during the initial iPhone setup. (If you want to start over with a phone you set up previously, head to Settings > Face ID & Passcode, and tap in your password to get started.)

Setting up Face ID is a little like the compass calibration your iPhone makes you do from time to time when you use the Maps app. Only instead of rolling the iPhone around, you roll your own head. You’ll need to do two scans, and then the iPhone will store your 3D head in its Secure Enclave, inaccessible to anything — even to iOS itself (despite what you might have read in some clickbait “news” stories).

Now, still in Settings > Face ID & Passcode , you can choose which features to use with Face ID, just like you used to do with Touch ID.

The <em>Cult of Mac</em> dress code makes it hard to use Face ID at work.
The Cult of Mac dress code makes it hard to use Face ID at work.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

If you regularly sport a second appearance — you’re a clown, a surgeon, an Elvis impersonator or something similar — then you also should set up an alternate appearance. Just tap the button in the Face ID settings to set this up.

Set up iPhone email

Add your email accounts and make sure you can see enough in the preview.
Add your email accounts and make sure you can see enough in the preview.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Add your email accounts. Whether you use Mail, Outlook or something like Sparrow, you’ll want to add your email accounts right away. For Apple’s Mail app, tap Settings > Accounts & Passwords, then tap Add Account. Choose your email provider (some folks still use Exchange), and follow the steps to enter all the info required.

See more email preview. Mail lets you see the content of a message without opening it. Might as well see as much of it as possible, right? Tap into Settings > Mail and tap on the Preview button. Change your settings to five lines and get more info from your emails without having to tap them open.

Add default email address and set swipe prefs here.
Add default email address and set swipe prefs here.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Set your default account. For some reason, our iOS Mail settings always seem to default to an account we never use, like iCloud. Tap Settings > Accounts & Passwords > Your mail account name, and then tap Account > Email. Once you reach the depths of this setting, you can tap in your preferred email address. This will then be used as your from address in new mails. (If there is only one address in here, you’re good to go.) This is also the place to add any other email addresses associated with your mail account.

Advanced iPhone email tweaks

Swipe to manage email. It’s much nicer to be able to swipe your emails away rather than clicking through and tapping on several buttons. Change Swipe Right to Archive, so that when you swipe that direction, you’ll be able to quickly save an email to your Archive. Or, if your email account supports swiping left as a default Delete action, it will offer a Trash icon.

Change Swipe Left to Mark as Read, which is a great way to just slam through your email messages as you get them. This only affects your built-in Mail app from Apple. Each third-party email client will do things differently.

Add an HTML signature. A nice email signature can really make you look professional, so be sure to add an HTML signature to your email. If you’ve already got one on the desktop, copy and paste the code into an email and forward to yourself. Then you can copy and paste it into the Mail app (or whichever email client you prefer, if it supports it). It can be as simple as text formatting tags or as complex as adding a logo from a webserver. You can use an iOS app to make one, too, but they tend to look pretty basic or clip-art-y.

Manage Calendars, iCloud, Messages and more

Make sure you're notified in useful ways iPhone setup.
Make sure you’re notified in useful ways.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Set default Calendar alert times. Calendar is great for alerting you to important events, but it’s not always at a convenient or useful time. Set the default timing on three types of events: Birthdays, Events and All-Day Events so you get reminders when they’re actually helpful. Tap into Settings > Calendars. Tap on Default Alert Times and set your Birthday reminders to one day before, your Events to 15 minutes before (or a time that makes more sense for your own brain), and All-Day Events to day of the event (9 a.m.). You’ll never miss an event again.

Background app refresh. You’ll want to be choosy about which apps you want to be able to run in the background, so take a look at the list in Settings > General > Background App Refresh. Toggle Background App Refresh to On, then toggle Off all the apps you don’t really need accessing anything in the background. When in doubt, toggle it to Off and see if you are slowed down by any apps that need to refresh when you launch them. Of course, you’ll want to enable Background Refresh for Cult of Mac Magazine!

iCloud everywhere

Keep your iPhone on longer, and back it all up to iCloud.
Keep your iPhone on longer, and back it all up to iCloud.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

iCloud is everything. There’s no doubt in our minds that iCloud is the simplest, best answer for keeping all your stuff backed up and safe. Tap into Settings > iCloud and be sure to sign in with your Apple ID. You can manage your storage in here, but be sure to enable everything you need right away so you’re never not backed up.

Enable iCloud Drive, Photos, Contacts, Reminders, Safari, Notes, News, Wallet, Backup, Keychain and Find My as soon as you get your iPhone unpacked. You can enable Mail and Calendars if you only use Apple’s apps and services; otherwise, you can keep those toggled to Off.

More iPhone setup tweaks: Great little extras

Lengthen your Auto-Lock. Let’s face it, we’re on our iPhones all the time. The default two minutes you get for the length of time your iPhone will stay on without turning off its display may keep your battery power higher longer, but it’s really not enough for anyone during normal use. Tap into Settings, General, Auto-Lock to set this to the maximum five minutes so you can stop tapping your screen all the time to keep it awake.

Get those regular text messages everywhere.
Get those regular text messages everywhere.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Get text messages everywhere. You can enable your Mac or iPad to get text messages from your iPhone, provided you’ve set up iMessage on them. (On any iOS device, go to Settings > Messages, then toggle iMessage to On. On a Mac, open the Messages app, then go to Preferences > iMessage and enable your account.)

Make sure your other device is nearby when you tap into Settings on your iPhone, then tap Messages > Text Message Forwarding. Any devices available will show up in the list. Toggle your Mac or iPad to On, and then check the target device for a code. Enter that code into your iPhone. Now all your devices will get not just iMessages, but also text messages from those not using iMessage.

Equalize your tunes. Turn on the EQ in your Music app so you can hear your favorite jams without having to hassle with a Bluetooth speaker. Launch Settings > Music. Once there, tap on EQ and set your iPhone to Late Night. This will give you a great volume boost for those times where you just want to blast The Clash while you make a quick dinner in the kitchen.

Secure your web experience

Use your own contact info to fill out web forms; manage credit cards. iPhone setup
Use your own contact info to fill out web forms and manage credit cards.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Safari setup. Surfing the web is full of forms to fill out. Adding your name, address, email and credit cards can take up a lot of your time. Be sure to head into Settings > Safari > AutoFill to set up your mobile browser the right way. First, toggle Use Contact Info to On. Then tap on My Info and pick the contact you want to use when you encounter form fields in Safari.

Toggle Credit Cards to On as well, so you can shop with abandon. (Just be sure to use only SSL-encrypted websites.) Pro tip: Manage which credit cards your iPhone will save with a tap on Credit Cards. You can add new cards in there, or delete ones that no longer work or that you don’t want to use via mobile Safari.

Safari also blocks cross-site tracking, aka those cookies that follow you around and let online stores place the same ads on every subsequent page you visit. This is on by default, so you don’t need to do anything. Just sit back and enjoy your newfound privacy.

Services to subscribe to during iPhone setup

Make sure your media is where you want it, when you want it.
Make sure your media is where you want it, when you want it.
Photo: Rob LeFebvre/Cult of Mac

Enable iCloud Photo Library. We love iCloud Photo Library. It keeps your photos and videos safely stored in the cloud and let you retrieve full-quality copies of your files in case you misplace (read: trash) your originals. iCloud Photo Library relies on your iCloud storage, so if you have a lot of photos, you’ll want to bump that up. Tap into Settings > [Your user name] > iCloud > Photos, then toggle iCloud Photo Library to On. (Note that this will turn off My Photo Stream. If you want both, you’ll need to re-toggle Photo Stream back to On.)

All set up? Time to accessorize

Now that you’ve got your iPhone set up and ready to use, you’ll need some accessories to take advantage of all of the amazing features, like wireless charging.

We rounded up the best wireless charging options for iPhones in case you didn’t pick up a fancy new MagSafe charger.

Note: This post was updated on October 23, 2020. Killian Bell contributed to this post.