Xcode Tutorial for Beginners

Learn how to use Xcode! Where to download it (options for PC), navigating Xcode and the menus, coding in Swift, debugging and building user interfaces
Written by

Chris C

Updated on

Apr 29 2024

Table of contents

    This guide will demystify Xcode for you and teach you what you need to know in order to start building apps!

    You’ll learn:

    • Where to download Xcode and how to set it up
    • The 5 main parts of the Xcode development environment and how to navigate around
    • How to code and build your user interface with Xcode
    • How to use the iOS simulator to test your app

    Chapter 1

    What is Xcode?
    (and what’s new in Xcode 11)

    What is Xcode?

    Xcode is an application that developers use to build apps for Apple’s various platforms such as iPhone, iPad, Macs, AppleTV and Apple Watch.

    Xcode Requirements

    Xcode is available for Macs only but there are alternative options for PC users. I also often get asked if you can run Xcode on iPad and unfortunately the answer is no.

    It requires macOS 10.14.4 or later and 7.6 GB of hard drive space. If you don’t meet the minimum requirements, you can try to update Xcode using this method (at your own risk).

    The latest version of Xcode is 11. If you want to check what version of Xcode you currently have, just launch it and in the welcome screen, you’ll see it clearly stated.

    Xcode requirements
    Xcode requirements

    What’s new in Xcode 11?

    Xcode 11 brings lots of new features such as support for Swift 5.1, Apple’s latest iteration of the Swift programming language, SDKs for iOS 13, tvOS 13, watchOS 6 and macOS Catalina 10.15.

    Xcode 11 welcome screen
    Xcode 11 welcome screen

    Each of those platforms has changed since their previous iteration and Xcode 11 allows you to build apps to utilize these new features.

    In terms of how Xcode itself has changed as an IDE (integrated development environment), there are many new features to make it easier for you to build software.

    I’ve made a video going through all the changes below:

    (Note: this is going to be most relevant for people who have used previous versions of Xcode before. If you’re a beginner, I recommend that you skip this section for now)

    Should you update to Xcode 11?

    The biggest incentive to update is the ability to work with the latest version of the Swift programming language as well as Apple’s new declarative UI framework, SwiftUI.

    Apple keeps a pretty tight leash on the App Store and over time, they raise the requirements on apps that are published. Eventually, you will have to update to Xcode 11 in order to build apps that use the latest versions of iOS.

    If your Mac is pretty new (2015+), there’s no disadvantage to updating and working with the latest technology.

    However, if your Mac is too old to handle the systems requirements of Xcode 11 and you’re just starting to learn iOS development, there’s no problem with using an older version of Xcode just to learn.

    Chapter 2

    Download Xcode And Install It

    The easiest way to download Xcode for free is through the Mac App Store. Click the link to go to the listing.

    You can also download it manually if you don’t have the Mac App Store. Just visit the Apple Developer page for Xcode.

    If you download it from the Mac App Store, then updating Xcode becomes really easy since you can just download and install the update through the store.

    Download the latest version of Xcode from the Mac App Store
    Download the latest version of Xcode from the Mac App Store

    Xcode Older Versions

    If you’re looking for older versions of Xcode, check out this page. You can download previous versions of Xcode as well as betas versions. You’re going to have to sign up for a free Apple ID if you don’t have one because the betas are only available for members of the Apple Developer Program.

    Download older versions of Xcode
    Download older versions of Xcode

    Xcode on Windows

    Unfortunately Xcode is only for Macs but if you’re using a PC, there are alternative ways to run Xcode on Windows. Check out my guide for options!

    Xcode Alternatives

    I highly recommend you use Xcode if at all possible. The reason is that when Apple announces new changes (like they did this year with SwiftUI), they build support for those new technologies directly into Xcode.

    AppCode IDE
    AppCode IDE

    Other third party IDEs have to play catch-up and it might not even be guaranteed that they’ll roll out support for the new changes from Apple at all!

    Having said that, if you still want to check out some alternatives to building iOS apps with Xcode, check out the following:

    Chapter 3

    How To Use Xcode

    Video walkthrough of the Xcode interface
    Xcode cheatsheet

    I have an awesome cheatsheet that I created for referencing all the keyboard shortcuts I use! It’ll come in handy as you learn to use Xcode for yourself. You can download the cheatsheet here.

    By the end of this chapter, you’ll have a great understanding of how to navigate the development environment and how to create your first Xcode project.

    Before we dive in, keep this Apple Documentation for Xcode handy.

    Let’s now look at the diagram below. If your interface looks different, make sure you have Xcode 11 and not an earlier version.

    Xcode 11 User Interface

    The reason this is a great diagram is because it lets me refer to these different sections of the interface and you can refer back to this diagram to see what I’m talking about!

    As you can see from the diagram, there are 5 major areas: the Navigator, Editor, Utility Area, Toolbar and Debug Area. We’ll cover each area in detail later but for now, let’s talk about general navigation of Xcode.

    Keep in mind that you can adjust the size of each of those panes by hovering your cursor over the boundaries of each area and dragging.

    You can also show and hide the various areas as needed via the “View” buttons in the upper right hand corner:

    Xcode toggle view buttons

    This can be helpful, for example, when you’re writing code and you don’t need the debugger area or the utility area. Then you can use the View buttons to hide those 2 panes to give your editor more visible space.

    Xcode editor area
    Xcode editor area

    Alright, let’s go through the Navigator area now!

    Chapter 4

    Find your files in the Navigator Area

    In this pane, there are a bunch of different navigators that you can switch between using the Navigator Selector Tab Bar (see screenshot below).

    Since there are so many (eight!), I’m only going to talk about the three most common ones you’ll use as a beginner: the Project, Search and Issue navigators.

    The Xcode Project Navigator

    The Project Navigator is where you’ll see all the files associated with your project. This is the default tab you’ll see when you create a brand new Xcode project.

    Xcode file navigator
    Xcode Project Navigator

    Organizing your files

    Within the Project Navigator, you can also create Groups to organize your files in. Think of them like folders. You can create a new Group and then drag your files into them to organize your project a little bit.

    Adding groups to Xcode
    Creating new groups to organize your Xcode project

    Creating and adding new files

    You can also right click on the Project Navigator and create new files or add existing files to your project. Or you can drag folders or files from your computer directly onto the Project Navigator and will popup a dialog asking how you want to add the files.

    Xcode new file dialog
    Xcode new file dialog

    Editing files

    If you click on a file in the Project Navigator, it will display the contents of that file in the Editor Area so that you can edit that file.

    The Xcode Search Navigator

    With the search navigator tab, you can easily look for pieces of text in your project.

    Xcode search navigator
    Xcode Search Navigator

    You’ll find yourself using this a lot when you’re looking for a specific property, method or variable and you can’t remember exactly where it is.

    One of my favorite Xcode shortcuts is cmd+shift+F. Hitting these keys is going to switch to the Search Navigator to perform a project-wide search. This really helps when you need to make a change in multiple places in a project.

    The Xcode Issue Navigator

    The issue navigator shows you all the problems with your app.

    Xcode issues navigator
    Xcode Issues Navigator

    When you build and compile your application to test, if there are some problems where Xcode can’t build your app, it will halt and show you the red colored errors in the issue navigator. You can click on an error and it will show you in the editor area which file and line it’s failing at.

    It will also show yellow Warnings in the issue navigator. Although resolving warnings is not necessary for building your app, they’re warnings that there may be potential issues.

    Similarly, when you’re building your user interface in Xcode, any errors will also show itself in the Issue Navigator.

    Chapter 5

    Write code in the Editor Area

    The editor area is where we’ll probably be spending most of our time! This is where all the coding, configuration and user interface building happens.

    The Editor Area changes depending on what file you have selected.

    If you have a Swift file selected, it’ll show you the code editor like below. However, if you have a user interface file (like a Storyboard) selected, then it’ll show you Interface Builder which is a visual editor for your user interface. Later in this article, I’ll talk more about Interface Builder.

    Let’s go through the Editor Area in the context of editing code files first.

    Writing Code

    Click on a Swift file from the Project Navigator and you’ll see something like this:

    Xcode editor area
    Xcode code editor area

    If you want to show line numbers in the gutter to the left of the editor, you can enable line numbers in the Xcode preferences. The Dark theme can also be enabled in the preferences.

    Aside from that, you write code in the big text editing area!

    Let’s go through some handy tips to make your code writing experience more enjoyable:

    Navigation and Breadcrumb

    There are these little back and forward arrows in the upper left corner of the editor area. Unfortunately these arrows aren’t labeled in the trusty Xcode interface diagram at the beginning of this article so I’ll call them “Xcode back and forward arrows” and show you an image of them here:

    Xcode breadcrumb and navigation bar
    Xcode breadcrumb and navigation bar

    These guys are actually pretty useful. They act like the back and forward buttons on your browser and they let you navigate to previously viewed files.

    Another way to quickly get to the file you need is to use the Jump Bar. Click any segment of the Breadcrumb and it’ll show you a menu of files or groups that you can select at that hierarchy level.

    The jump bar allows you to quickly drill down through your groups and find the file you need.

    Click a segment of the breadcrumb to access other files and folders
    Click a segment of the breadcrumb to access other files and folders

    If you click the tail segment of the jump bar (which is the current file you’re looking at), it will open up a menu showing you all the methods in the file to show give you an overview of what methods are in that file and to allow you to jump to a specific method.

    See an outline of the file and quickly jump to specific methods or sections
    See an outline of the file and quickly jump to specific methods or sections

    Finding and replacing within the file

    Just hit Command-F to bring up a search popup in the upper right corner that will look for whatever you type in within the current file. This is also a great way to jump to various areas of your file. You can also use this popup to do replacements within your file.

    Jumping to definitions

    If you’re looking at some code and you see a classname that you want to jump to the definition of, you can hold down Command and click the classname to quickly jump to that file.

    Right click a method or class to jump to its definition
    Right click a method or class to jump to its definition

    The breakpoint gutter

    A breakpoint is an Xcode debugging feature that lets you pause the execution of code at a specific line of code.

    The breakpoint gutter (where the line numbers are) is where you can click to set breakpoints at certain lines of code.

    When you set a breakpoint, you’ll see a blue indicator appear. To turn off a breakpoint, just click the blue indicator again and it will dim out.

    Xcode breakpoints
    Xcode breakpoints

    If you want to completely remove the breakpoint, you can click and drag the blue indicator off of the breakpoint gutter.

    To view a list of all the breakpoints that are set in your project, there’s a “breakpoint navigator” tab in the Navigator area.

    There’s also a global toggle to turn breakpoints on or off at the top of the editor area which we’ll see when we review the toolbar.

    Don’t worry if you can’t remember everything right now. We’ll be working with all of these areas and when you start coding, this will all become second nature to you after a week.

    Configuring Xcode project properties

    The root node of the project navigator is your Xcode project file (indicated by the blue icon). If you click that, the project properties will open in the editor area.

    Xcode project configuration and properties
    Xcode project configuration and properties

    You’ll visit the project properties screen quite a bit during the process of building your app. In this screen, you can configure things like:

    • Set the name of your app
    • The bundle identifier (your unique ID for the app)
    • Allow your app to work on multiple device orientations
    • Set the version of your app
    • Set the minimum required iOS version that your app can be install on
    • Add additional Apple frameworks and libraries
    • Indicate your code signing options which are mandatory for submitting your app to the App Store (if you have code signing errors, this is where you’d fix it!)
    • There’s a lot more!

    Chapter 6

    Build your user interface
    (Storyboards or SwiftUI)

    Xcode 11 brings two different ways of building the user interface (UI) for your app: Storyboards or SwiftUI.

    When you create a new Xcode project, you’ll see a dropdown to choose one of these two options:

    Xcode new project select a user interface option
    Xcode new project select a user interface option

    Storyboards are interfaces built with visual drag and drop in the Editor Area using Interface Builder.

    Xcode project using storyboards
    Xcode project using storyboards

    SwiftUI was released in late September 2019 as a new way to build user interfaces by writing code. Xcode 11 has a special Preview Canvas pane that shows your user interface change in real time as you write the code to modify your user interface.

    Should you use Storyboards or SwiftUI?

    As a beginner, most of the tutorials you’ll find on the internet right now will based around Storyboards and UIKit since SwiftUI was just released. Most of my tutorials are based on Storyboards because it was the easiest way for beginners to grasp.

    However, since Apple is moving forward with SwiftUI, it’s a better investment for the future but at the present moment, you’ll be limited with the amount of help and educational content you can find on it. I’ve written a SwiftUI tutorial so check that out if you want to move forward with that!

    In this Xcode tutorial however, I’ll show you how to work with both options inside the Xcode Editor Area.

    How to use Storyboards and Interface Builder

    If you chose Storyboards as your UI building option when you created the Xcode project, then your project will have a file called Main.Storyboard.

    Click this file and the Editor Area will change to the visual UI designer known as Interface Builder.

    Xcode interface builder
    Interface Builder

    The Object Library

    The Object Library is a pane where you can search for user interface elements from UIKit. These elements are things like buttons, sliders, labels and textfields.

    You can drag and drop them onto the view but in order to size and position them, you need to use the Auto Layout system.

    Adding Auto Layout constraints

    Auto Layout is a system to arrange and size the elements on the view based on what rules (known as “Constraints”) you add to the elements.

    For example, you might add a constraint saying that an element should be 20pt below the element above it. I have an introduction video to the Xcode Auto Layout system here:

    With enough constraints in place, the Auto Layout system has enough information to lay out the user interface. However, having too many constraints may result in conflicts where two or more constraints have opposing demands. In this case, Xcode will notify you of the error and you’ll have to fix it.

    To add constraints, use these buttons in the lower right corner of Interface Builder:

    Adding Auto Layout constraints in Xcode
    Adding Auto Layout constraints in Xcode

    The Document Outline

    The Document Outline is the skinny panel in between the Navigator Area and Editor Area. It only shows up when you’re looking at an Interface Builder file like the Storyboard.

    It’s a very important pane because it shows you the visual hierarchy of all the elements that you’ve added to the view. It also lists all of the Auto Layout constraints you’ve added.

    Document outline shows the elements in your view
    Document outline shows the elements in your view

    The visibility of the Document Outline can also be to toggled with this small button in the lower left corner of Interface Builder:

    This tiny button toggles the visibility of the document outline
    This tiny button toggles the visibility of the document outline

    Assistant Editor

    The Assistant Editor view which will show you the accompanying file to the file you’re currently looking at. It looks like a two pane view.

    If you’re working with Storyboards, the Assistant Editor will be helpful for connecting user interface elements from the Storyboard view to the code file so that you can manipulate those elements via code.

    For example, if you’re looking at a view in the Storyboard, the right pane will show you the linked class file for that view. Each pane also has independent jump bars, so you can also use that to change what file each pane is displaying.

    The Assistant Editor is useful for connecting elements in your storyboard to your code
    The Assistant Editor is useful for connecting elements in your storyboard to your code

    To open the Assistant Editor, you can go into the Editor menu and choose Assistant.

    Open the Assistant Editor
    Open the Assistant Editor

    For more practice using Storyboards, check out my beginner series on YouTube.

    How to use SwiftUI and the Preview Canvas

    If you created your Xcode project choosing SwiftUI for your user interface option then you won’t get a Main.Storyboard file but you’ll see a ContentView.swift file instead. This file is where you’ll build your first SwiftUI user interface.

    The ContentView.swift is where your UI code is
    The ContentView.swift is where your UI code is

    The Preview Canvas

    The canvas is a pane beside your code editor where you’ll see a live preview of your user interface.

    Xcode Preview Canvas
    The Xcode SwiftUI Preview Canvas

    If you don’t see it, go to the Editor menu and select Canvas. Note that it needs at least macOS 10.15 to run. If you don’t have that, then you can still launch your app in the iOS Simulator to see the UI of your app.

    Show the canvas pane in the Editor Area if it's hidden
    Show the canvas pane in the Editor Area if it’s hidden

    Using the Object Library for SwiftUI

    The Object Library shows you a list of SwiftUI elements you can add to your UI. You can search for what you need and then drag and drop it into the code editor and it’ll generate the code for you.

    SwiftUI Object Library
    The SwiftUI Object Library

    We’re not going to dive deeper into how to build UIs with SwiftUI since it’s a lot of code writing and this is a tutorial for how to use Xcode. If you’re interested in learning how to use SwiftUI, check out my SwiftUI tutorials on YouTube.

    Chapter 7

    Configure elements with the Utility Area

    The Xcode utility area as a variety of Inspectors to view details about the file, element or piece of code that you’re looking at.

    In this chapter, we’ll go through a few scenarios of how you’ll use the various inspectors.

    Xcode utility area
    Xcode Utility Area

    The File Inspector

    The File Inspector is the first tab in the Utility Area and it shows details about the current highlighted file in the File Navigator.

    Information such as the physical location of where the file is on your hard drive and other file properties:

    The Xcode file inspector
    The file inspector

    The Quick Help Inspector

    The Quick Help Inspector shows you documentation about the method, class or keyword that your typing cursor is currently on.

    This is very useful because you don’t have to launch the developer documentation if you’re looking for some quick information about how to use that piece of code.

    The quick help inspector
    The quick help inspector

    Suffice to say, this inspector will draw a blank unless your typing cursor is in the code editor over a valid method, class or keyword.

    The Attributes Inspector and Size Inspector

    These inspectors will only show up as tabs in the Utility Area when you’ve selected a user interface element in the Storyboard.

    These two inspectors allow you to customize the element.

    Xcode attributes inspector
    The Attributes Inspector
    The size inspector
    The Size Inspector

    Chapter 8

    Run and build your project using the Toolbar

    We’ve talked about some of the buttons on this tool bar already. Let’s start from the left.

    Xcode toolbar
    The Xcode Toolbar

    Building and running your Xcode project

    The left-most button is the run button. This will build and run your application and launch your app in the iOS Simulator. The button beside it will stop the execution of your application and return you to Xcode.

    If you click and hold down the Run button, you’ll get more options to run your app:

    Build and run your project
    Build and run your project

    Test to run your unit tests if you have them in your project.

    Profile to measure various aspects of your application such as performance, memory usage and more.

    Analyze to let Xcode analyze your code and check for potential leaks or bad practices.

    Selecting an iOS Simulator to test your app on

    The dropdown beside the Stop button indicates which build target you want to run (your can run an Apple Watch target too) and you can also choose if you want to run it under the iPhone or iPad simulators (or different version if you have them installed). The selection “iOS device” is to run your app on your device if you have it plugged in and properly provisioned (which needs a whole tutorial in itself!).

    Choose a target simulator to run your app on
    Choose a target simulator to run your app on

    The Xcode Status Bar

    The status bar will show you what Xcode is currently doing. You’ll also see little indicators for errors and warnings if they exist in your project.

    Xcode status bar
    Xcode status bar

    The Object Library and hiding/showing panes

    And finally in the far right side of the toolbar, we have the Library button (which we’ve talked about in the user interface section of this guide), Code Review button (used to review code changes if you’re using source control) and buttons to toggle various panels on or off.

    Xcode toggle view buttons

    Chapter 9

    Test and fix bugs with the Debug Console

    The debug area will show you console output and the state of various variables when you run your application.

    Xcode debug area

    You’ll be using this a lot while debugging your code and trying to figure out why things aren’t working out the way you expect them to!

    If you’d like to learn how to debug your code using Xcode debugger tools, check out my video tutorial here:

    Chapter 10

    Run your app on the iOS Simulator
    (or your own device)

    Xcode 11 comes bundled with a wonderful iOS Simulator for you to test your application on.

    In fact, you can use the iOS simulator for most of your development and then find a device to test on when you’re nearly done.

    You’ll find simulators for all of the latest Apple Devices.

    The iOS Simulator that comes with Xcode
    The iOS Simulator that comes with Xcode

    You can actually do a lot with the Xcode simulator including:

    • Device rotation
    • Simulating various GPS coordinates
    • Device shake
    • Simulating low memory scenarios

    If you want to test various network or low bandwidth conditions, there’s a tool called Charles Proxy that works brilliantly. I’ve written a Charles Proxy Tutorial that you can read.

    How do you install an app on an iOS device?

    I have a detailed guide on how to deploy your app on an iOS device.

    4 steps to install your app on a device:

    1. When you’re ready to test on a real device, you can simply plug it in via USB.
    2. You’ll see a prompt on your phone asking if you want to trust this computer. Tap on “Yes”.
    3. Xcode will ask if you want to use this device for development. Tap on “Yes”.
    4. Then you’ll see your device in the list of devices you can deploy your app on (it’ll sit above all the simulators)
    Deploying your app on your device
    Deploying your app on your device

    Chapter 11

    Learn to code with Xcode Playgrounds

    An Xcode Playground is a light weight editor for you to try out some code. It’s not a full-fledged Xcode project and it isn’t intended to be used for building an app.

    An Xcode playground
    An Xcode playground

    Playgrounds are great as a teaching tool, learning tool or for experimentation.

    Note: There’s also an educational iPad app that Apple released called “Swift Playgrounds“. Don’t confuse that with what we’re talking about here.

    To create a new Xcode Playground, go up to the menu File, New, then Playground.

    Start a new Xcode playground
    Start a new Xcode playground

    For more information on how to use Xcode Playgrounds, check out this WWDC video.

    Chapter 12

    Submit your app with the Xcode Organizer

    If you go up to the Window menu, you’ll find a menu item called “Organizer“.

    Opening the Xcode Organizer
    Opening the Xcode Organizer

    This brings up a separate window where you can do various activities related to your app in the App Store. We’ll go through these various activities in this chapter.

    Xcode Organizer
    The Xcode Organizer


    An archive is what Xcode calls a build of your app. When you’re ready to submit your app to the App Store, you create an archive which is all of your code and resource files into one neat little bundle.

    All of your archives are listed in the Archives section of the Organizer.

    Selecting one of your archives will give you an option to do various things with it, including sending it to the App Store. Check out my guide on how to submit your app using App Store Connect when you’re ready.

    Crashes, Energy, Metrics

    These three sections in the Organizer will show you various metrics collected from your app being used by real users.

    This information is really valuable to use for improving your app in regards to making it more robust (less crashing) and more efficient (using less resources)


    Where to go from here?

    In this Xcode tutorial, you’ve learned about the various parts of the IDE and how to use Xcode for writing code and building user interfaces.

    What’s Next?

    Ready to get your hands dirty in Xcode and build something? Want to learn Swift programming too?

    Here are some of my resources:

    Were you able to learn how to use Xcode with this tutorial?

    If this guide helped you, please let me know by leaving a quick comment below. I love hearing from my readers and I appreciate that you’re learning with me. Talk soon!

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