Do your SharePoint Online User Profile Pictures Sync from Active Directory? How SharePoint Online User Profiles Sync in Office 365 and Azure Active Directory work?

Building personalized and contextual user interfaces are very popular in the SharePoint Online. Many intranets have a personalized news or events widgets based on the employee user profile office or department properties. Have you ever surprised to see some of your active directory user profile properties especially profile photos are not synced to the SharePoint online user profile store? Have you ever wonder what happens when you sync your organization active directory and how some data gets synced to the SharePoint user profile store and some aren’t? If you wonder, read on.

As a SharePoint Online administrator, one of the first thing you should read is – Information about user profile synchronization in SharePoint Online, it provides a great overview of how user profile properties are synced from Active directory to the SharePoint online user profile store.

At a high level:

  • The on-premises active directory is synced to the Azure active directory either using Azure AD sync or customized PowerShell approach.
  • Once employee profiles are synced to the Azure AD, a background process loosely referred as an “AAD to SPO Sync” runs to populate all the global Office 365 tenants AAD profiles in the SPO directory. This SPO directory is nothing but active directory hosted on the Microsoft cloud servers to host all the SPO online profiles source data.
  • As many of you have realized, SharePoint 2016 introduced “AD Import” method to simplify the SharePoint user profile import process to import users profile data with minimal properties. To standardize the process and consistent approach, Microsoft is using AD import method to import global SPO Directory data into the Sharepoint user profile store.

SPO User Profile Sync Process

As you can imagine, if you are aware of the AD import limitations, one of the major issues is user profile photos won’t sync to the SharePoint user profiles. Here is the table I have put together to map various AD properties to AAD properties and SPO user profiles. Items in green get synced after few hours from on-premises active directory to Azure AAD to SPO AD to SPO user profile system. Items in yellow – user photos and cell phone won’t sync due to nature of AD import method for the SPO user profile sync.


Behind the scenes, exchange online and outlook is becoming center of gravity for the Office 365 profile pictures. Strange part here is Office 365 syncs exchange online photo for the given user whenever a user visits the Microsoft Delve first time. If you aren’t aware, Microsoft Delve’s user profile properties are stored in the SharePoint user profile store. If you ever manually update SharePoint user profile properties for a given user, it will reflect on the Microsoft Delve page.

If a user manually visits the Microsoft Delve home page, Office 365 background process triggers exchange online photos sync to the SharePoint user profiles. Unfortunately, asking all employees to visit Microsoft Delve at least one time to sync user profile photos isn’t a practical solution. If your custom SharePoint components require profile photos, you have no choice but upload them manually directly to the SharePoint user profile store.

There are more than dozens of articles on the internet to sync user profile photos and cell phone to the SharePoint online user profiles. As of fall 2017, my suggestion to use following two solutions. Both of these solutions worked for us recently. As usual, please plan to test this on the test tenant, prior to running it on the production tenant.

Reference Articles:      

Here are some additional references to your research. Some of them have really nice background information, which will help you understand the larger picture of this issue.

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