A Time Machine Guide to Back up and Restore your Mac

By Connie | Posted to Home > Howto, updated on September 17th, 2021

Summary: This post will walk you through the steps to set up Mac Time Machine, create Time Machine backups, and restore Mac from Time Machine.

backup and restore Time Machine

The best way to avoid data loss is to keep your Mac backed up so that you have a place to restore your Mac after an accidental deletion or system crash.

Time Machine is Apple's solution for you. It is reliable and easy to use, a solid choice for the majority of Mac users. Here, you will know how to use Time Machine to back up and restore your Mac.

What is Time Machine on Mac?

Time Machine is a built-in app in macOS to backup everything on your Mac by creating images or snapshots so that you can restore a specific file or the whole system when needed.

When Mac Time Machine is on, it saves hourly backups for the past day, and daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for the data older than a month.

If the drive you use for Time Machine backups is full, Time Machine will delete the oldest backups to make space.

How to backup Mac with Time Machine?

Before using Time Machine, you should prepare a new or clean external hard drive of 2 to 4 times the size of the data you need to backup. If you are using an old disk with a Windows file system such as NTFS, exFAT, or FAT32, backup the important data first, then format the external hard drive on Mac with Disk Utility.

  1. If you are running macOS Catalina or earlier, choose Mac OS Extended (Journaled) as the format.
  2. If you are running macOS Big Sur or later, choose APFS as the format.

Time Machine will use up all the space on the drive to store the backups by default. If you need the drive to store other files, you can add a partition to it.

Drives you can use with Time Machine on Mac are as follows:

  1. An external hard drive directly connected to a USB or Thunderbolt port on your Mac
  2. Apple Time Capsule
  3. A NAS ( network-attached storage) device that supports the SMB (Server message block) protocol

How to set up Time Machine on Mac:

Step 1: Connect an external hard drive such as SSD, HDD, USB flash drive, etc., to your Mac.

Step 2: Click the Apple logo > System Preferences, then select the Time Machine app.

Time Machine app in System Preferences

Step 3: Tape on Select Disk... to choose a disk for Time Machine backups.

Select the disk you intend to use, tick Encrypt backups if you want to protect private information, then click Use Disk.

Choose Time Machine backup disk

On macOS Catalina and earlier, you will be prompted to erase the disk if it is not formatted with macOS Extended (Journaled). You can click Erase to reformat the drive.

For Big Sur, if your drive doesn't have files stored, macOS will convert your drive into APFS automatically. If you selected Encrypt backups, you also need to erase the drive. Click Erase, enter your password and its hint in case you forget, then tape on Encrypt Disk.

Note: HFS+ Time Machine backups can still be used in Big Sur, but you can't convert HFS+ to APFS without formatting it.

Time Machine erase the backup disk

Once you select the disk, Time Machine will prepare the disk and change it into a Time Machine backup disk named like Backups of Jenny's MacBook Air.

Step 4: Check the Back Up Automatically box.

Except for macOS Big Sur, you need to tick the box next to Back Up Automatically to enable automatic backups. To make Time Machine easier to access in the future, check Show Time Machine in menu bar.

Time machine Option to exclude files

Step 5: Exclude unnecessary data to speed up Time Machine backup.

Click Option to exclude some items. Click the Add ( + ) in the pop-up window to navigate to the files you need to exclude, then click Exclude. If you need to remove an item from the list, select it and click the Delete button ( - ).

Add and Delete button of Time Machine

Step 6: Wait for Time Machine to backup automatically or manually back up MacBook.

When you are done setting up Time Machine, you can find the time of the Next Backup on the window. You can wait for it to backup MacBook to the external hard drive itself.

Or starting manually backup by clicking the Time machine icon on the top-right menu bar and select Back Up Now.

Manually backup Time Machine

The initial backup is a full backup, so it takes the longest, depending on the amount of data on your drive. After that, it performs incremental backups for new or changed files.

Note: Don't put your Mac to sleep while Time Machine is running.

How to restore files from Time Machine?

If you deleted files by mistake, follow the steps below to get them back.

Step 1: Connect your Mac with the Time Machine backup drive. Enter password if required.

Step 2: Open a window of the folder where your file was stored. (optional)

Step 3: Click the Time Machine icon at the menu bar > Enter Time Machine.

Step 4: Scroll over to find the specific file you need to recover from the Time machine or use the Up/Down arrows.

scroll up and down to restore files

Step 5: Select the desired file and press Space Bar to preview it.

Step 6: Click Restore. You can check the file at its original location.

How to restore Mac from Time Machine?

If your Mac breaks down, or you need to revert to an earlier version of macOS, here is how to restore your Mac from Time Machine backups. Ensure your backup disk is connected to your Mac, then follow the steps below:

Step1: Boot your Mac into Mac Recovery mode.

Restart your Mac and immediately hold Command + R keys until the Apple logo appears.

Mac Recovery Mode

Step 2: Choose Restore from Time machine from the Utilities window and click Continue.

Restore from Time Machine in macOS Recovery

Step 3: Choose the Time Machine backup disk, then click Continue.

Enter the password if the drive is encrypted.

Step 4: Select a backup by date, then click Continue.

Step 5: Select the Mac hard disk to receive the backup content and click Restore.

Step 6: Restart your Mac.

How to restore files from Time Machine to another Mac?

Plug the external drive with Time Machine backups to your Mac. If you use Airport Time Capsule, make sure it connects to the same network as your Mac. Here is how to restore files from Time Machine to another Mac:

Step 1: Select "From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk" when signing into your new Mac, and click Continue.

start new Mac with Time Machine backup

Step 2: Select your backup disk and tap on Continue.

Step 3: Choose the documents you want to restore to the new Mac, then click Continue and follow the on-screen instruction to finish restoration.

If you have finished setting up, you can use Migration Assistant to transfer all your files, apps, and preferences from the old Mac to the new one.

Step1: click Launchpad > Other folder > Migration Assistant > Continue, then choose to transfer From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk.

Step2: Select the Time Machine backup disk you want to migrate from and click Contine.

restore with Time machine in Migration Assistant

Step 3: Select the Time Machine backup you want to use and click Contine.

Step 4: Customize the information you need to restore from the backup by deselecting the unwanted parts.

FAQ about how to use Time Machine on Mac

Should I use Time Machine on Mac?

Yes, you should use Time Machine as the primary backup tool on Mac because it is free, easy-to-use and allows you to restore files and operating systems when required. It's designed to run in the background, so it won't interfere with your regular operation.

Is Time Machine the best backup for Mac?

Except for that Time Machine backups don't record differences inside a file. It is the best free tool and the easiest solution to backup your whole Mac disk periodically. You can use it to backup everything on your mac, such as operating systems, apps, photos, etc.

How do I know if Time Machine is working?

On the Time Machine window, you will see a progress bar and information indicates the size of data it is working on and its remaining time. When the Time Machine backup is complete, you will receive a notification. You can also click on the Time Machine icon on the top-right menu bar to see your last backup time like "Latest Backup to Jenny's backup: September 15, 2021."