How to easily back up and restore your Mac with Time Machine on OS X Mavericks

Time Machine is OS X Mavericks's built-in backup software. It was introduced with OS X 10.5 Leopard and has been there ever since. If you've never used it, please start. Time Machine is absolutely the easiest way to back up your Mac, and is great for recovering individual files you've deleted or restoring your entire hard drive in the event of a catastrophe.

In this how to, I'm going to cover two aspects of using Time Machine — how to set it up initially and how to restore individual files. You can also use Time Machine to restore the entire contents of your hard drive with your OS X Recovery Partition.

To set up a Time Machine backup

Time Machine works with any hard disk connected to your computer using USB, FireWire or Thunderbolt.

  1. Select the Time Machine icon from the Menu.
  2. Select Open Time Machine Preferences...
  3. If Time Machine is off, set the slider to on.
  4. Select the disk you want to use as a Time Machine backup.
  5. Time Machine will set the hard drive up for backups and will automatically start the first backup within two minutes.

Time Machine backs up the entire contents of your hard disk, hourly, daily and weekly.

You don't need to use just a hard drive connected to your Mac, either. Time Machine also works on backup disks connected over a network, provided the disks support Apple File Protocol (AFP) file sharing. As long as the disk is available to your Mac, you can use it for a Time Machine backup.

Time Machine also works with Apple's Time Capsule. Time Capsule is a device connected to your local Wi-Fi network that provides network routing capabilities as well up to three terabytes of storage for local Time Machine backups. All the Macs on your local network can back up to a Time Capsule.

To restore individual files from a Time Machine backup

  1. Select the Time Machine icon from the Menu.
  2. Select Enter Time Machine.
  3. You'll be taken to the Time Machine window. Here you can navigate to the file or folder you need to retrieve.
  4. Locate the file or folder and click the Restore button.
  5. Time Machine will copy that file back to its original location on your hard disk.

To restore the complete contents of your hard drive from a Time Machine backup

  1. Power up your Mac and hold down the command and R keys to enter the Recovery Partition. Your Mac should boot to a screen that says OS X Utilities.
  2. Select Restore from Time Machine Backup and click Continue.
  3. Read the info on the Restore Your System page and click Continue.
  4. Select your Time Machine backup and click Continue.
  5. Select the most recent backup of your hard disk and click Continue. Your Mac will then restore the Time Machine backup; once it's done it will restart.

If you've had to replace your Mac's hard drive with a raw drive fresh out of the box, there's no recovery partition to restore from. But fear not, you can get the recovery rolling from the Time Machine backup disk itself. Just hold down the Option key when you start your Mac; you'll be able to select the Time Machine backup disk as your startup, instead.

I hope this helps you get rolling with Time Machine. If you're not using it, I strongly recommend you give Time Machine a try. You never know when you'll have to recover a file or a disk, and it's better to be safe than sorry.

Do you use Time Machine? If not, why? Let me know in the comments, I want to hear from you!

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Reader comments

How to easily back up and restore your Mac with Time Machine on OS X Mavericks

25 Comments

I used to use Time Machine with external hard drives but I'd keep forgetting to plug them into my laptops over night so that was a point of failure.

When the new AirPort Extreme Time Capsules came out last year I picked one up. That not only gave me 802.11ac speeds, but now all I have to do is make sure my laptops are plugged in and the backup takes care of itself.

I still do Super Duper! clones to external drives, but something that's transparent and just happens is a great secondary backup. That plus cloud and I'm almost non-paranoid!

What about backing up to a backup? I have an older iMac and I am using Time Machine to backup to an external. Is it beyond Time Machine's capabilities to duplicate my external to yet another external drive? I fear both my primary and external may fail soon.

I'd love to see an advanced/pro mode added (like with AirPort Utility) added to Time Machine. Getting a new machine, or recovering a failed/replaced component is a great time for Spring Cleaning. We all have apps that we downloaded that we never use, but left there because we forgot about it.

I'd love to be able to get the machine initially up and running, then be presented with a list if apps on my time machine that are not installed (as not everything is in the MAS)

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Peter & Rene,

I'm just coming over to mac (next computer is imac for my wife). We have used Ghost and Acronis True Image for years. I gather time machine is comparable that a total image can be created and recovered exactly as was before.

Also, if I use a time capsule on the wireless network, can a full and "raw" restore be done to the mac in case the hard drive needs to be replaced? Or does the backup in that scenario need to be physically attached to the computer? In the Windows world I always just put in a bootable disk and restored from a 2nd hard drive in the system or external via usb. Thanks much.... new to the world of Apple but loving it.

Just a note-- I do IT work (a lot of government and local business over the years and of course individuals). I'm now recommending all my customers go to mac... especially the home users who just want to do things on line. Those who have love it. It just works for them and easy backups are part of the reason for my recommendation.

Welcome to the fold!

Also, if I use a time capsule on the wireless network, can a full and "raw" restore be done to the mac in case the hard drive needs to be replaced

Yep!

Thanks Peter. This all works too well.... why doesn't everyone just switch to.... Seriously, I just did an IT job for someone who is on their 4th or 5th bargain Windows machine (maybe $400 each). They said it would have just been better to buy a $1300 iMac to begin with.

And, thanks for the welcome. I'm definitely old school (first computer in 1982) but so much enjoying the Apple world.

Yes, I use Time Machine with two backup external hard drives. The convenience is great. Now I'm considering using File Vault on the iMac and the backups after reading Rene's recent recommendation (say that 5 times really fast: "Rene's recent recommendation, Rene's recent recommendation...."!), but I'm still gun shy..... :-(

After having used Windows for almost 10 years, I decided to get my first mac, and I opted for the budget Mac mini at the time. After using OS X for a while, I came across Time Machine, but I thought it´d only work with a Time Capsule, so I never used it with the Mac mini. Time passed and I sold the Mac mini to buy a Macbook Air, and as the internal storage is quite short, I bought an external hard drive, and the first time I plugged it in... the Time Machine asked me if I would like to back up my data. I know, it sounds silly, but I never imagined I could have my stuff backed up so easily! With Windows it was always a pain in the ass to back up data with so much suffering, at least for me. But as Rene said, I still forget to plug the hard drive in, but that´s okay.

My local network in London consists of:
A mac mini 2012 with a 3TB external drive for my iTunes Library
A MBP 2011
A Time Capsule G2 (1TB) with another 3TB external drive for backup.

I use Time Machine to back up the Mac Mini and the MBP, I also have a script to rsync from the iTunes Library Drive to the Time Capsule 3TB backup drive every 12 hours.

I have the afp port opened up on my router too, pointing to the Time Capsule.
Two reasons:
I have a Mac Mini in another property 250 miles away. I Time Machine this machine to the Time Capsule in London over the internet. I can also get hold of any media files from the 3TB backup drive from the remote location too.
I also have iFiles on my IOS devices, it has afp support. I can send photos etc direct to the Time Capsule that way too, as well as download or stream media from the 3TB backup drive.

Time Machine is quick and simple to use. Classic Apple. Time Machine lacks scheduling capabilities and it can get annoying if it kicks in when you're in the middle of something intensive on your machine. The App Store does offer a Time Machine scheduler which seems to work reasonably well.

I also rely on Carbon Copy Cloner as it offers more options and seems quite robust.

One last comment. I had serious problems with Time Machine and a Drobo 2nd Gen FW attached storage array. Neither Apple nor Drobo could offer an explanation or solution. After researching a lot of forums I found I was far from the only one to experience this. Backup now occurs on a WD external drive.

I use Time Machine on my office iMac, my home iMac, and my Macbook Air, though less often with the latter, since I don't plug in my external drive to it very often. I use a program called "Unison" to synchronize my user files between the various machines. At the end of every workday, I fire up Unison from the office to propagate all my work from the day onto my home machine. Before going to bed, I do it from home to propagate any additional evening work back to my office machine. And when I turn on my laptop, I use Unison to synchronize it too. So having 3 redundant copies of most of my important files on my 3 machines, plus 3 additional copies on external drives being maintained by Time Machine, I think I'm good. (I had a hard drive crash on a Linux machine many years ago in my pre-Mac days and lost a few things, so I'm over-cautious now. I always said I'd get better about keeping backups if I ever had a crash.)

I just got a Time Capsule for home but haven't set it up yet; I figure that will be handy for the laptop. I was interested in RoCutler's comment about punching a hole in the router to let AFP through from outside; that hadn't occurred to me before. Though I'm paranoid, so if I do it, I'll probably tunnel AFP over SSH. Apparently password authentication for AFP is encrypted, but the actual data transfers are not? I'd want to encrypt everything.

I use it all the time and I rotate between different drives. One drive stays in my safe deposit box and I switch them out once a month or so. Perfect if something bad happens at my home.

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This is a great tool to use AND you can encrypt the backup so it does not fall into he hands of evil doers. You don't even notice when it's being backed up. I have read so many times when a hard drive needed to be replaced and they did not have a backup. Pictures lost forever. Make time to do it, especially with USB 3.0....it's fast. Thunderbolt...OMG fast. Also it looks cool when using it...lI ove showing it to my windows friends. I'm in and out of time machine faster then them booting up their windows laptop.

Restore the hard drive is like format the disk and install the SO? Just like windows or Linux?

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I bought a 2TB external drive as a target for Time Machine. I have a 1TB drive that is where my iTunes library is, and of course the hard disk in my Mac mini. Several times I have tried to start my first backup on Time Machine, and after running for several days, it fails because I have exceeded the 2TB capacity. This is despite the fact that my iTunes library is around 800GB and my used space on my Mac mini was around 400GB.

I noticed that, as my backup proceeds, the amount backed up and the amount still to be backed up both increased continuously, right up until the time I hit the 2TB limit, upon which the backup fails. Nothing else was running at the time. No applications were open. Nothing was writing to any disks (other than Time Machine to its target disk.

I can't understand what's happening. Why is the amount to be backed up increasing dynamically?

I use Time Machine to back up my iMac and MacBook Pro. Only problem is I use a 2TB Time Capsule which has limited space. I also do redundant manual backups of my music (83GB) and photos (99GB) to two external hard drives.

Rene/Peter - question: Can you add multiple USB drives to a time capsule with a USB hub? And how bad is it for the external drives to stay powered on all the time? I want to increase the available storage but don't want to risk losing things later.

Hey Peter

I'm upgrading form Lion to Mavricks and have heard that there are issues when trying to restore from TM once upgraded. Would you suggest doing a second, manual backup as a "just in case"?

I have Just Replaced some important data while setting up a Time machine using external 1TB Hard drive, So what can I do in order to get may Data back??pliz help
thax

Hi guys
I recently managed to delete all my contacts, Don't ask!!!.
I have a full time Machine backup and I have followed the information in previous posts on how to restore files and documents. The issue I have is that I get an error “Contacts.app” can’t be modified or deleted because it’s required by OS X. Is there some way around this OR is it operator error?

Thanks for the informative post. As I am a Mac newbie and don't find Disk Utility so user friendly and always used to use reliable tools for optimising Mac. But this post and superb comments really made my job so easy to use Mac in real manner.

I recently discovered that my iPhoto library no longer contains any of the dozens of photos of a particular category that had been stored there. I also noticed that some of the major classes such as FACES and PLACES are no longer functioning properly, but my first concern is about those dozens of known missing photos.
I once restored EVERYTHING (I thought) from my external hard drive under the supervision and guidance of an Apple advisor, but it now appears that the restoration was incomplete.

Is there a way to restore ALL of my iPhoto photos? I have a 27" iMac using OS 10.9.4. The iPhoto version is 9.5.1 (902.17)

I'm trying to restore a photo in my iPhoto which I have backup in the time machine. However, it doesn't seem to work like before whereby the iPhoto shows up and I can choose the photo to restore in OS X Mavericks. Please advise.

I had to replace my HD and do a backup from Time Machine.
Seems to have worked.
However, I got a larger HD (was 750 and now 1TB).
The external HD was 1TB that I partitioned with my old backup as well as TM.
TM now says it no longer has room.
Does this have anything to do with new HD size, or just that maybe I went over?
I have another 1TB external.
Should I just use that or will that be too small as well?
Thanks!