Mac

How to Delete Old Time Machine Backups on Your Mac

Dan Price Updated 03-02-2020

The Time Machine tool on macOS is a great way to create backups of your data. Because it’s a native Apple tool, it integrates seamlessly with the operating system. You can set it and forget about it, safe in the knowledge that Time Machine can restore your system in a few minutes if something goes awry.

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However, you can’t always forget about it. Sometimes you might see an error message that says your backup is too large for the backup disk.

What can you do? You’ll need to delete some old Time Machine backups to make space for new ones. There is only one correct method for doing so: to use the Time Machine app. Let’s see how to delete backups on your Mac.

How to Delete Time Machine Backups on Your Mac

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The only Apple-approved way to remove Time Machine backups is to manage them through the Time Machine app. To delete old backups using Time Machine, use the following instructions:

  1. Connect your backup drive to your computer.
  2. Click on the Time Machine icon in the Menu Bar and select Enter Time Machine.
    1. If you don’t see the icon, navigate to System Preferences > Time Machine and check the Show Time Machine in menu bar box.
  3. Scroll through your backups and select the one you want to delete.
  4. Click on the Gear icon in the Finder window.
  5. Select Delete Backup. If you want to delete all backups of a selected file, choose Delete all backups of X.
  6. Agree with the on-screen confirmation.
  7. Enter your password.

(Note: If you cannot see the gear icon, make sure Finder is active and visit View > Customize Toolbar on the menu bar to add it.)

Warning: Do Not Use Finder to Delete Time Machine Backups

That’s all you have to do when you need to manually erase backups. In normal cases, Time Machine should handle this for you, so it’s not something you need to do often.

In theory, you can also use Finder to delete old backups. However, you should never do this due to macOS’s System Integrity Protection (SIP). This features prevents you (or software) from damaging important parts of the operating system. Because Time Machine contains copies of system files, the SIP feature blocks attempts to delete its contents.

If you have accidentally deleted a backup by sending it to the Trash, read our complete guide on what to do when Time Machine backups are stuck in the Trash What to Do When Time Machine Backups Are Stuck in Trash Do you have an old Time Machine backup stuck in the Trash on your Mac? Here's how to fix it and properly delete the backup. Read More .

Explore more about: Data Backup, Mac Tips, Time Machine, Troubleshooting.

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  1. Wilson S St. Leroy
    October 24, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    i agree with the last comment it won't remove any data really, it take days to do this and the trash folder is only fiilled with removed backups when the ext. HD is plugged in...

  2. Cobie
    January 6, 2019 at 12:44 pm

    WARNING: DO NOT DELETE TIME MACHINE BACKUPS THROUGH FINDER

    This will not only take days to complete, but is unlikely to even work at all and leave gigabytes of undeletable data in your trash. Always remove old backups via the built-in time machine method or via the terminal if you know how to do that.

    • Peter
      January 20, 2019 at 4:51 pm

      Where is the gear icon supposed to be and what to do if I don't see it ? :-( Thank you

  3. Richard
    November 24, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    Hi - thanks for this. I found Time Machine far too "non-intuitive" to use to delete back-ups (like Carrie I didn't see the "gear icon" and am just presented with multiple windows and no obvious way of selecting or deleting) so opted for the Finder method. Question - why did Time Machine fill up my external HD - it's supposed to delete old back-ups to allow space for the new one isn't it? Anyway, I have back-ups from 2016, 2017 and much of 2018 to delete! 2016 seemed to work and I could empty the trash. 2017 was counting up to over 1m items and is now counting down as it empties. In both cases it pauses every now and then to tell me it can't complete an operation because something is "in use" including Library, System, Macintosh HD, Core Service and - I've just selected Skip each time and let it continue - is this the right thing to do? Hard to operate a computer without using the HD I would have thought!

  4. Carrie
    November 10, 2018 at 4:04 am

    Option 1 does not work. When I enter the time machine app there is no gear icon to select. Why does Apple make it so hard to manage our own storage? Grrrr.

    • Peter
      January 20, 2019 at 4:50 pm

      Hi, did you find it somewhere? I haven't got it either. Unfortunatelly I don't see the backups folder as well, so NONE of those two options work for me :-(

  5. s
    May 3, 2018 at 7:08 am

    I used "method2" and now Finder won't let me empty Trash. I now have 2Tb of backups in Trash and no way to get rid of it...

    • tomas
      February 28, 2019 at 3:30 pm

      hey have you found any solutions for this? I just ran into the same problem.

      • Eric
        September 21, 2019 at 7:28 pm

        Hello Tomas, et al.

        To clarify confusion from this disastrous article's instructions, I will list three important facts .

        1) Time Machine manages a Database. Deleting folders via Finder corrupts this carefully managed Database. Time Machine is designed to deal with system files correctly. Finder is not designed to manage a database or deal with system files. Modifying time machines's database manually with finder can cause many problems.

        2) Time Machine uses "Hard Links." A hard link looks and acts like a separate copy of a file when you examine it in the Finder. However, the hard link means that the file exists uniquely just once on a drive. Every instance of the file you see is really a link to that one unique version. Deleting those old folders manually may delete the only real copy of your file as well.

        3) The Gear is an item located on Finder's Tool Bar. It is titled "Action" and lists available actions for the current folder. If the gear icon or the word "Action" it is not present, then it can be added by right mouse clicking on Finder's Toolbar and choosing the "Customize Toolbar" option. When a previous date is selected within Time Machine, the "Action" menu lists a "Delete Backup" option.

        Thank you for reading this brief clarification.
        Best Regards,

        Eric