3 Ways to Restore Data From Time Machine Backups

Dan Helyer Updated 03-12-2019

It’s really easy to set up Time Machine, the backup software that comes with every Mac. You just have to point it toward your external hard drive and let it do its work. But how do you restore data from Time Machine backups when you need to?


There are three ways to do this:

  1. Use the Time Machine app to restore particular files.
  2. Revert your entire Mac to a previous backup with macOS Recovery.
  3. Migrate files or user accounts to a different Mac using Migration Assistant.

Here’s a rundown of all these methods, including what to do if your Mac spends a long time searching for Time Machine backups.

1. How to Use Time Machine to Restore Particular Files

Most of the time, you only need to restore a single file from Time Machine. Perhaps you deleted your Time Machine backup How to Delete Old Time Machine Backups on Your Mac Here's how to delete Time Machine backups on your Mac the right way to avoid any problems in the future. Read More by mistake, or need to revert a document to the way it was two weeks ago.

If you use Time Machine to create regular backups How to Use Time Machine to Back Up Your Mac Time Machine is your Mac's built-in utility for backing up your computer. We'll show you how to set up Time Machine, make backups, and more. Read More , you can fix both of these problems using the Time Machine app.

Open the document you want to restore, or go to the location where you deleted it in Finder. Then open Time Machine from the Applications folder, using Spotlight to search for it, or by selecting Enter Time Machine from the menu bar.


Enter Time Machine option from the menu bar in macOS

When you open Time Machine, it shows all the previous versions of your active document. Go back in time using the up and down arrows, or by selecting a date from the right side of the screen.

Time Machine app showing Home folder in Finder

Choose the file you want to restore and press Space to preview it. When you’re certain it’s the correct version, click Restore to bring the file back into your current version of macOS.


2. How to Restore Everything From a Time Machine Backup

macOS Utilities window with Restore from Time Machine Backup option

When necessary, you can restore every file, user account, and setting on your Mac from a previous Time Machine backup. This is useful if something goes wrong in macOS that you don’t know how to fix, or if you want to move all your data to a new Mac.

To restore an entire Time Machine backup, you need to boot into macOS Recovery. This is a hidden partition that you can use to:

  • Reinstall macOS
  • Run Disk Utility, to erase or repair your hard disk
  • Get help online using Safari
  • Restore your Mac using a Time Machine backup.

Obviously, we’re interested in the forth option here. Before we can use it, we need to boot into macOS Recovery.


How to Boot Into macOS Recovery

Shut down your Mac completely, then turn it on again while holding the Cmd + R keys. Keep holding both keys until you see a startup screen, which should be followed by the macOS Utilities window.

If this doesn’t work, try booting macOS internet Recovery instead by holding Cmd + Option + R while your Mac turns on. A spinning globe should appear while your Mac downloads macOS Recovery from the web.

Spinning globe from macOS Internet Recovery

Older Macs, running Mac OS X Snow Leopard or earlier, might need to boot into the Restore partition instead of macOS Recovery. Shut down your Mac, then hold Option while it turns on. Select the Restore partition next to your startup disk.


How to Restore a Time Machine Backup From macOS Recovery

From the macOS Utilities window that appears, click Restore From Time Machine and select your backup drive. Follow the prompts to choose a date and time to restore from, then choose your Mac’s hard disk as the destination.

Select a destination window when restoring Time Machine backup with macOS Recovery

Click Restore and wait for Time Machine to copy all the files to your Mac. It might take a while, but when it’s finished, everything will look and feel the same as it did when you made the backup.

3. Migrate Files or User Accounts to a Different Mac

Migration Assistant transfer options

Migration Assistant is Apple’s tool for transferring files or user accounts from one Mac to another. You can use Migration Assistant with a Time Machine backup to import selected files or user accounts, rather than restoring an entire backup.

A brand-new Mac prompts you to use Migration Assistant during the setup. You can also open Migration Assistant from the Utilities folder in Applications to migrate data to a Mac you already set up.

Follow the prompts in Migration Assistant to transfer information From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk. Select your backup drive and choose the date and time you want to migrate files from.

Migration Assistant Time Machine backup selection window

You can choose to transfer the following data using Migration Assistant:

  • Applications
  • Computer and network settings
  • Documents and data, including user accounts and specific folders

What If macOS Is Stuck Searching for Time Machine Backups?

Migration Assistant window searching for Time Machine drive and backups

Whether you’re using Time Machine to restore an entire backup or migrate a single file, you might get held up by macOS searching for backups. This happens when your Mac fails to communicate properly with the backup drive.

Sometimes macOS spends hours searching for Time Machine backups with no success. If this happens to you, following the steps below should help fix it.

Step 1: Update Your Mac to the Latest Version of macOS

From the menu bar, go to Apple menu > About This Mac > Software Update. Download and install the latest version of macOS for your Mac, then try searching for Time Machine backups again.

Step 2: Eject and Reconnect the Backup Drive to Your Mac

Open Finder and click the Eject icon next to your Time Machine backup drive in the left sidebar. Once the drive is ejected, disconnect the USB or Thunderbolt cable and inspect it for signs of damage or debris.

USB-C Cable disconnected from a MacBook for inspection

Wait 30 seconds, then reconnect your drive. Try using a different USB or Thunderbolt port and cable if you have one available.

If you use an AirPort Time Capsule or other NAS drive for Time Machine backups Turn Your NAS Or Windows Share Into A Time Machine Backup Use your NAS, or any network share, for backing up your Mac with Time Machine. Read More , disconnect it from the network, then restart the drive and connect it to the network again.

Step 3: Restart Your Mac

Use Finder to eject your Time Machine backup drive again, then go to Apple menu > Restart to reboot your Mac. If macOS still spends a long time searching for Time Machine backups after you reconnect the drive, contact Apple support for more help.

Don’t Delete Time Machine Backups After Restoring

After you restore what you need from a Time Machine backup, it’s tempting to send that backup to the Trash. We know what you’re thinking: you don’t need it anymore, so you should make space for newer backups.

But this is a bad idea!

Not only is it unnecessary to delete backups—Time Machine automatically removes old backups when it needs more space—but Time Machine backups get 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 if you don’t delete them properly. Save yourself the hassle and leave those backups alone.

Related topics: Data Backup, Mac Tips, Restore Data, Time Machine, Troubleshooting.

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  1. Silverface
    June 24, 2017 at 8:55 pm

    My problem is I have a new MacBook Pro with a much smaller SSD than my old one's HD, and I only want copy specific subfolders from (for example) my documents folder in the old one's backup files.

    But when I open any of the backups I only find partial backups. I hadn't used it for documents for a while - but I don't know the exact date I stopped using it. The Time Machine backup has a couple dozen backup folders for EVERY date, as the old MBP was sitting in sleep mode. It still was backing up.

    I can't find a way to determine WHAT backup file has a complete documents...or any other "main" folder so I can copy what I need. Does anyone know of a way to figure this out?

    • Al Palmer
      September 22, 2018 at 9:59 pm

      Did you ever find a solution to your enquiry re partial time machine backups?
      I have a very similar situation. Trying to recover what I can from partial backups, but unable to get into them


  2. Maja
    December 1, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    Hi Justin,
    I just accidentally dropped my macbook 2012 on my hardwood floor (not far maybe half a foot but it was a definite shake on the side it dropped from). Last time this happened (about 4 or so years ago), I rememebr it was a very small drop as well, but it completely destroyed my hardrive. Within a couple of days my computer was freezing and the Internet would not load up after restarts, and by the end of the week it would be stuck on the grey screen of death. So naturally I am currently freaking out. I just backed it up on an external drive last night using Time Machine, and am backing it up again now, but I'm worried Time Machine will not be enough to restore what I have on my Mac if I have to end up getting a new laptop in the next couple of days. You mention in the article that it will restore some of the software, how can I more thoroughly back it up? Further, I was considering for my next laptop to get a PC instead of another Apple product, will I be able to restore it from my backup?
    Please help :(

  3. nicolas
    March 4, 2016 at 8:13 am

    I use an Imac and a macbook pro. I have backups for both on a NAS Synology.
    Yesterday I upgraded the RAM & SSD of my macbook because it was too slow. It was done by a reliable apple retailer. I did not ask for a clone of the hard drive, having a time machine backup on my NAS. And truly, I relied on it very much because it worked so well last year when I had to change the hard drive of my Imac after a crash.
    But now when restarting the mackbook and trying to restore using time machine, it simply does not see my backup. Instead, it sees the backup of the other machine, the Imac. Plus, the system also proposes to restore data from another NAS located in my internet box, but on which there has never been any backup.
    Perhaps I should add what I've tried before posting this question:
    1- I followed the instruction when I first started the newly upgraded machine. I chose the option restore from a Time machine backup.
    2- I restarted the machine using then command R at the start.
    3- I copied the time machine backups on an external hard drive and restarted the machine using then command R.
    Now I'm lost...
    I was wondering if anyone could help me with that?

    • Justin Pot
      March 4, 2016 at 4:30 pm

      I'm sorry, I don't know how to help you. Did you use the instructions above, or the method provided by Synology?

  4. Dave
    March 2, 2016 at 5:10 am

    If you use a network device to back up with time machine, chances are it's totally useless to you if you want to import to a new computer. i just went through this with Apple support and the network device backup will only restore to the computer that is backing up. My display went out (iMac) and when I got the new computer nothing I could do would recognize the network time machine backup.

    Use Carbon copy cloner, not time machine. TM is only usable on a local drive / with migration assistant. Time machine will not help you if the sparse bundle is on a network drive.

  5. Edward Ontko
    February 22, 2016 at 7:39 am

    Will start simple and work my way up.

    When doing a full restore, how long do you have to hold Command-R?

    Recently did a restore of OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard?) from Yosemite. Everything went smoothly.
    Let's call this MacBook 1.

    I wanted to use Time Machine from MacBook 1 to restore some files I was working on in Yosemite to another Mac I have, let's call it MacBook 2.

    At first I hesitated to do this (when an outcome is uncertain, sometimes I hesitate, LOL) but decided just to try and do it.

    While certainly not an exhaustive test, the Time Machine backup from MacBook 1 would not load (just to browse and copy some files) on MacBook 2. Should this be considered the normal outcome?

    Actually it was disappointing that it would not do this, unless somehow I screwed up.

    • Justin Pot
      February 22, 2016 at 4:11 pm

      I have limited experience with downgrading, but my suspicion is that you shouldn't restore from Time Machine after doing that, and you were correct to not try. Browsing to find the files and recovering them manually shouldn't be a problem, though. There's a chance you've got a corrupted backup, can you still access it from the other Macbook?

      • Anonymous
        February 23, 2016 at 5:29 am

        I’m a little wordy (and nerdy) so please bear with me. LOL.

        To be on the safe side, I connected MacBook 1 to the external drive.

        That is to say, MacBook 1 was connected to the external drive that previously was only connected to MacBook 1. The external drive was exclusively purchased for use with Time Machine on MacBook 1. Call this external drive, External Drive 1. (Of course, I’m not trying to be silly here, just thorough.)

        MacBook 1 is now running OS X 10.6 (snow leopard?).

        Enter Time Machine was selected from the Menu Bar.

        Time Machine came up.

        It said, ‘Today (Now)’ at the bottom where the Cancel (left side) and Restore (right side) buttons are.

        It mostly showed files from 2011. What I wanted were files that were recently created when it was running Yosemite.

        The most recent Time Machine Backup was from February 11, 2016.

        I selected this.

        It showed files that were created more recently (like I wanted) but no additional file data, like date created or file size.

        I was looking for files that pertained to using Parse (RIP) as a backend database, and files about using Adobe Acrobat DC.

        At some point the question in my mind was, why didn’t I create these in iCloud in the first place and could I copy them to a thumb drive from within Time Machine.

        You can insert a USB thumb drive and it is recognized but it is greyed out and not selectable.

        I selected 5 or 6 files and clicked Restore.

        Time Machine exited, a Finder window opened or was reopened and the restored files were now available. They were immediately copied to the thumb drive.

        In my haste I failed to notice that a second Finder window was open, which would have allowed me to place them on the thumb drive in a more organized location.

        So for the most part everything ended well.

        I have more questions but few people will read this far. LOL.

        • Justin Pot
          February 23, 2016 at 3:24 pm

          I'm glad you got your files back! What a journey that was. If you have any more questions feel free to ask, I'll read them.

        • Hana
          March 4, 2016 at 10:40 am

          Hi Justin,

          My computer froze last night, and in attempting to fix the problem I held down on the power button to turn off, and then turned it back on. However, at this point a screen with a folder and question mark appeared.
          I once again shut it off, and held command + R and got to the OS X Utilities screen.

          My problem is this: I haven't made a backup in who knows how long. I do not know which of the options to choose to start up the Macbook without losing my files.

          Any advice?!

        • Justin Pot
          March 4, 2016 at 4:29 pm

          That screen with the folder means there's something wrong with your hard drive, and recovering your files isn't going to be straight-forward. You need to find expert help, or at the very least a computer savvy friend.

  6. Jeff
    December 9, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    JPot - I don't want to go back in time...except to grab a particular folder. I am able to go back and see it but when I restore, it does nothing, or is it putting it in a folder somewhere??

    • Justin Pot
      December 9, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      If restoring from Time Machine does nothing, browse the file structure of your backup in Finder. You can work out which folders refer to which dates and find what you're looking for – I've done it before.

      Also: how did you know to call me JPot? Are we friends? Identify yourself.

  7. Anonymous
    October 31, 2015 at 4:12 am

    My web host provider changed and my email account settings had to be changed. Some changes worked and some didn't. In a frustrated effort to change settings that mail refused to allow me to change, I deleted an account so I could enter all the data fresh. Duh. I was too frustrated to notice what I was clicking OK to, and now I've lost all the emails that were in that account. Restoring from Time Machine is quite difficult when you can't find the files, so first I had to use Terminal in order to show hidden files. Finally I found them (I think) and restored them, but the Mail program doesn't see them anyway. They are just sitting in many layers of folders, with lots of gobble-guck, and are pretty much unusable. Any ideas on how to get them back in a way that can be utilized easily?

    • Justin Pot
      October 31, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      So if you revert the contents of ~/Library/Mail, that should revert your mail program. I think. But I have to admit I don't really use Mac Mail, so I can't test this.

  8. Anonymous
    October 10, 2015 at 10:06 am

    If you don't have a Time Machine backup yet,
    Maybe you can try uFlysoft Data Recovery for Mac, it can recover empty trash on Mac only in three steps:
    Step 1. Launch the software to scan the device where your files deleted
    Step 2: Preview the scan result files and make mark if it is the one you find
    Step 3: Recover files

    • Justin Pot
      October 10, 2015 at 2:33 pm

      Data Recovery is great as a last resort, but is not an alternative to backing up. Always. Back. Up.