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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:
- Use the Time Machine app to restore particular files.
- Revert your entire Mac to a previous backup with macOS Recovery.
- 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 something 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, 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
You can choose to transfer the following data using Migration Assistant:
- Computer and network settings
- Documents and data, including user accounts and specific folders
What If macOS Is Stuck Searching for Time Machine 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.
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, 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 if you don’t delete them properly. Save yourself the hassle and leave those backups alone.