How to Restore Files from Time Machine Backup on a Mac

The most valuable piece of advice any computer owner will hear is this — back up your data regularly.

Losing your data is terrifying. And nothing’s more disheartening than learning all the hard work you’ve put into a project was wiped out in an instant.

Backing up your data lets you avoid that heartbreak in most cases. And for Mac users in particular, restoring your backed up data is especially simple, thanks to Time Machine.

This guide explains the easiest and most effective ways of restoring data from Time Machine.

How to Restore from Time Machine on a Mac: 4 Methods

Time Machine is a native backup system on Mac computers. This built-in system automatically backs up your personal data, system settings, and other valuable files.

Although some of these backup files are saved locally on your machine (called Local Snapshots), these save files are deleted every 24 hours. As a result, many users choose to back up their data through an external hard drive. This allows for backups that stretch back further than just a single day.

Since Time Machine is an app native to your Mac, it’s also especially easy to use this feature to restore your data.

Below we discuss the four best methods for doing so.

1. Restore Deleted Files or Revert to an Old Version of a Document Using Time Machine

Whether you want to revert an older version of a document or bring back a file that’s gone missing entirely, Time Machine makes restoring your data simple.

Just follow the steps below.

To restore deleted files or revert to an old version of a document using Time Machine:

  1. Start by opening the locations your file was or currently is in. Then start Time Machine by clicking the icon in the menu bar. If you don’t see the icon, open Time Machine preferences through System Preferences and click “Show Time Machine in menu bar”.Start Time Machine
  2. Once opened, you can navigate through your Time Machine backups using the arrows or the timeline to the right of the screen.Navigate through your Time Machine backups
  3. Locate the backup you’d like to restore the file from.Locate the backup you'd like to restore from
  4. Select the file, ensure it’s the correct version in the preview window to the right, and click Restore.Select and preview the desired file you'd like to restore
  5. If the file has the same name as the current version, you’ll be asked if you’d like to replace the original, keep the original, or keep both. We recommend keeping both so you can be sure you have the right version.Keep both your files after restoring

2. Use Migration Assistant

Migration Assistant is a handy tool for transferring large swathes of data from one Mac to another. It’s especially helpful when you’ve upgraded to a new machine.

But it can also transfer your Time Machine backup data to your current machine too. You can easily transfer user and system settings, user files, applications, and more using Migration Assistant.

To use Migration Assistant to restore data from Time Machine:

  1. Open Migration Assistant in Finder or using Spotlight (Command + Space). You’ll be notified that all other open apps will close in order to continue. Be sure the disk storing your Time Machine backups is connected to your Mac.Step 1 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Open Migration Assistant
  2. After you click Continue, you’ll need to enter your password.Step 2 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Enter your password
  3. Choose the first option to restore a backup on Mac from Time Machine.Step 3 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Choose option 1
  4. Select the disk where your desired Time Machine backup is stored.Step 4 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Select your disk
  5. Choose the backup you’d like to restore from.Step 5 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Choose your backup
  6. Select the information you’d like to restore and click Continue. For large amounts of data, the transfer can take quite a while to complete.Step 6 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Select your desired information to restore

3. Start Up Your Mac from a Time Machine Backup

The Time Machine App and Migration Assistant make it easy to restore your lost data. But if you’re experiencing major issues, the solution may be to boot from a Time Machine backup.

Again, the process here isn’t too complicated.

To start up your Mac from a Time Machine backup:

  1. First be sure the disc storing your Time Machine backups is connected to your machine. Then shut down your Mac.Step 1 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Shut down your Mac
  2. Now you’ll need to restart your Mac in recovery mode. Hold Command + R and restart your Mac while keeping the keys held down. Step 2 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Choose restore from Time MachineYou should eventually see a screen similar to the one below. Select “Restore from Time Machine” and click Continue.Step 3 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Read the information
  3. Read the information on the following screen and click Continue again.Step 4 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Select a restore source
  4. Select the disc storing the Time Machine backup you’d like to start from.Step 5 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Select the backup
  5. Then select the backup you’d like to restore from and click Continue.

4. Revert Your Mac to an Earlier Version Using macOS Recovery

Updates in the macOS can bring some pretty big new changes. And some users may want to downgrade to previous versions after updating.

Time Machine makes that possible. And if you’re able to start your Mac from a Time Machine backup (covered in the previous section), you can easily downgrade to a previous OS.

NOTE: You need to have a backup saved that used the previous macOS version for this to work.

To revert your Mac to an earlier macOS version:

  1. Be sure the disc storing your Time Machine backups is connected to your Mac and shut down your machine.Step 1 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Shut down your Mac
  2. Restart your Mac in recovery mode by holding Command + R and restarting your Mac while keeping the keys held down. You’ll see a screen similar to the one below. Select “Restore from Time Machine” and click Continue.Step 2 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Choose restore from Time Machine
  3. Read the information on the following screen and click Continue again.Step 3 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Read the information
  4. Select the disc storing the Time Machine backup you’d like to start from.Step 4 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Select a restore source
  5. Then select the backup you’d like to restore from, looking for the version with the previous operating system. You’ll find the macOS version of each backup in the righthand column. Then, just hit Continue.Step 5 to restore from Time Machine on Mac: Select a backup from a prior operating system

Recover Data Without Time Machine

Time Machine is a great native backup service that makes it easy to keep all your data safe and sound. The only problem is it only works when you’ve been actively backing up your system.

If you are one of the many who don’t regularly run backups (shame on you), then you may find yourself needing to recover precious data without the help of Time Machine.

Similarly, you may have created and deleted a file before you ran a backup, leaving you in the same predicament.

That’s where data recovery software comes in.

When you delete information, it isn’t actually removed from your hard drive immediately. Instead, it’s just flagged as being okay to overwrite with new data. And that means you can still restore that data as long as it hasn’t been overwritten yet. You’ll need specialized data recovery software to do so.

NOTE: The more you use the drive in question, the likelier it will be your data will be overwritten. As such, avoid using the disk if you plan on using data recovery software.

We’ve found the best data recovery software option out there is Disk Drill. The interface is user-friendly. The process of recovering “lost” files is simple. And there are plenty of other helpful features to take advantage of too.

Plus, there’s a free-for-life version.

To recover data without Time Machine using Disk Drill:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill.Step 1 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Download Disk Drill
  2. Grant access permissions to Disk Drill so the software can search your disk drives for lost files.Step 2 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Grant access permissions
  3. Select the disk your lost data is housed on. This could be your hard drive or an external drive. Then click “Search for lost data”.Step 3 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Select the disk with the lost data
  4. Wait for Disk Drill to scan the drive (may take a while based on the amount of data).Step 4 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Wait for Disk Drill to scan the drive
  5. Click “Review found items” to see which files you can restore.Step 5 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Click review found items
  6. Find the files you’d like to restore. Use the preview button (shaped like an eye) to make sure you have the correct file.Step 6 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Find and preview the files you'd like to restore
  7. Select the files you’d like to restore and click Recover.Step 7 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Select your files and click recover
  8. Specify where you’d like to restore the files to and click OK.Step 8 to restore without Time Machine on Mac: Choose where to restore your files to

How to View Time Machine Backups from Another Mac

If you find yourself wanting to view Time Machine backups that were made on another Mac, you’re in luck—the process is simple. All you need is the external drive where the backups are stored and your own machine.

How to view Time Machine backups from another Mac:

  1. Plug the drive with the Time Machine backup you’re interested in into your Mac.
  2. Open Finder and click the storage drive with the backup.
  3. Find the folder named “Backups.backupdb” and select it. Inside, you’ll be able to see all the backups currently stored on the drive. You may also find that your drive has no “Backups.backupdb” folder and instead simply contains the backup files organized by date. It might look something like the image below.View backups from another Mac
  4. If you want to transfer files or folders to your own Mac, copy and paste the files or folders.
NOTE: Do not simply drag the files or folders to your Mac from these backups. Moving or renaming can cause problems with the native Time Machine app. Stick to copying and pasting only.

How to Delete Time Machine Backups

Time Machine actually removes old backups for you, no manual deleting required. That being said, if you do want to delete backups yourself (to free up more space perhaps), there are ways to do so.

To manually delete Time Machine backups before updating to Big Sur or later:

  1. Connect the external drive that’s storing your Time Machine backups.
  2. Open the Time Machine App.
  3. Navigate to the desired backup you’d like to delete using the arrows or the timeline to the right.
  4. Select the ellipsis in the Toolbar.Manually delete backups using Time Machine on operating systems before Big Sur
  5. Click either “Delete Backup” or “Delete All Backups of [File Name]”. The difference here is the first option deletes the entire backup. The second option deletes every backup of the specific file you have highlighted, not the entire backups themselves.

To manually delete Time Machine backups post updating to Big Sur or later:

  1. Connect the external drive that’s storing your Time Machine backups.
  2. Open the drive in Finder.
  3. Locate the backup you’d like to remove. You can explore what files and folders are contained in the backup by drilling down into the backup file.
  4. Right click the desired backup and select “Delete Immediately…”Manually delete backups on operating systems Big Sur or later
  5. You’ll be warned that this action is permanent and cannot be undone. Select Delete to remove the backup permanently.Choose delete to manually delete backups on Time Machine

Conclusion

With Time Machine, you can restore lost files, revert to prior document versions, and recover data you thought was long lost.

The four techniques in this article outline the easiest and most effective way to utilize this Mac backup feature. And with them, you can get back to normal faster than ever.

FAQ

Below are just a few of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to how to restore a Mac from Time Machine.

Alex is a writer, researcher, and dedicated Mac user. He's spent his career turning complex topics like cybersecurity, cryptocurrency, and data recovery into digestible and engaging content.
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