How to save all your important files with Time Machine for Mac

Updated: June 06, 2023
6 min read
How to save all your important files with Time Machine for Mac
by Henry Miller
Tech Expert & Writer
Checked by
Quality Control team

Set up backups and protect yourself from losing important information.

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What is Time Machine

Everyone who owns a Mac (and not only) has probably heard of Time Machine. Time Machine is a backup system built into macOS that keeps duplicates of all your documents, programs, messages, and music files. In addition, it lets you quickly restore any information on your drive in the event of a crash, accidental deletion, replacement of the drive, or the purchase of a new Mac.

How does Time Machine Work?

The first time Time Machine starts up, it indexes everything on the drive and backs it up. After that, it backs up automatically without user intervention. Backups are created every hour and stored like this:

  • Hourly copies are available throughout the day.
  • Daily copies are available throughout the month.
  • Weekly copies are available for previous months.

The number of backups is limited only by the capacity of the drive. The copies are gradually deleted as it fills up, starting with the oldest ones. Therefore, data backups never stop, even if you use a small-capacity drive.

MacOS saves local snapshots on the system drive if no backup drive is connected. Later, they are transferred to the one selected in the Time Machine settings.

How to set up Time Machine backups

Time Machine for Mac

1. Prepare the drive

Both a traditional hard drive and an SSD drive are suitable for backups. The connection can be of any kind: USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire, or LAN. The drive should have as much capacity as your Mac's built-in storage, preferably twice the capacity, so that you can keep a copy of the last couple of months' worth of storage rather than just a few weeks. For example, for a computer with 512GB of storage, a hard drive of 1TB or more is a good choice.

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If you plan to use the drive for backups and storing other files, it is better to create a separate partition for backups (otherwise, Time Machine will not delete old duplicates until it runs out of free space).

  1. To do this, open Disk Utility, select the disk and click Partition.
  2. Next, click on +, specify the name, size, Mac OS Extended (journaled) file system type and click Apply.

2. Turn on Time Machine

  1. Open the system settings and go to the section of the same name.
  2. Check the Create backups automatically and Show Time Machine in the menu bar checkboxes.
  3. Click Select Backup Disk, specify the drive in the list, and click Use Disk.
  4. After a couple of minutes, the backup will start to run automatically. To start it immediately, click the Time Machine icon on the menu bar and select Backup Now.
  5. Check the corresponding box if you want to protect your backups with encryption. In this case, you can restore data from a backup only after entering the password.

3. Configure the parameters

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By default, the backup data can be the entire disk's contents. However, you can exclude downloads and other unnecessary folders to save space and speed up the backup process.

  1. To do this, click Settings in the Time Machine window.
  2. Use the + button to add the required directories to the exceptions and click Save.

If necessary, you can delete exceptions in the same way. Here, in the settings menu, you can use the corresponding checkboxes to activate the options for battery backup and notifications about deleting old backups.

How to restore data from a backup

How to restore a single file

  1. Connect the backup drive to your Mac. Navigate to the folder where the file was or is located. Select Log in to Time Machine by clicking the utility icon on the menu bar.
  2. Use the arrows or the scale on the right to specify the desired period and click Restore.
  3. Choose whether to replace the original file, keep both, or just the original.

How to restore all files on the disk

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To recreate your data when you install macOS or after you buy a new Mac, connect the drive you are using with Time Machine.

  1. Select From Mac, Time Machine Backup, or Bootable Disk in the final setup step when launching the Migration Assistant.
  2. Specify the drive and backup, then click Continue.
  3. Select which content to migrate and click Continue again.

The program will do the rest.

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