Whether you just need to find an old version of a document you are working on, rescue a document you accidentally deleted, want to copy over all your settings, files and folders to a new Mac, or if you need to recover your Mac from an old backup, Apple’s Time Machine software makes it really easy.

If you haven’t already set up Time Machine to back up your Mac read: How to backup your Mac with Time Machine.

If you have your Time Machine backup handy, here's how to restore and recover files, restore your Mac using Time Machine, and move content from one Mac to another using Time Machine, and more.

How to restore or recover a file from a Time Machine back up

Open Time Machine by clicking on the icon in the menu bar and choosing Enter Time Machine, or search for Time Machine using Spotlight: cmd+spacebar and start typing Time Machine, or if you have a Time Machine icon in your Dock just click on it.

You can either find the specific files you wish to restore using the onscreen up and down arrows to locate it.

When you find the file you can press Space Bar to preview it and check its the one you want.

Click on the Cloud icon to download a snapshot to view it. When you do this that snapshot will be available to view even when your external drive is disconnected from the Mac.

Click Restore to restore the selected file, or cut and paste the specific text you are looking for, if you don’t want to replace the new version with the old version of the document.

How to access backups without the Time Machine drive

If you don’t have your external drive handy you may be able to restore from a recent backup.

If you open Time Machine when disconnected from the backup drive you will see some snapshots of your Mac are available. You should be able to recover a version of the document you were working on last time your Mac was backed up, for example.

This could be handy if you have just disconnected your Mac from the backup drive to take it to a meeting and discovered that the document you are presenting is missing some information that was there earlier.

How to restore from a Time Machine back up

Time Machine isn’t just for those times when you need to locate a version of a document you were working on two days ago. It’s also a really easy way to move from one Mac to another, particularly if the Mac you are moving from isn’t working any more.

If you want to restore everything from the Time Machine backup of your old Mac to a new Mac you need to use Migration Assistant.

Alternatively, if your Mac is still working, but you want to revert to an earlier version because somethings gone wrong (perhaps you instilled a beta version of the MacOS and then had second thoughts) you will want to use macOS Recovery.

How to restore from a Time Machine back up using macOS Recovery

Here's how to use macOS Recovery:

  1. Start up your Mac and immediately hold down Command-R.
  2. Continue holding both keys until you see the Apple logo or a spinning globe.
  3. When you see the Utilities window choose Restore from Time Machine backup.

How to move content from one Mac to another Mac using Time Machine

Here's how to copy the files, settings, and user accounts in your Time Machine backup to another Mac, use Migration Assistant.

  1. Connect your new Mac to the external drive that has a Time Machine backup of your old Mac.
  2. Open Migration Assistant, which is in the Utilities folder of your Applications folder, and click continue.
  3. When asked how you want to transfer your information, select the option to transfer from a Time Machine backup and click continue.
  4. If you are asked for a password enter it.
  5. You should see a list of backups in chronological order. Choose the one you want to use and click continue.

Depending on the size of the backup it might take several hours to copy to your new Mac.

Here’s more about moving files from one Mac to another Mac:

How to start up your Mac from Time Machine

You can start up from your Time Machine backup, perhaps if there is an issue with your system but you aren’t willing to recover it yet, or if you are running a new version of the Mac operating system on your Mac and want to keep things separate.

To do so, hold down the Option/Alt key as your Mac starts up.

When you see the Startup Manager screen, choose EFI Boot as your startup disk.

How to inherit the Time Machine backup of an old Mac

You can move the backup history from one Mac to another, but after the new Mac inherits the backup history, you won’t be able to continue using the backup history with the original Mac

This is fine if you’re replacing the old Mac and want the new Mac to use the old backup files. Therefore, choose the option Inherit Backup.

However, if you plan to continue to use your old Mac, choose Create New Backup when you plug your drive into the new Mac. This way you will preserve the past backup history and start new backups for the new Mac.