Backing up is easy to do, and it's also incredibly important: so many irreplaceable files and photos live on our devices that if we had to give iPhone owners three pieces of advice, they would be back up, back up and back up some more. So listen up, as we explain how to make a safe and secure backup of the data stored on an iPhone or iPad - now covering the new method in macOS Catalina.

(Of course, you'll then need to know How to restore an iPhone from backup, but that's another story.)

Why you should back up your iPhone & iPad

Our iPhones and iPads are among the most mission-critical possessions we have. Putting aside the financial worth of each device, these little slabs of silicon and glass have become the central repositories for once-in-a-lifetime photographic memories and important documents alike.

Making sure that all of this precious data is backed up somewhere is a crucial safeguard against theft, loss or accidental damage. There are also a number of times in a year that Apple issues an update to the iOS software running on your iPad or iPhone, and our advice is to make sure you have a backup of your data before you update, just in case something goes wrong.

Then of course there are the more joyous occasions of upgrading to a newer model and being able to transfer all of your data quickly and simply by using a backup.

Choosing a backup method

Thankfully there are many ways to back up your iPhone or iPad, whether to the web or your PC or Mac, all of which are free and easy to use.

Apple's iCloud service means your iDevice can constantly sync important data with web-based servers, and iTunes - for the time being; things will work differently when macOS Catalina launches - also offers a simple one-click backup facility. (Wondering which is better? See Should I back up to iTunes or iCloud?) And there are several good third-party services that offer a variety of options.

As a safety precaution we recommend using at least two of the available solutions. That way, if the worst happens and your backup is somehow corrupted, you'll have another version to fall back on.

How to back up an iPhone or iPad: Which methods should I use?

Back up to iCloud

One of the simplest ways to back up the data on your iPhone or iPad is to use Apple's own iCloud service.

Each Apple ID has 5GB of storage available, in which you can store bookmarks, contacts, calendars, iCloud documents, mail message, notes, and your iCloud photo library. If you take lots of pictures and videos then you may need to upgrade the storage capacity, as it will fill up pretty quickly. At the moment Apple offers 50GB for 79p/$0.99 per month, 200GB for £2.49/$2.99 a month, and 2TB for £6.99/$9.99 a month.

(These prices are a better deal than they used to be, but a lot of people still feel that Apple ought to provide more cloud storage for free. It seems particularly unfair that the free storage allocation is set per Apple ID, rather than increasing as you buy more devices. For related advice, see How to manage iCloud Storage.)

While iCloud backups are very handy, they're best used in conjunction with iTunes, to cover all bases. iCloud backups are very easy to set up and once done they will automatically run in the background each time your device is plugged in and on a Wi-Fi connection.

To create and use iCloud backups you'll need an iCloud account; this is usually created when you first set up your device.

On your Apple device, open the Settings app. You'll see your name and picture (if you've saved one) at the top - tap this. Now select iCloud, and on the next screen scroll down and tap iCloud Backup, the last entry on the long list of 'Apps using iCloud'.

You'll now see the option to toggle on iCloud Backup. Once you've done so, your phone or tablet will automatically look after your data without any need for you to get involved.

How to back up an iPhone or iPad: iCloud settings

If you want to erase the contents of your iPhone or iPad because you're selling it, or because it's not working properly, here's how to reset an iPhone.

iCloud security worries

Nowhere on the internet is completely safe from hackers, and there is always a chance - whether through tech failures or human error - that the data you store in the cloud will be accessed by criminals. Apple generally has a very good reputation for security, but there have been a couple of high-profile cases involving iCloud that are worth discussing.

Back in 2014 a large number of nude celebrity photos were stolen in a case that juvenile sections of the internet referred to as 'the fappening'. The photos were obtained from iCloud, it's believed, by phishing attacks - social engineering scams that persuade victims to give up passwords - rather than a direct attack on the system itself, although it seems that iCloud's security measures at the time were susceptible to large numbers of guesses, which made brute-force attacks easier.

We discuss iCloud leaks in a separate article: How to stop photo hacks & leaks on iPhone.

Later on, a group of hackers calling itself the Turkish Crime Family claimed it had access to over 300 million Apple IDs, and threatened to wipe the user data from millions of connected iCloud accounts if Apple didn't pay a $75,000 ransom in either Bitcoin or Ethereum by 7 April 2017.

The group did not follow through on their threat, fortunately. However, in general we would recommend performing a local backup using iTunes, as the backup data is stored locally and not in iCloud.

Back up to a computer

Having a local backup is always a good idea, as it means you've got a copy you control, rather than trusting to the all-powerful cloud.

Making a local backup is very easy thanks to iTunes. (iTunes will be retired in macOS Catalina; here's how to use Finder instead.) Years ago you would have regularly plugged your iPhone into your PC to sync music, but with the advent of iTunes Match it's fallen a little out of favour. iTunes remains a useful piece of software, though, and will give you a complete backup in a matter of minutes.

First off, plug the iPhone into your Mac or PC. In the top lefthand corner, under the play controls, you'll see a little icon of a phone: click this and you'll be taken to the menu for your device. If you ensure that Summary is selected in the lefthand column, you'll now have three boxes in the main pane, the middle of which is entitled Backups.

How to back up an iPhone or iPad: iTunes backup

There are two main sections - automatic and manual - and the iPhone is usually set to automatically back up to iCloud. If you prefer that each time you connect your phone to the PC it immediately creates a new, locally stored backup, then click the 'This computer' option below.

Moving over to the righthand side of the box, you'll see the option to create a backup manually. Clicking the 'Back Up Now' button will do exactly that, with the length of time it takes dependent on how full your phone's storage is at that moment. Next to this is the Restore from Backup option, which is where you would head if you wanted to reinstall everything after replacing your iPhone.

How to back up an iPhone or iPad: iTunes backup in progress

You may be asking yourself exactly what is included in the backup. Any photos currently on the device will be stored, as will contacts, calendar accounts, Safari bookmarks, notes, call history, profiles and several other types of data. Apple has an extensive list of all the things contained in a backup, which you can read here.

The iTunes backup doesn't make extra copies of any media files, though, so films, music and apps bought from iTunes will need to be downloaded again from the site or your PC. (The iPhone/iPad will do this automatically when you restore from the backup, however.)

If you're worried that the backup file is going to take up too much space on your Mac, read How to back up an iPhone or iPad to an external hard drive.

Encrypted backups

There's one additional type of backup available in iTunes, which is an encrypted one. If you have sensitive data on your phone, or are just safety-minded, choosing this option will give you an added layer of security by making the backup accessible only through a password that you'll be prompted to create.

You create an encrypted backup in the same way as an unencrypted one - either automatically or manually, only with the encrypt option ticked. The first time you do this there will be an extra step in which you select a password.

Do remember, though, that this password will not be known to Apple, so if you forget what it is, your backup will become useless. Due to the extra security levels of an encrypted backup, Apple adds additional data which is withheld from the standard version. This includes information from the Health app, alongside your password keychain.

How to back up if you've got an Apple Watch

If you're anything like us - allergic to any more hassle than the bare minimum - you might be thinking that encrypted backups sound like more trouble than they're worth. (In fact remembering a password isn't a lot of trouble, although you may find that the first password you try isn't accepted.) But Apple Watch owners in particular should grit their teeth and pick the encrypted option.

How to back up an iPhone if you've got an Apple Watch

Apple could probably make this clearer (you'll see in the iTunes screenshot further up that it mentions only "passwords, Health and HomeKit data"), but the health data that is backed up when you do an encrypted backup, but not when you do a standard backup, includes all your Apple Watch exercise data: your achievements and running times and the rest of it.

The allure of Apple's motivational trickery is such that losing this data can be extremely distressing, not to mention inconvenient if you're in the middle of a programme of self-improvement. An encrypted backup is your friend. More on this here: How to back up an Apple Watch.

If you did an unencrypted backup when moving from one iPhone to another, wiped your Apple Watch and then paired it with the new iPhone and discovered all the exercise data is gone, don't panic.

The exercise data should be stored on the old iPhone (you didn't wipe it yet, did you?), so if you wipe the new iPhone, do another backup of the old iPhone (encrypted this time), restore the new iPhone from that backup, wipe the Apple Watch and pair it to the new iPhone... after all that, you'll find that the badges and running times have all come back.

How to back up in macOS Catalina

At present the official method of backing up an iPhone or iPad to a computer is to use iTunes - but as previously mentioned, iTunes' days are officially numbered, at least on the Mac. When macOS Catalina launches in the autumn of 2019, or if they install the beta before then, Mac owners who update will find that iTunes disappears and its functions are replaced by separate Music, TV and Podcasts apps.

Fortunately, it's still straightforward to back up in Catalina - you just have to use Finder instead of iTunes.

  • Plug your iDevice into the Mac and launch Finder - use its icon in the dock, or Spotlight search.
  • Click your device in the list on the left of the screen.
  • Click the General tab if it isn't selected by default, then hit Back Up Now.

It's as easy as that.

Back up with a third-party service

There's a sage piece of advice in security circles that states, "If something is only backed up once, it isn't backed up at all." Creating multiple copies of data is the only way to really guarantee that it won't get lost if disaster strikes.

Signing up for free accounts with Dropbox, Flickr, Google Drive, OneDrive or one of the many other options around gives you an easy way to keep your photos and documents safe without too much effort. Pretty much all of them offer automatic syncing, and it won't interfere with iCloud.

So download one or a few of the apps and follow the instructions, and you'll have another safety net running in the background. One word of warning, though. Be sure to check the settings for each app, and slide the Use Cellular Data option to off; otherwise you might get a nasty surprise when your next bill arrives.

Google Drive

Google added a new feature to Google Drive for iOS, introducing the ability to back up your contacts, calendar and camera roll in Google Drive, meaning all of that information is kept safely in the cloud should you ever need it. The reason behind this feature is to encourage iPhone users to switch to Android. Backing up via Google Drive will mean lots of your iPhone's information will reappear quickly and easily on your new Android phone.

Apple already has an Android app called Move to iOS that does the same thing for those looking to switch from Android to iOS, so it's not surprising that Google has followed suit.

It's important to note that Google Drive won't back up everything, though. It can't back up texts or your music library, for example.