How to restore Mac from Time Machine

Whether you just need to find an old version of a document, 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 have a Time Machine backup handy, here's how to restore from Time Machine, how to recover files from your back up, and how to use Time Machine to migrate to a new Mac, and more.

If you haven’t already set up Time Machine to back up your Mac read: How to back up your Mac with Time Machine. You may also find How to back up a Mac useful.

How to restore from Time Machine

Time Machine isn’t just for those times when you need to locate a version of a document you were working on two days or two months 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. You can also use Time Machine to revert to an earlier version of macOS.

We'll look at the various scenarios below, including:

How to restore from Time Machine to a new Mac

You can use a Time Machine backup to transfer all your files, settings and preferences from an old Mac to a new Mac. 

Your new Mac comes with a tool called Migration Assistant that you can use to make this process really easy. Here's how to use Time Machine to migrate to a new Mac.

Before you begin, it goes without saying that you should make sure you have a Time Machine backup of your old Mac.

  1. If you don't have a recent backup, plug in your hard drive into your old Mac, open System Preferences and click on Time Machine. Choose Back Up Now. Wait while your old Mac performs its final backup. (We have a guide to backing up with Time Machine here).
  2. Now you have your Time Machine backup you can start to set up your new Mac. Connect your Time Machine backup drive to your new Mac and start it up.
  3. If you haven't already set up your new Mac you will be able to go through the setup wizard and migrate your Time Machine backup to the new Mac.
  4. If you have already set up your new Mac you can still copy over the Time Machine backup. Open Migration Assistant on your new Mac (press space+cmd and start typing Migration Assistant). 
  5. In the Migration Assistant app click Continue to confirm that you are happy for apps to quit. Use Migration Assistant to copy Time Machine backup
  6. Then select From A Mac, Time Machine Backup, Or Startup Disk and choose Continue.
  7. Select your source as Time Machine (make sure it's plugged into your new Mac). Click on Continue.
  8. Choose the backup you want to use (this will probably be your most recent, unless you want to use an earlier backup)
  9. Now wait while the information migrates across to your new Mac.

How to restore your Mac from a backup

There are plenty of reasons why you might want to restore your Mac to an earlier time. It's often the best solution if your Mac has started behaving unusually as it allows you to go back to a time before everything went wrong. Here's how to restore a Time Machine backup using Recovery mode.

  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 and click on Continue.
  4. Click Continue again.
  5. Choose a Time Machine backup from before the problems started and click on Continue.

Note that this will recover your old Mac over the top of your current files - so if you have created anything after the backup you are recovering from you'll want to make a copy of them on an external drive.

We have more about using Recovery on a Mac here.

How to start up your Mac from Time Machine

What if you don't want to recover everything from your Time Machine backup onto your Mac? Luckily you can start up from a 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.

  1. Hold down the Option/Alt key as your Mac starts up.
  2. 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 (or not)

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.

[Note that in MacOS Big Sur Apple has made it possible to make a APFS Time Machine backup, rather than using HPFs. If your Time Machine back up is in APFS you will not be able to recover it to a Mac that isn't running Big Sur. Read: Time Machine finally gets support for APFS in macOS Big Sur]

How to recover a file from a Time Machine back up

If you just need to restore an earlier version of a file you were working on, perhaps because you accidentally deleted it, or you went a bit crazy editing it only to realise that you had made a huge mistake. Luckily you can get the old version of that file back by following the steps below. You may not even need an external Time Machine backup as your Mac will automatically back up documents locally going back for some time, depending on which program you are using (we'll look at that scenario next).

How to restore Mac from Time Machine

If you have a Time Machine backup follow these steps:

  1. 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.
  2. You can either find the specific files you wish to restore using the onscreen up and down arrows to locate it.
  3. When you find the file you can press Space Bar to preview it and check its the one you want.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 old versions of files without Time Machine

If you don’t have your external drive handy you may be able to restore from a recent backup on your Mac. In fact, you don't even need to be using Time Machine.

For example, if you are using Pages, follow these steps to recover an earlier version of a document:

  1. With the current version of the file open in Pages, click on File in the menu.
  2. Click on Revert To...
  3. Click on Browse all versions.
  4. Find the version you want - our Mac had versions going back four months.
  5. Click on Restore, or if you don't want to overwrite the current version, cut and paste the information you want.

Non-Apple programs may not keep 'snapshots' in the same way, but if you have been making a Time Machine backup, you still may have access to them even without your external drive plugged in:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

We cover how to recover Word documents here.