How to Use Time Machine to Back Up Your Mac

By | December 14, 2021

Backing up the data on your computer is very important. If you use a Mac, you’ll be happy to know there’s a backup tool called Time Machine that makes backing up your computer a breeze.

Today we’ll show you how to set up a drive for use with Time Machine, how to set up and use Time Machine, and how to restore from a Time Machine backup.

Setting Up the Drive for Time Machine

For Time Machine backups, you can use an external hard drive connected to a USB, FireWire, or Thunderbolt port on your Mac. Backing up to a network drive also works.

For this overview, we will be using an external hard drive. You can dedicate an entire external hard drive for your backup. Or you can partition an external hard drive so you use some for Time Machine backups, and the rest for file storage.

Adding Time Machine to the Menu Bar

For easy access to Time Machine, add it to the menu bar on the desktop.

Go to Apple Menu > System Preferences > Time Machine. Then check the Show Time Machine box in the menu box.

Select Backup Now to start the backup manually.

If you haven’t backed up with Time Machine, the menu says Time Machine Not Configured. Select Open Time Machine Preferences to start setting up your first backup.

Excluding Files/Folders From Time Machine Backup

Before starting your first backup, you must determine which files and folders should not be included in your backup. For example, you might have some large files or unimportant files and folders that you don’t need to back up.

Select Open Time Machine Preferences from the Time Machine menu or by going to Apple Menu > System Preferences > Time Machine. Then click Options.

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Click the Plus sign to add the drive, file, or folder to the Exclude this item from backup list.

The backup disk itself is automatically excluded, as well as any other external drives. The list of excluded items applies to all backup disks added to Time Machine (we cover setting up multiple backup disks in the next section).

When you’re done adding items, click Save.

Backing Up Your Mac Using Time Machine

After you set up your drive, or when you connect a drive that you have set up, you may see a question asking if you want to use the connected disk to back up with Time Machine. If you are partitioning the disk, select the partition you want to use from the dropdown list.

If your backup will contain sensitive data, you must encrypt the backup. To do this, check the Encrypt Disk Backup checkbox. Encrypting the initial backup can take a while. It could be hours or maybe days, depending on how many files you have.

Click Use as Disk Backup. The Time Machine Preferences dialog box opens and the backup process automatically starts.

If Time Machine doesn’t prompt you to select a backup disk when you connect the drive to your Mac, choose Open Time Machine Preferences from the Time Machine menu on the menu bar. Or go to Apple Menu > System Preferences > Time Machine.

Click Choose Disk Backup.

Time Machine lists all available connected disks that have sufficient free space. Click the disk you want to use.

You can choose to encrypt your backup here, if you don’t see the dialog box mentioned above. Check the Encrypt backup box. Then click Use Disk.

Backup to Multiple Disks and Encrypt

Time Machine allows you to back up data to multiple disks. For example, if you keep one backup disk at home and another at work, you can add both to Time Machine. Just click Select Backup Disk again in Time Machine Preferences and select another disk.

Time Machine rotates the backup schedule between your disks and tracks the backup status on each separate disk. The next time you connect each disk, Time Machine backs up everything that’s changed since the last time you used it.

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If you choose to encrypt the backup, you will then be prompted for the backup password. Enter your password in the backup password box and again in the password verification box.

You can also enter hints to help you remember your password in the Hint Password box. Click Encrypt Disk to continue.

Running a Time Machine Backup

After setting up the backup, Time Machine starts preparing the backup and activates automatic backup. Backup progress is shown in Time Machine Preferences.

If you don’t want to run automatic backups, uncheck the Automatically Backup box in Time Machine Preferences. The backup in progress is stopped.

When automatic backup is off, you can start a backup manually by opening the Time Machine menu on the menu bar and selecting Backup Now from the menu (as discussed earlier).

Your first backup may take a long time, depending on how many files you have. After it finishes performing the first backup, Time Machine only backs up files that changed since the previous backup, so future backups will be faster.

Feel free to continue using your Mac while the backup is in progress.

You can also view the progress of the backup in the Time Machine menu.

The Time Machine icon on the menu bar shows when Time Machine is backing up, when it’s not being used until the next automatic backup, or if it can’t complete the backup.

Time Machine uses notifications to keep you informed of the status of the initial backup. It displays a notification after the first backup is complete, or if any problems arise during the initial backup.

Click Close to dismiss the notification.

When the backup is complete, Time Machine provides you with information about your Oldest backup, your Recent backup, and when the Next backup took place.

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Pausing Time Machine Backup

If you want to pause the backup and complete it later, select Skip this Backup from the Time Machine menu. Time Machine automatically tries to back up again the next backup time.

Restoring From Time Machine Backup

Local snapshots in Time Machine allow you to restore data even when your backup disk isn’t connected to your Mac.

Time Machine stores multiple backups as local snapshots on your primary hard drive or another local drive. One photo is saved every hour, if Time Machine is set to back up automatically. If you’re using macOS High Sierra, Time Machine also saves photos before installing any updates to macOS.

When you select Enter Time Machine from the Time Machine menu in the menu bar, you’ll see files from your external backup and hourly local snapshots on your Mac’s hard drive, if your external backup drive is connected to your Mac. If the backup drive is not connected, Time Machine shows you local snapshots only.

Use the arrows on the right to browse for the version of the file or folder you selected. Then you can select the version of the file or folder and click Restore to get the version of the item.

You can also perform additional tasks upon entering Time Machine, such as recovering individual files and folders. But this feature also works to delete a backed up version or all versions of an item, get information about an item, preview an item using Quick Look, or copy an item.

Perform Regular Backups on Mac to Avoid Data Loss

Performing regular backups is essential to avoid data loss and Time Machine is a good built-in backup option.

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