How to Set Up Time Machine Backups in Mac OS X

Jul 12, 2015 - 48 Comments

Set Up Time Machine Mac Backups

Time Machine is an easy Mac backup solution built into OS X that allows for automated continual backups of files, apps, and the operating system itself. Not only does Time Machine make it incredibly easy to maintain frequent automatic backups of a Mac, it also makes it equally simple to restore from a backup in the event something goes wrong, whether you need to restore files, or even if you need to restore the entire Mac OS X installation.


Because backing up is an essential part of general Mac system maintenance, you should always have a backup solution active. Since many users don’t, we’ll walk through how to setup Time Machine so that it will make regular backups of a Mac.

Time Machine Backup Requirements

  • Any Mac with any vaguely modern version of OS X (El Capitan, Yosemite, Mavericks, Mountain Lion, Snow Leopard etc)
  • A large External Hard Drive (this one is 5TB) which will be dedicated to Time Machine and connected to the Mac
  • Format the drive to be Mac compatible with Disk Utility, give it an obvious name like ‘Time Machine backups’
  • A few minutes for initial Time Machine setup
  • Ample time for Time Machine to run it’s first backup of the entire Mac

You’ll want to be sure the external hard drive in use for Time Machine backups is at least the same size as the internal hard drive on the Mac, but preferably much larger. For example, if you have a 512GB internal drive, a 5TB external drive for Time Machine would allow for many complete backups of that Mac drive from different time points, which is when Time Machine backups work best (this allows you to roll back the entire Mac to different points in time, hence the name of the software feature).

Note you can also partition a single drive for dual use as Time Machine and file storage, though in this article we’re going to assume you’re using a single hard drive entirely for Time Machine backups.

Once you have met the requisites for using Time Machine, setup is a breeze:

How to Set Up Time Machine Automatic Mac Backups in OS X

  1. Connect the external hard drive that you’ll be using as a Time Machine volume to the Mac if you have not done so already
  2. Go to the  Apple menu and go to “System Preferences”, then choose “Time Machine”
  3. How to set up Time Machine backups on Mac OS X - 1

  4. Click on the “Select Backup Disk…” button
  5. Setting up Time Machine backups in OS X by choosing the Time Machine target disk

  6. Choose the connected external hard drive that you plan on assigning to Time Machine, then click on “Use Disk” (Optional: check “Encrypt Backups” for FileVault users and greater security)
  7. Choosing the destination disk for Time machine backups to back up the Mac to

  8. The “Time Machine” toggle should now be set to ON and you’ll see some backup data like the size of the backup, how much space is available on the target Time Machine volume, oldest backup, latest backup (both of which will be none on a fresh drive), and the next backup countdown – when the two minute countdown hits zero the first Time Machine backup will begin, let it start and finish
  9. Set up Time Machine backups on Mac OS X

  10. * Optional but recommended, toggle the switch for “Show Time Machine in menu bar”

The very first time you run Time Machine can take quite a while to backup the entire Mac, because it’s literally copying every single file, folder, and application from the Mac to the Time Machine volume as a complete backup.

Everything on the Mac will be backed up by default, which is generally recommended and desired. If you have a temporary folder, or some other directory or folders or files you do not want to be backed up, you can exclude any file or folder from Time Machine backups with these instructions.

Time Machine icon in Mac OS X

That’s really all there is to it. Now that Time Machine is setup, backups will occur automatically in the background on the Mac, as long as the external Time Machine hard drive is connected to the Mac. You can pause or stop backups at any time as well, but it’s recommended to let them continue and backup often.

Another very useful feature of having Time Machine setup and configured is that you can start a backup manually at any time, which is perfect to complete before installing a new system software update, or modifying any system file or folder.

For security-minded Mac users looking to secure their Time Machine backups, you can enable backup encryption easily in Time Machine as well. This is recommended particularly if you travel with a Time Machine backup drive, or if you use FileVault disk encryption as a security measure in OS X.

Redundancy and multiple backups are also possible and easy to setup with Time Machine, though it requires multiple dedicated hard drives to do so, users can learn to setup redundant Time Machine backups here if desired.

Time Machine is very easy, powerful, and versatile. It’s arguably the simplest backup solution there is for Mac users, and being built into OS X makes it all the better. If you don’t have a Time Machine backup setup yet with a dedicated external hard drive, we highly recommend you take the time to do so, it could very well come in handy some day.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks

48 Comments

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  1. Wharf Xanadu says:

    Everyone should use time machine. It’s easy and great.

    • Ito Ito says:

      Yes, Time Machine is so easy for backups and restores. If you don’t use it, it is taking a risk.

      • Dames 3-2 says:

        it may be useful but wat about carrying some unwanted material (adware, malware, ransomware, virus etc) that you do not know about into time machine and possibly bringing it back if and when you do a retrieval?
        just a thought

    • Thomas says:

      Anybody who knows why my mac seem to communicate with the backup-drive when I open programs?
      And I can’t open a file or project while the backup disk is spinning.
      I have set the backup time to make it between 23:00 – 08:00.

      Thanks in advance :)

  2. Me says:

    Yes, Wharf, you’re right!!

    But…I miss a few options like the time-schedule. Now you can do this with 3party-apps like TimeMachineScheduler (http://goo.gl/APWkhz), or some Terminal-commands.

    But yes, indeed, this is a perfect backup-system!

  3. John Proffitt says:

    Does Time Machine have a setting for backing up external hard drives used for data storage, as well as the data on the Mac internal drive?

    • Bobby says:

      Yes you can.

      Go to Options, lower right of the Time Machine panel. You can select, or in this case deselect the drives not to be backed up.

      By default TM deselects backing up the Backup volume. Just remove the external drive you want to backup from this list.

  4. Mac Lover says:

    Yes, the backups are easy with Time Machine, BUT…

    when you need to RESTORE, you may have some misgivings about WHAT is being restored and where. If you have to replace your hard drive after disk errors, you may not entirely trust Time Machine’s old content. If you think your old operating system or ~/Library may be corrupted, it’s not clear how to restore around suspected damage. If “Entering Time Machine” does not let you get to the exact old content you want, you’ll need to pick it out with Finder. In short, Time Machine is NOT always easy to use when RESTORING, and that’s exactly the moment when you’d like to know for sure what you’re doing. Apple doesn’t exactly make it clear.

    • pablo says:

      I have found that if you need to restore the entirety of OS X system software, it’s best to use a clean install through internet restore, and then use Time Machine to restore the files and apps. That’s been my experience.

  5. Alan Reinke says:

    I fully agree. Time Machine is a painless way to keep continuous backups. However, on two different machines using two different external hard drives I have had Time Machine simply stop functioning. It says it can’t back up because there is no external drive. When I use Disk Utility it says nothing is wrong with the external drive. So I end up having to erase and reformat the external drive (not always easy since it isn’t being recognized in Finder) and then everything works again. Luckily I have not had any crashes requiring me to retrieve the data stored in Time Machine.

  6. DweebGuy says:

    You mentioned in the first paragraph that it is easy to restore from a backup but you don’t mention how to restore?

    • Ito Ito says:

      Well yes, setting up a backup is not the same as restoring a backup. Different things.

      • Ito Ito says:

        But if you set up Time Machine you’ll see there’s a restore option. Or boot into recovery mode. But if you don’t have a backup set up, you can’t restore.

        One step at a time, Dweeb, one step at a time. You can’t graduate from college without taking Writing 101, for example.

        • batch exec says:

          You can restore time machine by rebooting into recovery mode, or from the Time Machine menu bar item and choose “Enter Time Machine”

          or you can restore files by going to a folder, enter time machine, roll back, etc.

          Great app, best backup for novices by far. SuperDuper is great if you want a full complete backup of an entire drive, mirror image, good for swapping out drives etc, but much more advanced compared to Time Machine.

  7. Ba says:

    It is another infuriating invention by Apple that any sane person who knows how to anything on a computer gets annoyed at. Stop gearing your products toward armatures who know nothing. Thanks for ruining text edit and FCP as well!

  8. Neil Primrose says:

    You don’t mention that later versions of the Mac and Mac Mini have inadequate shielding of their USB ports and when using a back up external drive which draws its power through the USB port so much radio interference escapes that Bluetooth or wifi peripherals like keyboard, mouse and printer, as well as wireless broadband, are knocked out, thus rendering the Mac unusable. Though this is a well documented problem found on many forums (and a firm sells a shielding pack which involves dismantling the computer – no thanks!) Apple refuses to acknowledge the fault and Seagate says it’s entirely Apple’s problem. If this was a car there’d be a worldwide recall to fix it. But that’s not how Apple made its fortune, is it?

  9. Toby says:

    One thought for the price conscience: the article mentions getting a drive many times the size of your internal drive. This isn’t necessary. Get a drive several times the size of your DATA. A two TB internal drive with only 200 GB of data on it means you could buy a 1 TB backup drive, not a 5 TB one. It’s a small distinction, but might help someone save some money. And that might make the difference between them making a backup or not.

    • batch exec says:

      Toby, a huge benefit to having a whopper Time Machine drive comes when new OS X updates are released and, you realize some imd later, that the new ‘update’ is worse than what it replaced (cough, ahem, Yosemite over Mavericks, cough). With a sufficiently large backup drive you can easily roll back to a week ago or plus, totally different OS, no sweat. Huge help.

      Also, you can partition the large drive for multi use, use Time Machine for multiple Macs, etc.

      Hard drives are cheap, get a giant one, you’ll be glad you spent the extra $20 for another 2TB!

  10. Werner says:

    Restore problem example: I don’t use any cloud. Now my Mail is corrupted. Can somebody tell me, how to restore. Same problem with address.
    So time machine backup is great, but restore isn’t.

  11. PTC Bernie says:

    One issue I tripped over was that TM doesn’t know what to do if you delete an old back up from the destination drive.

    I did this thinking I was freeing up space. It took a lot of time at the local Apple Store to get it working again.

    • Cerebro says:

      Yes, that’s a notable example of what NOT to do. Don’t go poking around in Time Machine and, manually, delete stuff. Time Machine indexes the drive so it knows EXACTLY what’s on it and EXACTLY what’s changed since the previous back-up. Messing with it can throw a wrench in things. TM will, automatically, delete old back-ups whenever it needs space for new ones. Just set-and-forget and TM will do it’s thing.

      • Kathy Lear says:

        So this is exactly my issue – TM says it will delete old backups when it needs space for new ones. But I keep getting an error popup that says it doesn’t have room for a new backup and therefore hasn’t done one for more than a week. Why is this automatic feature not working?

        • Michelle says:

          I am having the same issue, it says there isn’t room for another back up so why isn’t it deleting older versions? Can anyone help with this question?

          • Paul says:

            Time Machine will automatically prune older backups to make room for new backups, but it reduces the ability to walk back far in time if there isn’t a lot of space for the time machine backups.

  12. James A. Thompson says:

    How does one clean or clear a HD of a MAC or Back-up HD you are no longer using and wish get rid of it.

  13. CapeFlyer says:

    When I restored from my TM it didn’t restore the third party apps in my Applications folder. Called Apple and a Senior Tech confirmed I would have to reinstall them. No big deal for those purchased from iTunes but a PIA for all the others.
    BTW: I got the same answer from my cloud back up provider – Crash Plan

  14. Christine says:

    So I used Time Machine with my MacOSX10.6 laptop, the laptop DIED, so now how do I get the info off of it into my desktop MacMini OSX Yosemite 10.10.3???

    • Toby says:

      Visit Pondini.org for answers related to all things Time Machine.

    • pab says:

      Open the “Time Machine” application in your /Applications/ folder and restore files from the old Time Machine backup to the new Mac OS X machine. Or open a Finder folder with the files you want to restore, and go to the Time Machine menu item and enter from there.

      Migration Assistant can copy the old files from the old Mac too.

      I wouldn’t bother with apps from 10.6 to 10.11, stick to personal files etc.

  15. John Z says:

    Having used Time Machine for several years, I will add a caveat to the section about setting up the backup drive. It’s a good idea to reformat a new drive into a Mac-preferred format, like the journaled format. However, I recommend that you do NOT format as “case-sensitive” journaled. This has created a problem for me with my backup of my backup drive. Do a quick search on the support forums for the technical reasons why, but the journaled, non-case sensitive is the way to go.

  16. Robert Omer says:

    With the Google fiber service we get 1 terabyte of cloud storage. It seems like this would be nice place to keep the backup files. How do you setup up Time Machine to accomplish this

  17. Graig says:

    Thanks, now how about a tutorial on doing a full restore of the system.

  18. Mike says:

    Finally tried Time Machine a few months back, after years of relying on 3rd party backup solutions. Apple Support has no answer for this issue I have.

    If I boot off another drive and run an optimizer on my primary volume (using either DiskWarrior or DriveGenius, depending on the issue involved), rebooting off the primary drive after optimization causes Time Machine to think that *the entire volume* has changed and a complete backup occurs. Every single file, apparently.

    This wipes out any archived files, which defeats the entire purpose of using Time Machine. Unfortunately, optimization of files and/or the directory is necessary from time to time. Fortunately use a 3-version backup scheme, so I never permanently lost data. But this Time Machine bug leaves me aghast. Have also never tried to restore from the Time Machine backup, which appears to be a bit hairier than advertised, from what I gather.

    Anyone else experience this and/or have a workaround? (Besides using a 6TB drive to back up 750GB of data! LOL)

    • Scotty the Walker says:

      Apps like DiskWarrior or DriveGenius or whatever else likely remove .ds_store files which store metadata about specific folders, by doing so Time Machine will have no idea what has or hasn’t been modified so will backup everything and assume it has all been modified. Who knows what those apps do but they could be doing any number of things to the file system and modifying it, which would also trigger a full backup. Personally, I’ve never used any third party utility except for SuperDuper and haven’t had any trouble. OS X has disk utility, fsck, etc.

      Using a 6TB drive to backup 750GB of data is a great idea, you would have many snapshots to possibly restore from for one, or you could limit the space assigned to the backups and use the rest for personal storage. Not buying a larger drive is silly at this point, the best price points are always at the largest size capacities, so why not spend $10-$20 more and get another 1Tb or 2TB of disk space?

  19. Bill K. says:

    Can Time Machine work to a drive plugged into an Airport Extreme.

  20. LaTonya says:

    Hi, I started using time machine a few months ago and the first time it backed up fine but now I’m getting messages saying it can’t backup????? I deleted my backup file once and started time machine all over but I’m getting those messages again on a daily basis, when I hit back now it starts like its backing up then the can’t back up message comes on the screen again…… Please Help!
    Thank You

  21. John Chalotay says:

    My unused desktop with OS X 10.7.4 the recommended Update is OS X 10.7.5 but the Update process stops in the middle with a note “can not finish Update because it is corrupt”. 4 technicians were unable to do the Update. Now I have to buy a boat, for my anchor. Gentleman, reading your comments about the problems you have, I came to the conclusion, that there are still some smart people on this universe. Those whom don’t have computers at all.
    Best regards, John Frustrated,

  22. Naomi says:

    No one states whether or not ALL of my photo’s have been backed up. How would I know? I can’t seem to view them from the toshiba 2TB external device. I don’t just want iPhoto backed up but ALL of my photo’s as well. Anyone know? NK

  23. C Thornton says:

    My time machine does not give me the option of a drive to select. How acn I rectify this please?

  24. RK says:

    After my crappy Seagate HDD died, I bought WD HDD.

    I got a 1TB ext HDD and thought it should be enough for 450 +/-GB. Wrong!

    Time Machine requires three times the space that you’re backing up. Does it state that anywhere in the Time Machine app?

    So my new ext HDD was uselss for backups (now delegated to copying files to), and I had to purchase a larger one. I bought a 3TB HDD for my Time Machine backups. A 2TB HDD would’ve worked too.

  25. Ethan Sommer says:

    Will this automatically back up my os x as well?

  26. Gabriel says:

    Very informative article, having a backup is indeed the best practice to prevent data loss.

  27. PRJ says:

    The article is very informative. Thanks for that. Is it really required to back up the Operating system. Correct me if I am wrong but this can always be done through Apple if something unfortunate happens. Fully agree with backing up Files and Folders. Currently backing up on a 2TB portable drive as using IMAC with HD of 1TB. Appreciate your comments.

  28. Sheila says:

    How much space do you need for back up on mini mac. I bought an external drive that I thought was plenty big enough but when it went to configure it it said it wasn’t big enough and will continue using No Name, and I haven’t a clue what or where this is!

    • BPJB says:

      I like to say that someone generally wants an external drive for backups that is at least twice the size of the internal drive if not larger, because the larger the external drive the more time machine ‘snapshots’ from different points in time can be backed up and referenced. Most modern external hard drives are quite large and sufficient for this task. In general it is prudent to buy the largest external drive that you can afford at a reasonable price point, as long as it is 2x-4x the size of the internal drive you wish to backup it should be OK.

      Amazon has many good prices on external hard drives http://amzn.to/2t06Eg8

      Personally I have a 5TB external drive partitioned in two, 1/2 is for Time Machine and the other half general backups. My internal drive is 512 GB, and so it backs up to a 2.5 TB Time Machine volume. Just an example, but you get the idea.

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