How to Backup an iPhone to External Hard Drive with Mac OS X

Mar 4, 2016 - 34 Comments

How to backup iPhone, iPad to an external hard drive

For those of us with larger storage size iPhone and iPad models, backing up the device locally can be a burden on limited disk space. A simple solution to this storage dilemma is to backup an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to an external hard drive instead, where disk space is often more abundant. We’ll walk you through how to get this setup in Mac OS X, so that any locally made backup from iTunes goes to an external disk rather than the internal drive, thereby helping to preserve local disk space and offload storage requirements.


In order to successfully get iTunes backups of iOS devices to automatically backup to and store on an external drive, you’ll need some working knowledge of the command line and directory structures, since we’ll be using symbolic links to get this done. Aside from that, you’ll need the usual to make a generic iPhone or iPad backup with iTunes, including a USB cable for the iOS device, and of course an external hard drive with enough free space available to maintain the backups. I personally use the same hard drive for Time Machine and for file storage and created a subfolder on the file storage portion for iOS backups, but you can use a separate drive, a dedicated drive, a partition, or whatever works for you. If you haven’t done so already, be sure to set up Time Machine and complete a backup of the Mac before beginning.

How to Backup iPhone & iPad to an External Hard Drive with Mac OS X

This works the same with all versions of Mac OS X, all types of iOS devices with versions of iOS, and all versions of iTunes, since the location of the iOS backup files has stayed the same on the Mac. Technically you could do this with a network volume as well, but we’re focusing on a traditional external hard disk here.

  1. Quit iTunes if you haven’t done so already
  2. Connect the external hard drive to the Mac if you haven’t done so already, then create a new folder on the drive (or partition) to dedicate to the iTunes backups. In this example, we’re creating a folder to store the backups called “iTunesExternalBackupSymLink” so that it’s purpose remains obvious
  3. Open a new Finder window, then hit Command+Shift+G and enter the following path:
  4. ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/

  5. Locate the folder in this directory called “Backup” and copy that to the folder you just made on the external drive (in this example, the folder called ‘iTunesExternalBackupSymLink’ )
  6. Back in the original location of the Backup folder (at ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/), rename “Backup” to “Backup-Old”, or simply delete it – only do this after you have copied this folder to the external drive
  7. Now launch the “Terminal” application, found in /Applications/Utilities/ and type the following command, changing the names of your external drive and folder as appropriate ,then hit the return key:
  8. ln -s /Volumes/FileStorage/iTunesExternalBackupSymLink/Backup/ ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync
    In this example, the external hard drive is named “FileStorage”, and the iTunes backup folder on that volume is ‘iTunesExternalBackupSymLink’, so adjust those as needed for your situation
    Create symbolic link to backup iPhone to external hard drive

  9. Quit Terminal, then confirm the symbolic link was created by returning to “~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/” in the Finder, the “Backup” folder should now be a generic file with an arrow on it, signifying there is now a direct link between that “Backup” and the location specified on the external hard disk
  10. Verify the iphone backup symbolic link exists to external drive

  11. Open iTunes and connect the iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to the computer as usual, select the device within iTunes, select ‘This Computer’ as the backup location (optionally encrypting the backup), and then choose “Back Up Now” to start the device backup to the external drive
  12. Backup the iPhone to the external hard drive from iTunes

  13. When the backup has completed in iTunes, double-check everything is in order by going to the folder on the external drive and confirming there is a “Backup” folder containing a hexadecimal named subdirectory – this is the backup made from iTunes of the device
  14. Confirm the iPhone backup from iTunes was made on the external hard drive

That’s all there is to it. As long as the external hard drive is connected to the Mac, iTunes will now backup to that external storage volume rather than the internal hard disk. The backup will fail if the external hard drive is not connected to the Mac. Likewise, restoring an iOS device from a local backup will be impossible if the external hard drive is not connected to the Mac.

This offers a great way to save local disk space and offload iOS backups made in iTunes to another hard drive. You should still continue to backup to iCloud as well, since having dual backups offers a level of redundancy that is always appreciated should something go wrong.

If you’re interested in storing backups on external volumes, you may also be interested in moving an iTunes library to an external hard drive too, since that can further offload media and free up local disk space.

Creating External iTunes Backups Entirely with Command Line

Advanced users can also perform the entire process of directory creation, copying, and linking from the command line, if desired. The general syntax for that process would look like the following:

mkdir /Volumes/ExternalFileStorage/iTunesDeviceBackups/

cp ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup/ Volumes/ExternalFileStorage/iTunesDeviceBackups/

cd ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/

rm -r Backup/

ln -s /Volumes/ExternalFileStorage/iTunesDeviceBackups/Backup/ ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/

Once the symbolic link has been created, open iTunes and start the backup as usual.

For what it’s worth, there are sloppy and less technical ways to go about this, mainly copying the iOS backup files from an internal drive to an external drive manually, then removing them from the internal drive, and copying them back from the external drive back to the internal drive when needed, but that’s really a hassle, and given how well the symbolic link process works, it’s just not necessary.

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

34 Comments

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  1. Luis says:

    What about Windows? Is it possible to do the same on a windows computer running itunes?

    • Paul says:

      Yes, if you backup an iPhone to Windows PC you can also copy the iTunes backup folder to an external drive on Windows, then symlink it to the external drive.

      From a command window (run command.com if all else), assuming Windows 10 and external drive is “E” with directory ‘iTunesDeviceBackup’

      mklink /J "%APPDATA%\Roaming\Apple Computer\MobileSync\Backup" "E:\iTunesDeviceBackup"

      Initial path may vary depending on Windows version and where iTunes stores backup files, see here for more version paths:

      http://osxdaily.com/2009/09/11/iphone-backup-location/

      I no longer us Windows primarily so I can’t run through this at the moment, but it works and I used to do it with iTunes media. Details about symlinks in Windows are here:

      https://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc753194.aspx

      It works fine, just slightly different to setup. Everything else is the same, backups to iTunes then transfer directly to the attached external drive.

  2. Adam says:

    Does this method need to use a symlink? Would an Alias of the backup folder also work?

    • Ray Junior says:

      don’t use alias’ for stuff like this. sym links hard code the info so that no mistakes happen.

      some system items or apps will view an alias as a file, instead of a link to the folder, and ignore or fail when attempting to write to the folder

      a sym link virtually guarantees to fool all system and app processes into believing the directory exists in the proper location while transparently pointing it to the new one.

    • On Won says:

      Yes this requires symlink, can simplify like so

      ln -s /Volumes/[External Drive]/MobileSync ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync

  3. InTheory says:

    how does one undo this?

    • oing says:

      Delete the symbolic link (finder or command line), then copy the “Backup” folder from the external drive back to the user library location. Easy peasy.

  4. Marc says:

    The ln command string seems to be missing the Backup folder in the target destination. I’m running OSX 10.8.5 and the command I had to enter was
    ln -s /Volumes/M3TB/iTunesExternalBackupSymLink/Backup/ ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup

    2nd thing is that the external hard seems to have to be formatted in Apple format. Mine is NTFS and the backup fails…

  5. Ray Junior says:

    this is a pretty horrible idea

    actually.. it’s a great idea that apple DESTROYS (typical nanny state apple telling us what we can and cannot do)

    I’ve tried using symbolic links (ln command in terminal) to move other system related items to an external drive and any time apple issues a system update that happens to addresses something in the location of the link on the drive, it assumes the actual files are missing , deletes the link, creates a new/generic/fresh install version of the folder that was there before and updates that instead.

    apple’s system updates DO NOT respect user choices, especially symbolic links.

    the solution: after each system/software update, check to see if your link is still in tact. if not, youll have to copy over the updated files to your external drive then recreate the symbolic link

    • sandy trump says:

      iTunes backups of iPhones and iPads are not system files, so this is not a problem. It works flawlessly, I use it all the time.

      Of course you’re going to have a problem if you’re trying to move your SYSTEM files with symlinks, that is a bad idea.

      • Toby says:

        I agree with Sandy on this. I’ve used a symbolic link on my Mail folder for five years and many OS changes without a problem. It’ll have to be for another OS X Daily article, but ln -s for the Mail folder works really well because that folder can become massive in size. I send mine to a Mail folder on an external Raid.

  6. MacMaster says:

    You can also change the backup location in iTunes. Go to Preferences > Advanced and set the media location there.

    • On Won says:

      The media location is for your music, apps, itunes junk, it does not include the iOS backups

      Media location:

      ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media

      Backup location:

      ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/

  7. noway says:

    this is a great tip, HOWEVER, doing this, when you back up your computer, do are no longer backing up your iOS backup.

    One would need to do a second backup of this data on another drive or partition in order to be safely backed up. Nothing is backed up until it is backed up twice!!

    • On Won says:

      Yes correct, but you should backup to iCloud as well. It’s easy and a good option.

      • You either backup to your computer- and include passwords, as it’s encrypted- or you backup to the cloud, which isn’t encrypted.

        Your choice.

        • Gaba says:

          iTunes backups must be encrypted manually, highly recommended. iCloud backups are encrypted automatically, which is why they include health data and passwords. Also why the current FBI / San Bernadino situation is where it is, they reset the iCloud password.

          Anyway, everyone should backup to BOTH services for having reliable backups. Redundancy is good.

          • Vloris says:

            No. There was no (recent enough) iCloud backup of the San Bernardino phone, *and* the password was reset. That started the whole issue.

            iCloud backup can be read by apple and they did send it to the FBI. Only it isn’t recent enough, and with a changed password, the phone can’t be triggered to backup again to iCloud.

  8. Nanette says:

    hi I am running Version 10.11.3 (15D21) and this does not seem to be on my system. ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/ I am a novice Mac user; can anyone help? Thanks

  9. Tom says:

    Hi Paul,
    Quick question:
    Will the external iPhone folders continue to be backed up in Time Machine?

  10. GrammarNutsy says:

    How to “backup” an iPhone?

    Great! I’m backupping my phone right now!

    There, I backupped it!

    #EnglishIsHard

    • KnowledgeNutsy says:

      GrammarNutsy, I am glad you were able to “backup” your iPhone to an external hard drive, it works great to backup your iPhone this way, offloading the storage to another drive, right? I have been going this route since the iPhone started requiring backups, personally. Now, once you escape the 17th century over there and join the 21st century with computers and iPhones and other technologies that require backups, you will find that ‘backup’ is indeed the proper word and backup is proper vernacular. In fact, the verb form is ‘back up’ in two words, whereas the noun is ‘backup’, one word. That is one word, backup. Backup that iPhone! The more you know, the less you will sound like you just crawled out of a slumber, Sir Rip Van Winkle! Enjoy your backups!

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backup

      #BackupIphone #LOL #BackupYouriPhone

  11. Shervin says:

    Hi

    Could someone please help me out…

    I have done all the steps and there seems to be problem at the very end!!!

    I keep getting the following message in the “Terminal” window: …/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/: File exists

    and the Symbolic Link is not created!!!

    What am I supposed to do?

  12. moviegourmet says:

    My iPhone is backing up now. Thank you! For those who are having trouble, I would recommend typing your string for terminal in a Word doc. Make sure it’s perfect. Don’t have spaces in your external HD name or your folder name on the HD that will hold the backup. Make sure those two file names match perfectly. Open terminal. Don’t hit enter or a space, just paste the string, make sure there isn’t a space at the end of the string, and then hit RETURN. It took me a few times, but I eventually got it to work. Save your Word doc with a link to this article. I even pasted the string several times on the page in case it got corrupted somehow as I need to do it again for a second iPhone on a different hard drive.

  13. Chase Page says:

    I have followed all your steps, I have OS X 10.11.4, and it’s still not working. I’m using a Seagate backup drive, though. Once I do the terminal command, it creates the file with the arrow, but when I go back to iTunes, it says “Your phone backup is corrupt or missing” or something like that. I’m not sure what’s going on.

    • Chase Page says:

      As a follow-up, I have spaces in the names of my External Hard Drive and the file name I want them to be backed up to. When I type them into the Terminal (I’m typing them correctly by the way – I’m using Tab so it automatically finds and types the file name into the Terminal), it doesn’t make a folder with an arrow; it makes a paper with an arrow. I’ve found that when I get a folder with an arrow, it works. But, like I said, when I use the names with spaces, it only gives me the paper with an arrow. Help?

      • Chase Page says:

        Update: My file name is “Chase’s iPhone Backups”. It’s the apostrophe that’s messing up the process. Is there a workaround to this? If not, no worries. The apostrophe’s not that big of a deal to me.

  14. Kira says:

    Hi,

    I followed every step but got an error at the end. When I click to back up to “This Computer” on iTunes, it gave me error message “iTunes could not back up the iPhone “……..” because an error occurred.” Could someone help?

  15. Wing says:

    If I ever want to dismantle SymLink, how do I do that? As in I no longer want to backup to an external hd but to the mac instead, what are the steps? Thanks!

    • Paul says:

      Great question. Since the symlink is basically a file (like an alias) rather than a folder, you can either unlink it or delete it like a file and not like a folder. For example:

      Change to the directory where the symbolic link exists (in this case, perhaps on external hard drive)

      cd /directory/where/symlink/exists/

      Then remove the symbolic link in that directory:

      unlink symlink

      That should do the trick. Be very specific with the command syntax, as exact names and paths matter.

      It’s less desirable but you can also use the rm -i command

      rm -i /Path/to/symlink

      If you’re new to the command line, it can be helpful to enable a confirmation dialog with rm and srm as discussed here:

      http://osxdaily.com/2016/04/21/enable-confirmation-rm-srm-delete-files-folders-command-line/

  16. Simon says:

    I have done everything as directed above, however, as with Shervin above here, I too get the file exists line. When I do step 7 the Backup folder is there alongside the Backup-old file, but there is no arrow to indicate the folder is linked. I am using El Capitan and a LaCie external drive. As a result when going to stage 8, the phone backs up to the computer and not the external drive. Very Frustrating.

  17. Johann Bisschoff says:

    Hi,

    This is great, thanks!

    Is there a way to do this backup to a hard drive connected to a base station?
    [Volumes] seem to be restricted to a directly connected drive and not a “via-connected” drive (i.e. “Base Station/MyExternal”)

    Thanks for the advice!

    Cheers,
    JB

  18. Catherine says:

    I followed the instructions and everything seemed to be ok, however, when I try to perform a backup through iTunes, the following message pops up – “iTunes could not restore the following iPhone “iPhone” because the backup was corrupt or not compatible with the iPhone that is being restored”

    Please help. I have no idea what’s going wrong.

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