Time Machine is the native macOS backup and recovery tool. Using it regularly helps protect your information from accidental deletion. Time Machine is designed to create local backups to an external storage device. It offers a simple method by which you can protect the valuable information on your Mac. Apple also offers the ability to create backups through its iCloud cloud service.

In this article, we are going to discuss how to restore your Mac from Time Machine backups. We will also investigate how to use data recovery software to restore lost data when no backup is available.


IMPORTANT: The importance of backing up your data cannot be overstated. If the information stored on your Mac holds any value for you, it needs to be backed up regularly. Apple knows this, and it’s why they include a tool like Time Machine as part of the default macOS installation. You should take advantage of this free tool to protect your data. Get yourself an external hard drive and start regularly backing up your Mac with Time Machine as soon as possible.

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I need to recover specific files from Time Machine

Selectively restore the files from a Time Machine backup using the first procedure presented after this chart.

I need to fully restore macOS from a Time Machine backup

Restore a complete drive from a Time Machine backup using the second procedure presented after this chart.

I have accidentally deleted an important file but I didn’t have Time Machine active

You may be able to recover your file quickly from your Mac’s Trash. Just open the Trash folder and drag the items to your desktop or right-click on them and select Put Back to restore them to their original location.

I have accidentally deleted an important file but I didn’t have Time Machine active and have emptied the Trash.

Data recovery software offers the best method of recovering files for which there are no backups and that are not in the Trash. We discuss recovering with software in the third section of the article after the chart.

I need to restore from Time Machine after a clean install.

Use Migration Assistant and Time Machine backups to restore user data.

I need to recover specific data from my old Mac’s Time Machine to my new one.

Connect the old backup and manually move files to your new computer. Follow the steps found below.

Restore Files Backed Up With Time Machine on Mac

Let’s look at how to selectively restore files from Time Machine in the event of lost or deleted data. This is probably the most common way Time Machine is used. It requires that backups have been created with the tool to use for data recovery. The files you want to recover must have been included in one of your Time Machine backups for this recovery method to be successful.

The following procedure should be used to restore files from a Time Machine backup:

  1. Before you can perform the restore, you need to connect the device that contains the Time Machine backups to your Mac. This makes the data in the backups available to the recovery application.
  2. Open a Finder window that displays the storage location where the lost data was last stored. For example, if the missing files were last in the Downloads folder, open a Finder window that displays that folder. There is no need to open a Finder window if the missing item was from the Desktop.
  3. Open Time Machine by clicking the Time Machine icon on the menu bar. You can also start Time Machine from Launchpad. If the icon is not on your menu bar, you can have it displayed by choosing Time Machine in System Preferences and selecting “Show Time Machine in menu bar.”
  4. Use Time Machine’s arrows and timeline to browse the local snapshots and backups. Scroll through to find the items you wish to recover. You can restore individual files or a complete disk at this point. Open Time Machine
  5. Select the items you wish to recover and click the Restore button. The restored items will be recovered to their original storage locations. Those files lost from your Downloads folder will be put back there after the recovery is complete. It may take some time for the process to finish based on the number of files and their sizes. Be patient and your files will soon be back where they belong. Choose file and recover with Time Machine

Restore your Mac from a Time Machine Backup

Time Machine is not only useful for recovering groups of lost or deleted files. You can also use it to perform a complete restore of your Mac’s user accounts and data. Time Machine will not recover your operating system.


Before proceeding, you need to have macOS installed on the machine. If you are performing a bare-metal restore, you’ll need to reinstall macOS before recovering data with Time Machine.

Once you have the OS installed, you will be using the Migration Assistant application which will extract data from your Time Machine backups.

Use the following steps to restore your Mac from Time Machine:

  1. Connect the disk that contains the Time Machine backup to your computer.
  2. Open Migration Assistant which can be found in the Utilities folder inside the Applications folder.Open Migration Assistant
  3. You will be prompted to select the data transfer method to be used for the migration. Choose the option to transfer From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk. Click the Continue button.Choose the recovery source
  4. Select the Time Machine backup you will use for recovery and click Continue.
  5. Choose which backup you wish to use for data recovery and click Continue.Choose the backup for the recovery
  6. Select the information you want to transfer. You can transfer user accounts, applications, files, folders, and system settings.
  7. Click Continue to begin the transfer. It may take multiple hours for large restores to complete.

Recover Data Without Time Machine

Time Machine is a great tool for recovering deleted files and folders. The catch is that you need to have backed up your data using Time Machine for it to be useful.

Unfortunately, you might not always have made a backup of the files that need to be recovered. They may have only been on your computer for a short time before being deleted.

When deleted files are not available in a backup or your Trash bin, data recovery software may be able to get them back for you. The macOS does not immediately physically remove data from a storage device when it is deleted. The operating system removes the logical links that make the data accessible and marks the storage space as being available for use.

Until the deleted items are overwritten by new information, data recovery software can repair the logical links and restore access. It essentially undeletes the deleted data, making it accessible to the OS and other applications.


IMPORTANT: If you plan on using data recovery software, stop using the affected disk as soon as you suspect data loss. Continued use of the device risks overwriting or corrupting the data you want to restore.

Many data recovery applications are on the market, and we have tested quite a few of them with varying results. We like Disk Drill for Mac as our favorite recovery software tool for macOS. It’s easy to use, has an intuitive interface, and recovers all types of files and formats. You can see other macOS solutions if Disk Drill is not right for you by checking our list of data recovery software for macOS.

Here are the steps to use for recovering deleted files with Disk Drill when you can’t restore from Time Machine backups:

  1. Download, install and launch Disk Drill. If the lost files are on your main disk, use an external USB drive for the download and installation to prevent overwriting existing data.
  2. Select the affected disk from the application’s disk list.
  3. Click the Search for lost data button to begin scanning for recoverable items.Search for lost data with Disk Drill
  4. Preview the files that can be recovered and select a safe restore location. Don’t use the original disk to avoid corrupting the data.
  5. Click the Recover button to complete the process.Select files to recover with Disk Drill

Disk Drill offers a streamlined method of recovering deleted files on your Mac without a Time Machine backup. Windows users can also run this intuitive recovery software on their machines. Check out our review to learn more about recovering data on Windows computers with Disk Drill.

How to view Time Machine backups from another Mac

You may find it necessary to view some files from a Time Machine backup that was not made on your Mac.

You can do that by following these steps:

  1. Connect the drive that contains the Time Machine backup you want to review to your Mac.
  2. Open Finder and select the external storage device.
  3. Select the folder named Backups.backupdb on the external drive.
  4. Double-click on the folder with the name of the Mac.
  5. Folders will be available and can be identified by the backup dates. Drill down into the folders to locate specific documents.

How to selectively recover files from your old Mac

You might want to recover some files from a Time Machine backup made on another computer.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Connect the drive that contains the Time Machine backup you want to recover to your computer.
  2. Open Finder and select the external storage device.
  3. Select the folder named Backups.backupdb on the external drive.
  4. Double-click on the folder with the name of the Mac.
  5. Double-click on Latest and then on Macintosh HD.
  6. Choose the folder that contains the files you want to recover.
  7. Drag files to your desktop to copy them. You may be prompted for your account credentials which you should supply.



Losing data on your Mac is never pleasant, but the problem can often be minimized if you have Time Machine backups available. You should use the tool regularly to backup your valuable information. Your backups might be the only way to recover from a serious data loss scenario. The procedures outlined above will help you restore files from Time Machine backups.

When you can’t restore files from Time Machine, data recovery software may be able to get your data back. For the best results, stop using the device with the lost files until recovery is complete. Good luck restoring your data!

Author • 45 articles

Robert Agar is the Content Writer & Managing Editor for Handy Recovery. Robert brings over 30 years of experience in data storage, security, compliance, backup, and recovery to the HandyRecovery team. Several years ago, he turned his attention from hands-on technical roles to develop a career as a freelance writer concentrating on technology and its impact on society. Areas of focus include the cloud, data recovery, artificial intelligence, and industrial automation.

Andrey Vasilyev

Andrey Vasilyev is an Editorial Advisor for Handy Recovery. Andrey is a software engineer expert with extensive expertise in data recovery, computer forensics, and data litigation. Andrey brings over 12 years of experience in software development, database administration, and hardware repair to the team.