How to Back Up Your Mac to Time Machine or iCloud

Your Mac is home to precious photos and important documents. Without a backup, you could lose all that data and more if your hard drive or SSD fails or your Mac goes missing.

Don’t take the risk. Follow the instructions below to back up your Mac using Time Machine, iCloud, or both.

How to Back Up Your Mac to Time Machine

Time Machine is the best way to back up your Mac. Since macOS has Time Machine pre-installed, all you need to use it is an external drive. If you don’t have one, you should seriously consider buying an external drive for Mac backups.


Most backup solutions save a single snapshot of your Mac from the last time you backed it up. Each time you back up your Mac, it replaces that snapshot with a new one. In contrast, Time Machine keeps countless snapshots of your Mac dating back weeks, months, and even years.

This means you can revert your entire Mac—or an individual file on your Mac—to the state it was in on a certain date. You can also use Time Machine to recover long-lost files, undo new changes to a document, or travel back to a time before malware infected your Mac.

A Time Machine backup includes absolutely everything on your Mac: photos, documents, user preferences, and third-party apps. If you replace your Mac, change the storage drive, or wipe it clean, it’s easy to restore a Time Machine backup and recover every piece of data you lost.

Step 1. Get an External Drive to Use With Time Machine

Time Machine creates a backup of your Mac on an external drive. You can use USB, Thunderbolt, or FireWire to connect a drive to your Mac, although you may need to use an adapter if your Mac doesn’t have the right ports. Apple used to offer a product called Time Capsule, which let you back up your Mac with Time Machine over Wi-Fi. But now, your only option to use Time Machine wirelessly is with a NAS hard drive.

As Time Machine saves multiple snapshots of your Mac, it’s a good idea to make sure your external drive has about twice as much storage as your computer, if not more. Open the Apple menu and go to About This Mac > Storage to see how much storage your Mac has.

You can store other files alongside Time Machine backups on your external drive. However, Time Machine doesn’t include these files in the backup. Either way, it’s a good idea to remove any important files from your external drive before setting it up for use with Time Machine, as you may need to erase the drive to reformat it.

Step 2. Select Your Drive in the Time Machine Preferences

When you connect an external drive to your Mac for the first time, you should see a prompt asking if you’d like to use this drive with Time Machine. Choose to Use as Backup Disk to set that drive as your Time Machine destination.

We recommend you enable the option to Encrypt Backup Disk. This keeps your data secure in the event that someone else gets hold of your external drive. Create a password to use for your backup and don’t lose it.

You can’t restore an encrypted backup if you forget the password.

If the prompt to use your connected drive doesn’t appear automatically, open the Apple menu and go to System Preferences > Time Machine. Then click Select Disk and choose your drive from the available disks.

Time Machine prompts you to erase and reformat your external drive if it’s in the wrong format. This deletes all the data on your drive, so be sure to remove any important files first.

Step 3. Create Automatic or Manual Time Machine Backups

After selecting an external drive to use for backups, Time Machine automatically creates hourly backups whenever that drive is connected.

To start a new backup manually, click the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and select Back Up Now. If you can’t see the Time Machine icon, go to System Preferences > Time Machine and enable the Show Time Machine in menu bar option.

You can view the progress of your backup in the Time Machine preferences or by clicking the Time Machine icon in the menu bar. The first backup might take several hours, but subsequent backups should be much faster.

Time Machine keeps hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past week, weekly backups for the past month, and monthly backups for the past year. When your external drive fills up, Time Machine deletes the oldest backups to create more space.

Click Enter Time Machine from the menu bar icon or open the Time Machine app if you ever need to restore a Time Machine backup.

How to Back Up Your Mac to iCloud

The problem with a Time Machine backup is that you could easily lose your external drive and your Mac at the same time due to fire or theft. If this happened, you would lose all your data and your backup, leaving you no way to restore your files. Fortunately, you can sync your Mac with iCloud to back up data remotely as well.

Although it’s not actually possible to back up your entire Mac to iCloud—like you can with an iPhone or iPad—it is possible to sync documents from your Mac to iCloud. This stores them securely on Apple’s servers, which Apple regularly backs up, making them accessible to you from across the globe, even if your Mac stops working.

To be clear, syncing documents from your Mac to iCloud isn’t the same as backing them up. There is still only one copy of each file; the only difference is that it’s now stored in iCloud rather than on your Mac. Whenever you edit, delete, or create a new document from your Mac, it syncs those changes to the files in iCloud. These changes also sync to any other devices you use with iCloud.

However, if you lose your Mac, all your documents remain safely in iCloud. And if you delete a document by mistake, iCloud gives you 30 days to recover it. For many people, this is all they would want from backing up a Mac to iCloud anyway.

But you can’t use iCloud to travel back in time and revert your Mac to a previous state, like you can with Time Machine. You also can’t use iCloud to restore all the data from your Mac—only your documents and data from iCloud-compatible apps work with it.

Step 1. Enable iCloud Sync for Apps and Documents

When you sync your Mac with iCloud, it also syncs with any other Apple devices using your Apple ID. This means you can sync the same photos, contacts, calendars, reminders, notes, and other documents across all your Apple devices.

To enable iCloud sync, open the Apple menu and go to System Preferences > Apple ID. Select iCloud from the sidebar, then enable the checkbox for every app you want to sync with iCloud.

To sync the documents on your Mac, click Options next to iCloud Drive and enable the Desktop & Documents Folders option. This uploads and syncs all the files from the Desktop and Documents folders on your Mac to iCloud, making them available in the Files app from any other Apple device. You can also sync Mail, System Preferences, and other compatible apps from these options.

You may need to purchase more iCloud storage if you don’t have enough space for all the documents on your Mac.

Step 2. Connect to Wi-Fi to Sync Your Mac to iCloud

After enabling iCloud sync in System Preferences, your Mac automatically syncs with iCloud whenever you’re connected to Wi-Fi. To view the sync progress, open a new Finder window and look for a loading circle next to iCloud Drive in the sidebar.

If you need to work on files offline, remember to download them from iCloud first. You can do this by clicking the Download icon next to a document or folder in Finder. A cloud icon without an arrow means the document is currently syncing to iCloud.

You can now access your files on any Mac or Apple device signed in to your iCloud account. You can even access them through the iCloud website.

Keep Multiple Backups of Your Mac

To keep your data as safe as possible, aim to have three separate copies of your Mac’s data, made up of two local copies and one offsite backup. This is known as the three-two-one method and offers the best protection against data loss.

Apple doesn’t offer a third method to back up your Mac, but there are plenty of alternative services available instead. The best options include Carbon Copy Cloner for local backups or Backblaze for a cloud-based solution.

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