Dave’s Tech Rescue

How to back up your Mac with Time Machine

In this guide I show you how to back up your Mac to an external hard drive, and what extra steps to take if you already use cloud backup. We’re going to use the Time Machine software that’s included with every Mac to back up your files, apps and settings. Then if anything ever happens to your Mac, you’ll be able to plug in the Time Machine drive and get everything back.

I’ve made a Youtube video that explains all the steps in this tutorial. Or, read on!

What you’ll need

Let’s take a look at what you’re going to need.

You’ll need an external hard drive to back up to. Any kind of USB drive is fine, it doesn’t have to be made specifically for Apple. I’ve always found WD Elements reliable, and you can buy it from Amazon using one of the following links.

Buy WD Elements 1 TB hard drive on Amazon:


Buy WD Elements 4 TB hard drive on Amazon:


As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

These hard drives come in various capacities. I’ve gone for 4 terabytes because I do a lot of work with videos, but for most people I think 1 terabyte will be enough.

Also if you have a newer Mac like me, it doesn’t have full size USB ports and you’ll need to get a USB type C adapter if you don’t have one already. Here’s one you can purchase from Amazon:


The hard drive should be one that you haven’t put any files on already, because when we set up Time Machine it’s probably going to ask us to erase the drive. If you have put files on this hard drive already then see if you can back those files up, just transfer them somewhere else, maybe transfer them onto your Mac before we get started.

And because Time Machine sets up your hard drive in Apple’s own proprietary way, just be aware that you won’t be able to use this hard drive on a Windows computer after you’ve set it up for Time Machine.

Setting up Time Machine

To get started, we just need to tell the Mac that we have a new hard drive for it to back up to.

Time needed: 10 minutes.

How to set up Time Machine

  1. Open System Preferences

    Click the Apple icon in the top left of the screen.
    Then click System Preferences, and then Time Machine.

  2. Select the hard drive to back up to

    Click on Select Backup Disk.
    Now plug in the hard drive, and it will show up in this list.
    You want to make absolutely sure you know which drive it is, because you’ll probably be asked to erase it. So click on the disk to select it.

  3. Optional: add encryption to your backups

    There’s an option here to encrypt backups. If you tick this box it means you can put a password on the hard drive, and no one else will be able to see the files on the hard drive unless they know the password.
    However, if you forget the password, you won’t be able to use this drive, and it will be useless as a backup. So make sure you keep a note of this password.

  4. Click Use Disk

    When you’re ready, click Use Disk.
    Your Mac may tell you that it needs to erase this drive to use it for Time Machine. As long as you don’t have any files on the drive, click Erase.
    If you chose to add encryption, you will be asked to set up a password at this point. Then click Encrypt Disk.
    Then you just need to wait a few seconds for the disk to be prepared.

And that’s all you need to do. Time Machine is set up. You should see a timer counting down, and then it starts to back up your Mac.

While you’ve got this screen open, I recommend you check that you’ve got Backup Automatically turned on. And I also recommend you turn on Show Time Machine in the Menu bar. This gives you an icon at the top, so you can see the progress of your backups and the time when you last did a backup.

The first backup can take a long time. Obviously it depends on how much is stored on your Mac, and whether it’s a fast or slow computer.

I’ve got a fast new Mac with loads of files on it, and the first backup took about 2 hours. Once the initial backup is done though, your regular backups should only take a few minutes.

You don’t have to keep this window open – you can close it and use the computer as normal while the backup is going on.

When to unplug the drive

The next thing you’ll need to know is when can you unplug the hard drive? Well it’s always a good idea to make sure the Mac isn’t in the middle of a backup before you just yank the hard drive out.

The best way is to open the Finder, and next to your backup drive you’ll see a spinning icon, which shows that your Mac is doing a backup. When this has finished spinning, it will change to an eject icon, so you can eject and then unplug the drive.

And if you have the menu bar icon for Time Machine, you can click on it to see how far it is through doing the backup. This will also tell you when the most recent backup took place.

Making regular backups

You want to get into the habit of doing regular backups. It’s really simple though – all you do is plug in the drive and leave it. Time Machine will back up the Mac on its own.

The first time you plug your drive in after the initial backup, it will ask you for your encryption password if you have one. If you type that in and tick Remember this password, you won’t be asked for it in future.

Time machine will start to do a backup shorty after you plug the drive in, but if you‘re in a hurry you can click the Time Machine icon on the menu bar, and Back Up Now.

If you leave the drive plugged in it will update its backups every hour. I don’t recommend leaving the drive plugged in permanently though because if disaster strikes your computer, then it might hit your backup drive too. I recommend keeping the backup drive somewhere else in the house, ideally somewhere that’s safe from theft, fire and floods. 

How to recover your files

Now that you’ve made your backup, let’s take a look at what you can do if you ever need to use Time Machine to get your files back.

There are two scenarios here.

One is if something really bad happens to your Mac and you have to either erase it, or maybe even buy a new Mac. When you are setting up a new Mac, one of the first questions it asks you is: would you like to restore your files from a Time Machine. So you plug in your hard drive, and you’ll get your files back. Your Mac will actually be set up exactly how your old Mac was.

The second scenario is if you ever need to recover a file you deleted. Say you accidentally deleted a file, and then you emptied the trash. As long as you did a Time Machine backup recently, you should be able to get the file back. You just plug in the hard drive, and then click on the Time Machine icon in the menu bar.

Then Enter Time Machine.

And it goes into this view with a timeline down the side. We only started doing backups today, but eventually you’ll have a full timeline here with lots dates to choose from.

I’m going to use this control at the right, that lets me go back in time to the most recent backup, which was today at 12 o’clock. I can see my file hadn’t been deleted then, so I can select it then click Restore.

And I’ve got my file back!

This also works if you don’t like the changes you’ve recently made to a file. You can go back to a previous version of that file and restore it.

Renaming your drive

This section is completely optional, but if you don’t like the name of your hard drive when it shows up on your Mac, you can change it. I like to rename it to Time Machine, and then I won’t get it confused with any of the other drives I plug in.

You just need to Control–click on the drive, then Get Info. And then where it says Name and Extension, just type in whatever you want to call it. And then close this, and your drive has the new name.

Include your cloud files

Now there’s one more thing which I kind of mentioned at the beginning of this video, which is if you store your files in a cloud service like iCloud Drive, Onedrive or Dropbox, they have a feature which tries to save space on your hard drive by just keeping your files on the cloud.

The problem is when you come to do a backup with Time Machine, because the files aren’t sitting on your drive, they don’t get backed up.

Now this might not be a problem if you’ve got a lot of trust in your cloud service provider, then your files will hopefully always be there when you need them. But what if you got locked out of your cloud account?

I’m going to show you now what to do if you have iCloud Drive or OneDrive, to keep the files locally on your computer so that they’ll be backed up by Time Machine. And what I show you will be the same sort of thing if you have Dropbox or another cloud provider.

Let’s look at iCloud drive first. Click on the apple in the top left of your screen. Then System Preferences. Then Apple ID.

And make sure you’re in iCloud on the left. If you have a tick next to iCloud Drive, it means you’re using it. And down at the bottom, this chart shows you how much storage you use on iCloud.

Just above it, you have this tick box, Optimise Mac Storage. If it’s ticked it means your files may not all be stored on the Mac at the moment. So if you have plenty of space, you can untick this and it will keep all those files on the Mac. Now I don’t know if your Mac has enough space to let you store all the files, but if you take the tick out of this box it will warn you if your Mac can’t handle them all.

If you want to get an idea of how much space you have on your Mac, click the apple at the top of the screen, then About This Mac, and then Storage. The right hand side of this bar shows you how much available space you have.

So that’s iCloud Drive. The same goes for Onedrive. Click on the Onedrive icon at the top of the screen, then Help and Settings, then Preferences.

Look under Files on demand, and you’ll see a button that says Download all OneDrive files now. And this tells me how much space you have available.

I think cloud backup is great because you don’t need to remember to do your backups, but its weakness is if you ever get locked out of your account, so I think it’s always a good idea to have some other form of backup of your important files.

And if your cloud provider asks you for some extra contact information like your phone number or another email address, it’s important that you give it to them, because it could help you if you ever get locked out to regain access to your account.

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