How to restore files from Time Machine manually

TimeMachineIconXApple’s included Time Machine backup technology in OS X is a convenient and rather thorough way to make full-system backups of your Mac. It works by using multi-linked files on the backup drive to mirror unchanged data from a prior backup instance to a new one so both instances share the same data on disk. It then only copies changed data since the last backup, to the new backup instance. This approach allows Time Machine to create many snapshots of the entire system without any data redundancy on disk.

Whether it uses a disk image on a Time Capsule, or an external drive, Time Machine uses the raw HFS+ (Mac OS Extended) filesystem as a storage medium, which means that in addition to the Time Machine interface, you can use other means to access the Time Machine backup data.

The Time Machine interface

Time Machine interface in OS X

The Time Machine interface is the standard way to locate and restore backed up files (click image for larger view).

Using Apple’s Time Machine interface is perhaps the quickest way to restore a file in OS X. To do this, simply go to the file’s location (or where it is supposed to be) in the Finder, and then enter Time Machine via the Time Machine menu. You can then use the arrows or the timeline along the right-hand side to locate the desired backup, select the backup file, and click the Restore button to copy it back to your drive. When you do this you have the option to replace the current file, or keep both.

This approach is perhaps best for restoring individual documents and folders in your home directory, in the event you accidentally deleted one, or it became damaged, or otherwise needs to be replaced.

Through the Finder

Time Machine backups in the Finder

In the Time Machine drive, you can select a backup instance (labeled by date and time), in which you will then see the Macintosh HD and subsequent file system structure.

The Time Machine interface only copies files directly from the Time Machine drive to its appropriate destination on your hard drive, and if needed, you can do this manually. Instead of using the Time Machine interface to locate the backup file, you can navigate to it in the Finder, and then copy it accordingly.

If you have a local hard drive as your Time Machine device, then you can access it directly in the Finder sidebar. If you use a networked backup disk like a Time Capsule or other NAS, then mounting its drive on your Mac, followed by opening the “.sparsebundle” disk image. This will mount the image in the Finder, where you can navigate to the desired backed up file.

In both of these situations, when you copy the file, do so by selecting it in the Finder and pressing Command-C. Then go to its location on your main hard drive and press Shift-Option-Command-V to paste it in this location, but doing so with administrative privileges to preserve its ownership and permissions settings. This will require you authenticate as administrator for the copy, but will ensure the file is restored as-is on the backup drive.

This approach may be best for restoring individual damaged system files, or those installed by third-party applications. While reinstalling can also do this, sometimes if you have altered a specific one then you may be able to replace it in this manner.

Restoring an entire backup instance

The last option is to use the utility on the OS X Recovery partition to restore an entire backup instance to your hard drive. In cases where you have damaged system components, or perhaps need to revert to a prior system version after recently upgrading, then restoring a backup may be the best approach. To do this, simply reboot with Command-R held down at the boot chimes to load the system into Recovery mode, and then select the option to restore from backup and follow the on-screen instructions.

7 thoughts on “How to restore files from Time Machine manually

  1. Jay

    Can you explain how to restore data to an application when it isn’t obvious where the data is stored? I’m thinking, for example , of restoring ical to a previous iteration.

    1. Topher Kessler Post author

      This will only work properly if a program is self-contained, meaning the application file in the Applications folder is the only resource the program needs to run. In many cases, programs are self-contained bundles; however, there are also many that install files elsewhere in the system, and these may have to be of an appropriate version to work with the application. If the file is a self-contained bundle then you can likely use Time Machine to restore a prior version of it; however, otherwise you should use an uninstaller and then reinstall the prior version of the program.

  2. Arnar

    Thanks for a helpful post! I need to restore only my inbox file (.mbox) from time machine – will I be able to restore this directly from Time Machine, or should I copy this and paste into the destination folder (thus overwriting the current/active .mbox file)? Anything I need to be aware of in terms of hidden permission settings? (NB I am currently running on Yosemite, while my last backup was done while I was running 10.8)

  3. Dimitris

    I have a macbook pro(2009) and i’m thinking of replacing the hard drive with an ssd.
    On top of that, i’m also thinking to remove the dvd drive and instal a second ssd in it’s place.
    At the moment my photo library is located on an external hard drive conected with firewire due to the lack of space of the oem hard drive.
    I’m using time machine for back ups and everything is ok.
    But from reading through i realised that time machine only restores files in their original destination.
    How can i restore the photo library to the second ssd that will replace the dvd drive instead of the original destination?
    Thank you in advance

  4. teeokeefe

    OK I guess I’m not advanced enough to understand this solution. Here’s my issue: TM has my files (that’s the good news) They were originally in Dropbox. Since that time, I have less storage space on Dropbox and I think it would not work to restore the files there – How can I restore them to a new folder that I make? Thanks in advance.

  5. The Kfab

    But what if I have a sparse.bundle that is not working properly, and the message when trying to acces is ‘Image not recognized’? The timeline feature in Time Machine (on the right) is not visible, only the backup from to day. Please help. I’ve been in contact with Apple support (wasn’t able to help) and searching the web for several month for solution to my problem. Important pictures from last 2 years are missing 🙁

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