How to Backup Mac to External Hard Drive

Here’s the easy version of how to backup Mac to external hard drive! Whether you have a Macbook Pro, Macbook Air, iMac, or Mac Mini, the steps below will backup your Mac computer.

  • First, we walk through how to backup up your Mac with Time Machine and an external hard drive.
  • We also show you how to backup your mac without Time Machine.

Then we look at different types of Mac backups and how to restore your Mac computer from a backup you made.

So follow this guide to ensure a successful Mac backup!

How to Backup Mac to External Hard Drive WITH Time Machine

Let’s backup your Mac to an external hard drive now. If we backup your Mac to an external hard drive, we can rest assured that our data is safely backed up. Let’s do it!

Step 1: Go to System Preferences

Move the mouse to the top left corner of the screen, press on the Apple icon, and then press “System preferences“.

How to Backup Mac to External Hard Drive with Time Machine or Without
Go to System Preferences


Step 2: Click on Time Machine

In the system preferences window, look for “Time Machine“. It should be found in the bottom-most row of icons. Click it and then your Mac should proceed to the next screen.

Go to Time Machine to Backup Mac to External Hard Drive
Go to Time Machine

Step 3: Click on Backup Disk

From the Time Machine screen, click on “Select backup disk”. Then select the external hard drive where you want to place your backup. So just choose your hard drive and then select “Use disk”.

Select your backup disk when you Backup Mac to External Hard Drive
Select your Backup Disk (Hard Drive)

Step 4: Click on Your Hard Drive & Encrypt Backup

Now just click “Select disk” and then choose your hard drive. Then you should have the “Encrypt backups” option available. We think you should enable the encryption to make your data safer.

Images courtesy of cloudwards.net and their guide on Mac backups.

Step 5: Set a Password

If you choose to make your backup Encrypted, your Mac will prompt you to choose a password. Make a good, strong password and make sure you don’t lose it!

After choosing a password, click “Encrypt disk”.


Step 6: Be Patient (Wait!)

Once the hard drive is encrypted, your Mac should take you to the primary Time Machine window. If you look to the right side of the screen, you should have a checkbox checked that says “Backup automatically”. You should also see that Time Machine is currently creating your Mac backup.

You should be good to go! Now we just wait for the backup to finish. The Time Machine app should tell us how much more time is remaining to create our backup. And when the backup is done, your Mac should pop up a little notification to tell you the backup completed.

See how much time is left to backup Mac to external hard drive

Different Types of Mac Backups

There’s more than one kind of backup you can make for your Mac! So check out these types of Mac backups to become educated:

Time Machine

The Time Machine type of Mac backup is the backup method that comes with your Mac. It’s the official way to backup your Mac. With Time Machine, you can backup your entire Mac or just select individual files and/or folders.

iCloud Backup

The iCloud Backup option stores your backups in the cloud (the “iCloud”!). You can access iCloud backups from anywhere in the world.

Manual Backups

The Manual backup option for Mac is completely different from Time Machine backups or iCloud backups. The main difference is that Manual backups rely on the user to properly copy everything they want, whereas the other 2 types of backups are more automated

Bootable Backup

Last but not least, you can create a bootable Mac backup. This is just a duplicate of your Mac computer’s system drive, which results in a bootable backup! With a bootable Mac backup, you can bring your Mac back to a previous date.

So make sure you figure out which type of Mac or Macbook Pro backup is right for you.

Method 1: How to Backup Mac WITHOUT Time Machine (“Manual”)

For extremely detailed instructions, check out this article by iMyMac.com. This “manual” Mac backup basically involves manually dragging and dropping files and folders onto your external hard drive to create the backup.

To backup Mac without Time Machine, just follow these steps:

Step 1: Plug in Hard Drive

To begin, plug your external hard drive into the USB port of your Mac. Your Mac’s desktop may show an icon for the external hard drive you plugged in. If you see the icon for your hard drive, double-click the icon to view the contents. Then you can simply drag and drop folders and files into the hard drive. To see how to do this, continue with Step 2 below.

If you don’t see your hard drive icon on your desktop, go to Finder and click Preferences. Then check the hard drives box for “Show these items on the desktop”.

Step 2: Create a New Folder on External Hard Drive

Once you are viewing the contents of your external hard drive, create a new Folder. Then name the folder (something like MyBackups would be a good name).

Step 3: Copy Files & Folders

Open the Finder app on your Mac. Then click on your User (“home”) folder from the Finder’s “locations” bar. Select all the files & folders you want to backup. Then drag the items and drop them onto the New Folder you just created in your external hard drive.

Finally, your Mac should show the progress of the backup operation. When it’s done, just navigate Finder to your external hard drive and make sure the files and folders you wanted to back up are inside!

Method 2: How to Backup Mac WITHOUT Time Machine (Use Third-Party App)

Manual backups can be a pain in the neck, so you might prefer to use a third-party app to do the heavy lifting for you. This usually saves time and frustration when making a Mac backup. There are free Mac backup apps out there, so you should try those to save some time.

One example of a Mac backup app is “EaseUS Todo Backup”.

Step 1: Install and Open the Backup App

Download the backup app you want to install, then launch the installer to install the app on your Mac. After the app is installed, Open the app so it’s running.

Step 2: Create a New Backup

Most Mac backup apps have a “+” icon or a “New Backup” button. Click that button to begin the process to create a new Mac backup. If your backup app asks you to name the backup, then give it a name.

Step 3: Choose Location

After you create a new Backup, you should tell the backup app where to keep the new Backup. So choose the location to store your backup during this step. If you have an external hard drive attached to your Mac, it should appear in the “Locations” area of the “Choose location” popup dialog.

Step 4: Select Files & Folders to Backup

Now choose the files & folders you want to backup.

Step 5: Finish the Backup

Finally, click the button to run the Backup operation. Just wait until it’s done and you’re good!

Alternative: Use Cloning Software

An excellent way to backup your entire Mac hard drive is to use what’s called disk cloning software. Disk clone software creates an exact 1:1 duplicate of your Mac’s hard disk drive. To prepare a hard drive for cloning, you might need to first format the drive so it’s ready to be used as a backup drive. To format the drive, you will need to use your Mac’s “Disk Utility” app. The Disk Utility app is located in Applications under Utilities.

You can backup Mac using disk clone software like this one

Method 3: How to Backup Mac WITHOUT Time Machine (Use Cloud Storage)

If you want to store your Mac backup in the cloud, follow these steps:

1. iCloud

If you have an iCloud account, then you should have some cloud storage space. The iCloud backup option is good for people who “live” inside the Mac ecosystem. This means if you’re a die-hard Mac user, then the iCloud backup option is probably most familiar to you.

To backup files and folders to your iCloud drive, just drag and drop them onto iCloud Drive in the Finder.

One benefit of using iCloud drive for backups is that all your backed up data is available to all of your Mac devices (iPhone, iPad, Macbook Pro, etc).

Another benefit of using iCloud for your backups is that you don’t need an external hard drive!

One major disadvantage of using iCloud to backup Mac is that iCloud only backs up files and folders. So if you want to make an exact duplicate of your Mac hard drive, for example, then the iCloud option probably isn’t the best for that. If you want to keep all your settings, then another Method is probably best for you (such as the “disk clone” method).

2. Dropbox or Google Drive

Similar to iCloud, Google and Dropbox have online storage services that could be used to store your Mac backup also. You can use these cloud storage services to sync files across your Mac and other devices as well.

Most cloud storage platforms (like Google Drive) give users some storage for free. So sign up for a free Google Drive or Dropbox account and start storing your backup data there!

3. Alternatives to Keeping Backups in Cloud Storage

There are services like Carbonite to help you create backups. So check them out if you’re very serious about protecting your Mac data. Services like Carbonite basically facilitate the backup process and make sure everything’s done the way you want.

There’s also a service called CrashPlan, which many Mac power users find helpful.

The downside to using premium backup services is that they typically require very fast Internet speeds and use a lot of data to make full backups.

How to Restore Your Mac from a Backup

If you need to restore your Macbook Air / Pro, iMac, or Mac Mini from backup, here’s what you do:

  1. Plug your external hard drive into your Mac
  2. Go to Applications and open Time Machine
  3. Press “Restore from Backup” and choose the listing of the exact backup from which you’d like to restore
  4. Choose the specific folders & files you’d like
  5. Then press the “Restore” button and you should see the Restore operation begin
  6. Finally, the restoration process finishes. At this point, safely remove your external hard drive from the Mac.

The steps above take care of restoring from a Time Machine backup. But if you are restoring from a Manual backup or cloud backup, then the process will be different.

To restore your Mac from a manual backup, you’ll need to basically copy files and folders from the external hard disk drive to the Mac.

Tips for a Successful Backup

Doing a Mac backup to an external hard drive can be tricky, especially if you have a lot of data to back up. So it’s important to make the process as smooth and seamless as possible, with the least chance of failure. Try these tips to maximize the chance for you to make a successful backup of your Macbook (Pro):

  • First, look at the Available storage space on your Mac (and/or on your external hard drive). It’s important to make sure your storage has enough space to contain your backed up data.
  • Then run a software update on your Mac.
  • Next, you should plan to make full backups on a regular basis.
  • After that, you should consider making a schedule for your backups to perform automagically.
  • Finally, we recommend you check the backed up data for errors.

Pro Tip: Clean Up Your Mac Before Backup!

We strongly (and personally) recommend that you clean up as much junk from your Mac as possible before making a backup! This saves time and just makes everything easier and better.

For example, you can go to “Storage” in “About This Mac” and then use Mac’s built-in junk removal to do your first round of junk removal. Try the Empty Trash Automatically feature and the “Reduce Clutter” button.

There are also third-party applications with specific features to remove junk by finding duplicate files and other types of extra data.

We recommend CleanMyMac X, which has several cleaning options and does a fantastic job of removing clutter you didn’t even know was there.

Common Backup Mistakes to Avoid

Avoid these all-too-common pitfalls when it comes to having a good backup plan:

  • Not creating backups often enough
  • Not reviewing your backups for inconsistencies, issues, or errors
  • Not checking if your software is up-to-date on a regular basis
  • Not making sure your backup destination has enough free space
  • Not making a schedule for backups to run automatically

Final Notes & Opinion

Backups are something you tend to need when you don’t have and have when you don’t need. So be aware of that and put yourself on the right side.

It’s better to have a backup and not need it, than to need a backup and not have it.

Spend some time (and even some money on an external hard drive) to make sure your precious data is safe and sound.

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