How to Restore Your Entire Drive from Time Machine

by Sarah Dobson on August 03, 2020

In an ideal world, you would never need to restore your Mac’s entire boot drive. That’s because it’s necessary only when something has gone terribly wrong with your Mac. Perhaps your boot drive died—it happens—and a new one has been installed. Or maybe you upgraded to a new version of macOS and now your Mac won’t start up. As long as you’ve made regular Time Machine backups, you have an excellent chance of returning your Mac to the way it was.

Let’s look at how to restore your entire startup drive: the system and library files, applications, your documents and data—everything. (To recover a single file or a handful of files, read The Simple Steps You Need to Know to Retrieve a File from Time Machine.)

First, consider your goal. If you want to restore from your Mac’s Time Machine backup to the startup drive on the same Mac, keep reading. However, if you need to restore to another Mac that you’re setting up from scratch—then you should use Setup Assistant during installation to bring over your files, apps, and other data from the Time Machine backup. We’ll focus on restoring the same Mac that was backed up.

Start Up in Recovery Mode

Make sure your backup drive is connected to the Mac and powered on. (If your backup drive is usually connected via a wireless network, it’s sufficient to have it available on the network, but if you can connect it to the Mac with USB or Thunderbolt, your restore will go more quickly.) If the Mac is a laptop, ensure that it’s plugged into power.

Next, start up the Mac in Recovery mode. Right as the Mac begins booting, press and hold Command-R until the Apple logo or a spinning globe appears. When the startup is complete, you’ll see a macOS Utilities window.

Configure the Restore

Follow these steps to set up your restore:

  1. Select Restore From Time Machine Backup, and click the Continue button.
  2. On the Restore From Time Machine screen, notice the text saying that the drive you restore onto will be erased. This is true—the entire volume will be erased and your Time Machine backup will be copied to it. If you are absolutely certain this is what you want do, click Continue.
  3. On the Select a Restore Source screen, select the drive that holds your Time Machine backups and click Continue. (If you’ve selected a drive that’s available through a network connection, click Connect and follow the prompts.)
  4. If you’re restoring from an encrypted Time Machine backup, enter the password and click Continue.
  5. On the Select a Backup screen, select the backup to restore. (If your Time Machine disk contains backups from more than one volume, first choose the desired volume from the Restore From pop-up menu.) The backup you want to restore is probably either the most recent backup or the one from just before you began experiencing problems. Click Continue.
  6. On the Select a Destination screen, select your Mac’s startup drive. Click Restore, and then click Erase Disk.

The Time Machine restoration process first erases the selected disk and then starts copying the Time Machine backup to it.

Monitor the Restoring Screen

A Restoring screen appears. You can keep an eye on this screen to monitor the restoration, which may take several hours or even overnight. The Time Remaining calculation on this screen often isn’t accurate, so don’t panic if progress is slower than predicted. Your Mac will restart automatically when Time Machine finishes restoring the backup. When you sign in to your account, you may have to go through a few setup screens, such a screen for signing in to your iCloud account or setting up Touch ID on a MacBook Pro.

Once the restore finishes and you follow the instructions to restart your Mac, you should be back where you were before the problem occurred.

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