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The Simple Steps You Need to Know to Retrieve a File from Time Machine

by Sarah Dobson on June 29, 2020

It happens to everyone, sooner or later. You’re in one of those good-news-bad-news scenarios. The bad news is that a file on your Mac is messed up or has gone missing. But the good news is that you turned on Time Machine, and your backup drive is loaded with backups of your file. Follow these steps to recover your file!

Even if you haven’t lost a file, it’s a good idea to practice restoring from Time Machine ahead of time. That way, you’ll be less likely to panic if you lose a file, since you’ll know what’s involved with recovering your work.

Start the Recovery

Begin by checking that your Time Machine backup drive is connected to the Mac. In the Finder, select the folder that holds your messed up file or where you think your missing file was last seen. If the folder you want is the Desktop, close all Finder windows. Next, click the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and choose Enter Time Machine. (If your menu bar doesn’t have a Time Machine icon, go to System Preferences > Time Machine and select “Show Time Machine in menu bar.”)

Time-travel to Your File

Time Machine has an unusual, time-travel–themed interface. The window you had open in the Finder is now in the main portion of the screen, and you can navigate within it, if you like, to switch to a different folder. It’s also stacked on top of additional windows—each of which represents the contents of the selected folder at a particular point in time.

Notice the navigation arrows at the right side of the window and a timeline at the far right of the screen. A timestamp appears between the two navigation arrows, indicating that the frontmost window is from today (now).

The timeline is most useful when you want to restore a file from long ago: hover over a line in the timeline to get a timestamp and click the line to view the window at that point in time. The timestamp between the navigation arrows indicates the time you selected.

The navigation arrows make moving in small increments easier. Click the Up arrow to display the selected folder from the previous backup. Keep clicking to keep going back in time. If the file you want is visible in the window, select it and use the Modified date to help you find the right version—if you can’t see a Modified date, display the window in Column view. Click the Down arrow to move forward in time.

If you aren’t sure what folder your file is in, but you believe you have navigated to the right time, search for it by name in the Search field at the upper right of the window.

Once you’ve located your file, you may be able to confirm that you’ve found the right version by selecting its icon and pressing the Space bar to preview it in Quick Look.

Restore Your File

With the file selected, beneath the window, click the Restore button. (If the Restore button is dimmed out, click the file again to activate it.) The Mac immediately closes the Time Machine interface, switching back to the Finder.

If your selected file didn’t exist in the Finder when you launched Time Machine, the Mac puts the restored file in the folder where it lived previously. If that folder was deleted, the Mac puts up an alert, asking your permission to recreate it.

If you’re restoring an older version of a file that’s still available in the Finder, an alert asks what to do about the original version of the file—that’s the version that was in the Finder before you launched Time Machine.

  • To keep the original version of the file (in effect, canceling the restore), click Keep Original.
  • If you’re not sure what do, click Keep Both. This is also the button to click if you plan to use data from both the original and the restored files, perhaps copying and pasting to combine desired bits in one file. The Mac renames the original file by appending “original” to the filename and puts the restored file in that same folder.
  • To replace the original file with the restored file, click Replace.

If all has gone well, the restored version of the file is close to what you were missing, and you’ve avoided having to redo a lot of work!

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