Recover a Lost File With Time Machine

When you use Time Machine to back up your Mac, you not only get a complete backup of everything, but also a history of files that includes deleted or modified files. You can recover a file you have deleted even if many backups have occurred since you deleted the file. Practice this technique so you know how to use it before you need it.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: Recover a Lost File With Time Machine.

So last week I did a video on setting up Time Machine. Once you have it set up it just runs automatically and it backs up your Mac every hour. There are two possible uses for that backup. One is if complete disaster strikes. Like your Mac gets stolen or destroyed or the hard drive fails. You can then choose, when you set up a new Mac, to restore from that Time Machine backup. It will prompt you to do that.

The other use though is to restore a single file or a group of files that you may have accidentally deleted or maybe modified in such a way that you really want the old one back. Let's take a look at how to do that.

I've got a folder here called Projects. In this folder you'll notice a gap in the icons. What I did was I created this folder a few days ago and I filled it with some sample files. Then yesterday I deleted a file and I emptied the trash. So it's gone. Now today I realize I made a horrible mistake and I need that file back. So how do I get it back?

Well, I, of course, have been backing up with Time Machine, so backing up every hour. So I should be able to go back in time and find that file. Now if this was a clone backup, a clone being just basically a duplicate of your hard drive, and I backed up last night to this clone then I wouldn't have any hope of getting this file back because my backup last night wouldn't include this file. So it wouldn't be on my backup. But since Time Machine does these incremental backups and saves a history it's going to have a copy of this file if I go back in time far enough.

So let's go and enter Time Machine by clicking on the Time Machine icon up here and you can see that there's the option to Enter Time Machine. I'll do that. Now I'm doing that with that project's window open in the Finder. So it knows this is what I want to focus on. So now I see multiple project's folders going back in time. On the right side I see a timeline and I can use these arrow keys to go back in time. So this is now showing me right now what this folder looks like. If I click here it will go back and it will show me earlier today. I can continue to go back and it will show me each snapshot. I can go through this morning and keep going back. You can see the file is still not there because I deleted it yesterday.

Now I can speed this up a bit by going to the timeline and saying let's go all the way to yesterday and let's go yesterday morning. I'm pretty sure the file was there. So we'll go yesterday morning at 10:24 a.m. and there is the Time Machine test. That txt file. Now I want to restore this file. So I will click it. Now at the bottom I've got a Cancel and Restore button. If I hit Restore it's going to pull that file from the drive and place it back in the folder. So now I've successfully pulled this file from a day and a half ago.

Now I can also do this with an existing file. So I could have pulled an older version of the file and it would give me options of whether or not I want to keep just the original file or the new one and the old one together. So, you know, it doesn't automatically override what you've got there. But you can go and grab an older version of a file. So let's say if there's document you've been working on, you deleted some text from it or you deleted part of an image in a Photoshop document. Something like that. You could actually go back and pull that older version and have both the current and the older version and then go and copy and paste from one to the other to fix your mistake.

So that's the basics of how you pull a file from Time Machine. Now I have some homework for you because the last thing you want to do is use this for the first time when you really need it. So I want you to do what I did. Create a sample folder. Fill it with some TextEdit documents. Then remember, tomorrow maybe, to delete a file or two from it. Then the next day go and use Time Machine to go back and recover that file. See how it's done so you have confidence that you can do it when the time comes to recover a file that you may have accidentally deleted.

Comments: 6 Responses to “Recover a Lost File With Time Machine”

    Robert Hutchison
    1 year ago

    Hi Garry, good video. I use Timemachine going back over a year or so, say you have edited a file over a period of time and ccidentally deleted a while back , and you didn’t know where the last saved file was, is there a way to get latest version of that file?

    Thank you very much.

    Kind regards,


    1 year ago

    Robert: There is a Search field at the top of the TimeMachine interface. You can see it in the video. So you can try to use that. The further back in time you go, the fewer versions you will find. Eventually, Time Machine starts deleting very old versions as it runs out of space. That is why it is good to have a TM drive that is much bigger than your hard drive. People often make the mistake of getting a 1TB drive to back up a 1TB drive. Get as big as you can to have more history.

    Rita Golaszewski
    1 year ago

    Thanks for the video Gary! I never really understood how to use Time Machine. I also found out that my computer hasn’t been backing up! I checked it because of your video.

    John H
    1 year ago

    A great video Gary. It makes my backups more useful than I thought.Thanks a lot.

    Braun Bill
    1 year ago

    Does time machine do a backup of things that are in a document or desktop folder that is connected or placed on icloud?

    1 year ago

    Braun: Everything on your hard drive is backed up. It would only be possible for something in iCloud Drive to not be on your hard drive if you have that “Optimize” option turned on in iCloud Drive settings.

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