How to back up and restore Messages on a fresh iOS install

By , Mar 6, 2014

Backing up and restoring Messages

Backing up the iPhone has always been an interesting phenomenon. iTunes makes backing up your iOS device inherently easy, and iCloud, when you have enough space to store all of your files, makes it even simpler. Unfortunately, people still seem to have lots of questions about backing up their devices.

One of the main issues that makes backing up such a questionable process, is the way that backups are handled in the first place. For starters, backing up your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch is basically an all or nothing affair. It’s the clothes, the appliances and the kitchen sink, or it’s nothing.

One of the biggest questions that always seems to come up involves backing up and restoring just the SMS and iMessage messages found in the Messages app. Of course, you can perform a normal iTunes backup, and grab all of your messages and the kitchen sink as well, but that’s not a viable solution for everyone.

With that in mind, what do you do if you want to backup and restore only your text messages (iMessages and SMS messages) and keep everything else clean and fresh? Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t provide a way to do this with either iCloud backups or iTunes backups, but it can be done.

There are many reasons as to why you’d want to create a fresh backup and restore and maintain your messages. Perhaps you’d even like to transfer your messages to a separate device? Maybe you’d like to jailbreak a clean device before Apple kills the Evasi0n7 jailbreak, but you’d prefer to keep your messages in the process?

In this tutorial, we will show you how to backup your SMS messages and iMessages, no jailbreak required. We’ll also show you how to import these messages back to the same iPhone or a different one. Check inside as I walk you through the entire step-by-step process.

Table of contents

Tools

Tutorial

Conclusion

Ultimate Tools

The main app that we’ll be using in this tutorial, outside of iTunes, is iBackupBot. iBackupBot is a paid utility (with free trial) that allows you to view the contents of iTunes backups, extract data from backups, insert data into backups, and more. There are, of course, other ways to go about doing this, in fact, iBackupBot itself contains a direct restore option for individual assets like Messages, but I’ve found this method to be among the most reliable. Most importantly, this tutorial can also be completed from start to finish using the trial version of iBackupBot.

iBackupBot

iBackupBot comes with a functional free trial. The software is not free, but you can trial it and use it for free to do everything contained in this tutorial. If you wish to pay, you can always register your copy of iBackupBot if you choose to do so.

SMS Backup iBackupBot

It’s not pretty, but iBackupBot is a great tool for managing iTunes backups

You can download iBackupBot using this link. In this tutorial, I will be focusing solely on the Mac version, but the basic principals of this guide are platform independent.

As a note of reassurance, I understand that the website for iBackupBot is very low quality and looks like the type of site that would try to scam you. I can tell you that I have personally used iBackupBot, downloaded it from the website linked, and have followed every step of this tutorial with no problems whatsoever from spam or malware.

iTunes

You’ll need the latest version of iTunes installed on your device to follow this tutorial. iTunes is what we’ll be using to perform the necessary backups and restores to your iOS device. If you’re not running the latest version of iTunes, it’s possible that you could run into problems.

SMS Backup iTunes Latest

Checking for iTunes updates

Ultimate Tutorial

Step 1: Performing a full backup

The first thing you’ll need to do is perform a full backup using iTunes. If you’re currently using iCloud backup, you’ll need to connect your device to your Mac with a USB cable, launch iTunes, and switch to iTunes backups a.k.a This computer. It’s best to connect with a USB cable and not over Wi-Fi, because the full backups can be extremely large.

SMS Backup iTunes Backup

Ensure you have backups set to “This computer” and then click Back Up Now

Depending on the size of the contents on your iPhone, the backup may be fairly quick, or it may be slow. If it’s been a while since your last backup and you’ve acquired a lot of new content since then, the backup could take a significant period of time; just be patient.

On the Mac, all iTunes backups are stored in the same default location. You can find iTunes backups in the ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup folder. If you open the Finder and use the keyboard shortcut command ⇧+⌘+G you can paste the path listed above to quickly access your iTunes backup folder.

SMS iTunes Backup Folder

The backup folder for my iPhone 5s

Inside of the iTunes backup folder, you should see at least one oddly named folder, which corresponds to your device’s backup. The time stamp of the folder should match the time when you last performed a backup for your device. If you’ve backed up multiple iOS devices to the same computer, you’ll see multiple folders here.

I always like to keep my backup folder clear of clutter, so I will delete any old backup folders that are no longer relevant to me. Obviously, you’ll need to exercise caution when doing this to ensure that you don’t delete a needed backup. You can also view and manage your exiting backups directly via iTunes’ Preferences > Devices tab.

SMS Backup iTunes Prferences

Right click on the name of the backup to quickly view its Finder location

Step 2: Extracting SMS text messages and Messages data from backup

The backup that we just performed wasn’t just done to be safe; it’s necessary so that we can extract the Messages app contents in order to move it to a clean device. To do this, we’ll need to use iBackupBot. We will extract all SMS, text messages, and Messages data.

iBackupBot is smart enough to know the location of your backups, and it will automatically look for and find your backup folder upon launching the app.

When you first launch iBackupBot, you’ll see a pop-up window that says Loading backup information… Depending on the size and quantity of your backups, this could take a significant amount of time. Just be patient as iBackupBot does its thing.

Loading backup information iBackupBot

When you launch iBackupBot, you’ll see it load backup information

Once iBackupBot is finished loading all of information from your backup folders, you should see its main interface screen. On the left side of the interface, you’ll notice a section for devices and a section for backups. Under the devices section, you should, in theory, see the device for which you just performed a full backup. If you select this device, you’ll see detailed information about it in the main interface window.

iBackupBot Main Interface

iBackupBot’s interface showing my device and backup

Exporting the SMS database and Drafts folder to computer

Under the backups section as listed above, find your device and click the disclosure triangle beside System Files. After that, click the disclosure triangle next to HomeDomain, and then next to Library. Scroll down in the Library list until you come upon the SMS folder. Click the SMS folder, and iBackupBot should display its contents —sms.db and Drafts—in the main window interface to the right of your list of folders.

sms.db Drafts iBackupBot

For emphasis, here is the full directory path: System Files > HomeDomain > Library > SMS

Select both the sms.db and Drafts folder using ⇧+click and then click Export. Select an export location and click the Open button. I usually recommend selecting the Desktop as an export location for easy retrieval.

Export SMS 02 Backup

Exporting the sms.db and Drafts folder from the full backup

 

Exporting Attachments to computer

Next, you will need to export the SMS attachments folder. The attachments folder contains all of the attachments found within the conversations in the Messages app. Most of the attachments will consist of photos or perhaps video. Due to the nature of the content contained within the attachments folder, you’ll notice that it is significantly larger than your SMS database. Exporting the attachments folder is a repeat of the exercise explained above using a different location.

To export the attachments folder, click the disclosure triangle next to System Files and then MediaDomain. Once you click MediaDomain, scroll down and click the disclosure triangle next to Library. Finally, click the SMS folder to show its contents—the Attachments folder—in the main window located to the right.

iBackupBot Attachment folder

The Attachments folder can be quite large

For emphasis, the full path of the Attachments folder is as follows: System Files > MediaDomain > Library > SMS

Select the Attachments folder and then click Export. Select an export location and click the Open button. Again, as mentioned above, I usually recommend selecting the Desktop as an export location for easy retrieval later.

iBackup SMS attachments

Exporting the Attachments folder from the full backup

We have successfully extracted the pertinent SMS data from the iTunes backup. Now, here comes the fun part—massaging that data back into a crispy clean backup file.

Step 3: How to restore SMS and Messages

The next step is very straightforward. You’ll need to restore your device to factory firmware. It might be a good idea to save-off the device’s backup folder that we referenced earlier to a secure location. This makes it so that you can always restore using your full data, or access any other data that may have been on the device should the need arise. Basically, you want to make sure that you have other important information backed up like photos if any of that matters to you. If you don’t care, and just want a fresh slate with your SMS messages restored, or you use iCloud to store majority of your device’s pertinent information like I do, then please feel free to continue.

Beware: Restoring firmware means that you must upgrade to the latest publicly available firmware, and the latest firmware isn’t always jailbreak-able. If your device is currently jailbroken, do not restore until you verify that Apple’s latest public firmware can be jailbroken. As of the time of this writing, iOS 7.0.6 is the latest firmware and it is jailbreak-able. Apple plans on releasing iOS 7.1 in the very near future, and most reports speculate that it is not jailbreak-able. If you’re going to do this, act fast while iOS 7.0.6 is still the latest public firmware.

Ensure that your device is plugged into your computer, and launch iTunes. Click the device summary tab to show the latest information about your device. Click the Restore button to begin the process.

Restore iPhone SMS BackupClick Restore iPhone to restore your device to factory firmware

You may be asked if you’d like to backup your device before restoring. That, of course, is up to you, but you should already have a backup from our previous step.

Once the device is finished restoring, you’ll need to go through the standard iOS setup. Be sure to set your device up as a new device. Do not choose to restore from backup.

iOS 7 Clean Restore SMS Backup

Setup your device as clean as possible and do not choose to restore from backup

During the setup, I try to keep my configuration as clean as possible, since this will be the “starting point” for my clean-slate backup. For that reason, I make it a goal to perform a backup as soon as my device is fresh at the Home screen.

Step 4: Creating a clean backup of a clean install

Connect your freshly restored iOS device to your computer and launch iTunes. When you see the welcome screen, be sure to set up your device as a new device.

Welcome iTunes

Setup your device as new and click Continue after launching iTunes

After the initial sync, click Get Started, which should take you to your device’s summary page. Under the Backups section, be sure to check iTunes backup (This computer) if it’s not already selected and click Back Up Now.

ITunes Backup SMS Backup

You may need to switch from iCloud to your local computer before proceeding with backup

Backing up iPhone

Since the backup is from a fresh install, it should go quickly

Step 5: Merging SMS data with a clean clean install

Now it’s time for the fun part—merging the Messages data with the clean backup. As you may have guessed, this portion of the project is handled using iBackupBot.

Launch iBackupBot and select the clean backup that you just created. You will be able to differentiate this backup from previous backups by means of its time stamp and size. The size should be somewhere around 350MB for a fresh iPhone backup.

iBackupBot Vanilla Size

The clean backup size should be small

First, let’s insert the sms.db and Drafts folder back into their proper location. Navigate to System Files > HomeDomain > Library > SMS in iBackupBot. You should already see an empty sms.db file there, which is just the stock database file. Use the import button to import the sms.db file that was saved off to desktop earlier. When you get the message saying that there is already a file with the same name in this location, click yes to proceed.

iBackupBot Import SMS.db

Importing the sms.db file into the clean backup

Now it’s time to import the Drafts folder. Since this is a folder and not a single file, click the down arrow directly to the right of the import button. You should see an option to import a file or import a folder. Select import folder and then select the drafts folder.

Import Drafts folder iBackupBot

Importing the Drafts folder into the clean backup

Finally, you’ll need to import the attachments folder. This is done in the very same manner that you imported the drafts folder. First, though, you’ll need to navigate to the appropriate location for import. Go to System Files > MediaDomain > Library > SMS and then click the down arrow next to the import button and select the Attachments folder. Importing the attachments will take a longer time since it’ll probably be filled with photos and other media. Be patient, and wait for the process to complete.

Import attachments iBackupBot

Importing the Attachments folder into the clean backup

Once you have finished importing the SMS data, you should notice that the file size of the backup has increased to reflect the size of your imported data. The only thing left to do now is to perform a restore from backup.

iBackupBot new file size

The new backup file size reflects the addition of imported data

Step 6: Restoring a clean install with SMS data

Connect your iOS device to your computer and open iTunes. On the summary page click the Restore Backup… button. iTunes will then ask you what backup you wish to restore from. Select the most recent clean backup that you just infused with the SMS data. The timestamp shown for the backup in iTunes should match the timestamp shown in iBackupBot.

iTunes Restore from Backup

Your most recent backup file should be the clean backup with SMS data

Click Restore, and wait patiently while your device is restored. When the restore is complete, you should have a brand new clean iOS install with all of your backed up Messages app data.

Ultimate Conclusion

Once the restore is completed, unlock your device and venture into the stock Messages app. There you should see all of your previous messages, with all of their attachments. The wonderful thing about all of this is that you basically have a completely clean and fresh install, yet you didn’t have to give up your message history in the process.

You can now reinstall any apps that you wish to use. If you use iCloud, be sure to enable it to pull in all of your iCloud data like photos, mail, contacts, bookmarks, etc.

iBackupBot is a great tool to use, this tutorial isn’t its only use case. The same principals of this tutorial can, in theory, be applied to any part of your iOS file system structure. However, since most data is backed up to the cloud using iCloud–Messages app data being one of the biggest exception—I find that this is one of its primary uses.

I have personally used this exact method to backup and restore my messages to a clean iOS 7.0.6 install. With iOS 7.1 on the horizon, I think it’s a good idea to start with a fresh install of iOS 7.0.6 for the long haul. By doing this, you can have a fresh install with a fresh jailbreak, and keep it until a new jailbreak is released. Doing this allows you to eliminate any potential problems with your install so as to mitigate the possibility of having to restore later down the line and losing your jailbreak in the process.

What do you think about the idea of backing up and restoring your messages? Do you think it’s a good idea? Sound off down below in the comments section, and share your thoughts on the matter.

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  • Aman kapoor

    use more gifs and the large font is amazing…eye candy. what did you say its name was?

  • Miguel Acevedo

    One of the best tutorial i ever seen before. Nice Job Jeff!!!!!

  • Adam

    nuts you actually got it done that was some quick turn around from the podcast… going to try this once i get off work. Thanks Jeff.

    • Adam

      just finished worked beautifully super easy too thanks jeff

  • Mike Colacone Saal

    There you go Cody, Jeff posted the steps for you, now it’s all on you to do it before 7.1 lol

  • anasiatka

    Hey Jeff, can’t you just do a manual backup in the context menu by right-clicking on your device and backup now? Or does this require only the automatic backups?

    • Siddharth Desai

      I think manual back ups work too.

  • anasiatka

    “This is Jeff with iDownload Blog” — you have to at least put that somewhere as an audio file so we can hear it… A post from you isn’t complete without it. <3

    • anasiatka

      Awesome article by the way though! I wonder, did using GIFs take longer to make the post or did it actually take less time? Still nonetheless if your voice is gone temporarily this will certainly do. I guess. :)

      • http://www.appcast.fm/ Jeff Benjamin

        I always would like to use video if possible, but for a tutorial of this length and requirements, it just wasn’t very feasible. I could have taken screenshots and just walked through the process, but there’s no real benefit to that over reading imo.

      • anasiatka

        @JeffBenjam:disqus I definitely wasn’t complaining. :) – This was still time intensive to do the article and the GIFs and they look fabulous! Does this work on manual backups or only for automatic backups?

      • http://www.appcast.fm/ Jeff Benjamin

        Should work for both.

      • Kyle Tulloch

        Would this work for the call log too?

  • Rounak

    Thanks Jeff……..Please post a similar Tutorial to Clean Restore Photos and Videos of Camera Roll

    • Sandeep Roy

      I have my doubts for a Camera Roll, clean restore, manually, but let’s see..

    • Héctor Viveros

      OK. I’ve done the SMS backup, and i tought I can do the same with Photos. I’ve tried a lot of methods, but this one works, just bakup “SystemFiles/CameraRollDomain/Media” and “SystemFiles/MediaDomain/Media/PhotoStreamsData”.

      They stay in cronological order, thumbnails are not blank.

      I hope you can trie it. Sorry my bad english.

  • David Williams

    I guess that I’d like to try this, but my concern is that when a clean restore is done you lose things like, messages and Music. I don’t sync my music with iTunes ’cause I have so much of it so I prefer to manage it manually. I’ve been trying out the 7.1 betas but I’d like to downgrade to 7.0.6 so that I can jailbreak my phone. With this iBackupBot can I copy my music as well as my sms messages and then restore it all back to my iPhone without having to spend hours putting my music back onto my iphone?

  • Sandeep Roy

    Thanks Jeff ! Can Xilisoft’s iPhone Transfer software also do this ? Would like a similar solution for Photos too, if it’s possible.

    • Guest

      Plug in your phone to the computer and copy the pictures over, that easy. Also Dropbox or OneDrive will do it. Apple’s built in PhotoStream.

      • GzyOnline

        Simply transferring photos off of your phone to a computer is NOT the same. After doing a clean restore, it is somewhat tricky to restore photos to the Camera Roll, particularly if you want to keep the order they’re in. Syincing photos using iTunes is significantly different than having photos in the Camera Roll, for one, they cannot be deleted using your phone.
        After many years of contemplating this phenomenon, I’ve mastered how to restore photos to the Camera Roll after a clean restore.. It’s quite complicated and invovles setting up your computer as a web server using XAMPP. If anyone is interested, let me know and I’ll see about putting together a tutorial. ;-D

      • Aneeq Naqvi

        I’m interested. I’ll appreciate any of your help.

      • daftcinema

        Or you could, you know, make albums and organize your photos via your Macbook. (something a person that cares about their pictures does)

    • Héctor Viveros

      OK. I’ve done the SMS backup, and i tought I can do the same with Photos. I’ve tried a lot of methods, but this one works, just bakup “SystemFiles/CameraRollDomain/Media” and “SystemFiles/MediaDomain/Media/PhotoStreamsData”.

      They stay in cronological order, thumbnails are not blank.

      I hope you can trie it. Sorry my bad english

      • Sandeep Roy

        Thanks Hector !

      • Amit

        You should be paid for this comment.

  • Anmol Malhotra

    iOS 7,1 please be fast!! Can’t wait..

  • Fardeen Beharry

    nice tutorial jeff,

  • Eni

    does it works for contacts to?

    • Siddharth Desai

      No need to restore contacts. If you use iCloud, they’re automatically synced.

      • Eni

        and messages arent synced with icloud?

      • Siddharth Desai

        Nope

      • Eni

        can you explain me what exzatly icloud syncs?

      • Siddharth Desai

        Well, Contacts for one, then Keyboard shortcuts, Music (if you have iTunes Match service), Email, documents, photos. That’s all that I have come across. Im sure there is more.

  • http://www.apple.com St3vè Jb

    Awesome Tutorial‼️GIF’s picture very help to do….
    I think Jeff Benjamin in a Sick Sound a.k.a Cough…

  • GzyOnline

    i can’t wait to get home and try this.. GENIUS!! THANK YOU!!!!

  • Siddharth Desai

    Thank you Jeff!

  • rafaelpz

    Nice tutorial, thanks!
    And what about the apps data, like game progresses?

  • Aneeq Naqvi

    Make a tutorial for windows too please. That’ll be great.

    • ✯Mike✯

      HA windows :p

  • amin tajrishi

    you can restore your contact by this method too! just need too find contact files and restore to a new backup !
    i tried and it worked!

  • Nabih

    Is there a way to transfer messages from android to ios using this? As in is it possible to extract messages from android in, for example, an xml file and converting it to whatever ios is? I was able to go from ios to android, but idk how to go back

  • Marek Tomašovič

    Great tutorial Jeff! One last thing for performing this kind of restore is my Gmail ActiveSync that my iPhone is still eligible for. How exactly would you go around if you want to preserve Gmail’s ActiveSync eligibility? (Since Google disabled this feature for new users since last year’s January I think). Is there a specific file(s) that does this? Thanks!

    • Pete Tin

      Any luck resolving this? I’m having the same problem. Thanks

  • Bikorchi Purkor

    Hey Jeff, isn’t it easier to just use iCloud selectively (from the General>Usage>Manage Storage>select your idevice>turn on/off apps). On my iPhone i turned off camera roll to save time during icloud restore and kept on all other apps’ data including imessages that I want to get restored from icloud.

  • Leonard Wong

    Seems like a lot of work just to get it. For some, it might be worthwhile.
    For me, Probably not. I usually use restore and if messages, let it gone.

  • bn326160

    I used to transfer the sms.db every time, but in the end every year I just export the database and start over. It’s nice to have them somewhere but I rarely search trough them.

  • gittlopctbi

    I know this article is on how to backup/restore specifically your messages, but when I jb to current, I used the tweak OpenBackup and all my messages were preserved and restored.

    Really nicely done tutorial. Good job.

  • ChildishGambinoGotThatSwagger

    There is no import button on my program. Mac. Did I have to pay for the software?

  • Siddharth Desai

    iBackupBot link takes your to iCopyBot page.

  • Repiuk

    Red this post a while back but came in handy today! It worked like a charm! Thanx Jeff.

  • Alex Highman

    Running 10.9 Mavericks I have found iBackupbot very unstable crashing frequently, with 10.10 Yosemite round the corner I will write to Avangate and ask for an update that will be more stable.

    To stop iBackupbot crashing I removed all the backups from the backup location (find this by right clicking a backup in iTunes and revealing it in the finder) the less the better. Then I could move the data without to much issue.

  • http://FCBarcelona.co.id hadi syarif

    How to back up and restore photo on a fresh iOS install??

    • Héctor Viveros

      OK. I’ve done the SMS backup, and i tought I can do the same with Photos. I’ve tried a lot of methods, but this one works, just bakup “SystemFiles/CameraRollDomain/Media” and “SystemFiles/MediaDomain/Media/PhotoStreamsData”.

      They stay in cronological order, thumbnails are not blank.

      I hope you can trie it. Sorry if my english is bad.

  • bj

    The software seems to work well on my 10.9 mac, but I can’t restore my SMS’s into 7.1.2 (my old phone OS was 5.0.1) It doesn’t work. I have emailed ibackupbot and no answers (it’s been two days). This is frustrating as I am getting more and more msgs rolling in, but the more this happens, the harder it is to merge my history.

    • Matt Awwad

      have you gotten this to work? I want to try this on my iOS 7.1.2 myself

  • NECTOP

    Very good article but doesn’t work with downgrading from iOS 8 Beta 3 to iOS 7.1.2.

    • Person

      Are you sure it doesn’t work? What problems are you encountering? I’m trying to do the same thing.

      If you find a way to downgrade and preserve your messages, let me know.

  • LoveHateRepeat

    Bravo! You sir, are awesome. Thanks!

  • Matt Awwad

    will this work for iOS version 7.1 and later?

  • spammatuamamma

    hi, one question please. All goes quite well with this procedure, but accessing my older SMS and their attachments takes forever. Is there any issues you’ve experienced there? thanks for you response – very clear procedure which actually worked.

  • Person

    Extremely good tutorial. One of the most detailed I’ve read online. Unfortunately, iBackupBot doesn’t work for me. I’m running the Yosemite and iOS 8 betas, and when I launched iBackupBot, it gave me a string of errors and never loaded my iPhone backups. Is there a similar program that can stand in for iBackupBot in this tutorial?

  • GadgetQueenn

    This helped me immensely! Thanks so much Jeff!

  • bm

    Great instructions, very clear for novice and intermediate alike!
    Used for ios7->ios8 and haven’t had a problem. (also searched around those other folders and was able to restore voicemails and call history too with the same method).
    Thank you!

  • http://natesymer.io/ Nathaniel

    However obvious, this is good to know. No longer will I lose my texts on clean restores!

  • Reuben Coppa

    great guide. thanks. since doing this i’ve noticed that when i search in imessage it only searches messages sent / received since i did the restore. any fix for this?

  • Pete Tin

    Thanks for a great tutorial.
    Any tips on how to recover “grandfathered” Mail settings to allow gmail activesync to continue in the clean backup?

  • matt

    I can’t get iCopybot to stop crashing every time I plug in my iPhone 6…

  • JoshuaSmiley

    Just did this on my iPhone 6… Works perfectly

  • quick1024

    this almost worked perfectly for me… i’m using ios8.1 and it looks like many of the MMS attachments are missing in the details view of messages… it shows that it knows the file is there but shows a generic filename instead of the actual image… i checked and the attachments folder in my fresh install backup is the same size as the one i moved over from the original backup. any help?

  • Yihaaaa

    Thank you. Does it work when upgrading from iOS7 to iOS8 ?

  • Heiko

    Hi, i have a problem with IOS 8.1. When I start iBackupBot I get several errors saying “Unknown domain name”, “Invalid domain size at 17d: manifest.mdb”. Any suggestions? I can access my older backups from 8.0 on the iphone 4.

  • KB

    An excellent tutorial. The final restore of the clean backup with the SMS data did not work from iTunes so I had to do it via iBackupbot, but otherwise it all worked perfectly. Thank you.