Restoring your Mac from a Time Machine backup in Recovery Mode

By , Feb 29, 2016

Time Machine

Suppose a software update or an app you installed has corrupted system files and as a result your Mac refuses to start up properly, what do you do?

Those who have planned ahead and created a bootable USB install disk for El Capitan can do a clean install of OS X, and then restore their Mac from the most recent Time Machine backup.

But there’s a better way to deal with such situations. In this tutorial, we’ll educate you on booting into OS X’s Recovery Mode and using the built-in recovery tools to restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup.

Recovery Mode (and its online-based sibling, called Internet Recovery) contains all the tools you need to troubleshoot your Mac, repair disk errors, set a firmware password, restore the computer from a Time Machine backup and more.

Before restoring your Mac because of a problem with your startup disk, you should try to repair the disk with Disk Utility, or replace it, before following these instructions.

How to restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup in Recovery Mode

Make sure your Time Machine backup disk is connected and turned on. If you use a network-attached storage device or Time Capsule as the backup disk for Time Machine, make sure that both the backup disk and your Mac are on the same network.

1) In the Apple menu choose Restart, or power on your Mac.

2) As your Mac restarts, hold down the Command (⌘) – R combination after the startup chime plays and hold the keys until the Apple logo appears.

OS X Recovery Mode keystroke image 001

Tip: Mac notebook owners are advised to press the built-in keys because startup keyboard combinations may fail to register on an external keyboard at boot up.

After a few minutes, the Mac OS X Utilities window should appear.

Recovery Mode OS X Utilities window Mac screenshot 001

Tip: If you see OS X’s login window or the desktop, you didn’t press the keyboard combination early enough so restart your Mac and try again.

3) Select Restore From Time Machine Backup and click Continue.

4) On the next screen, you will be prompted to select between restoring the computer from an external backup disk, a Time Capsule or a network backup disk. Depending on your configuration, do one of the following:

  • External backup disk—Select the disk and click Continue.
  • Time Capsule—First, choose your wireless network from the Wi-Fi menu on the right side of the menu bar. Next, select your Time Capsule wireless device and click Connect to Remote Disk.
  • Network backup disk—Select the device and click Connect to Remote Disk.

If you’re using a Time Capsule or network-attached storage, you may be prompted to enter the name and password you use to connect to the backup disk.

Tip: To restore your Mac to the state it was in before you installed the new version of OS X, choose the most recent backup that occurred before you installed the OS X update.

5) Select the date and time of the backup you want to restore and follow the instructions. Restoring the entire system can take some time make yourself a sandwich.

After your system has been restored and the Mac starts up, Time Machine will perform a full backup at the next scheduled backup time before incremental backups are resumed.

Using Recovery Mode to restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup will reinstall OS X and restore your personal files. To copy specific files, settings and OS X user accounts in your Time Machine backup to another Mac, use Migration Assistant.

RELATED: How to boot your Mac into Internet Recovery Mode

Is your Mac backed up?

If you have an external hard drive or use Apple’s Time Capsule, you’re wholeheartedly recommended to enable Time Machine in System Preferences. Should your Mac’s startup disk get damaged or is replaced, you will be able to recover your entire system from a Time Machine backup and continue right where you left off without skipping a beat.

Everything you can do in Recovery Mode

Both Recovery Mode and its online counterpart, Internet Recovery, provide the same set of recovery tools which let you accomplish the following maintenance tasks:

Related tutorials

Check out these resources that cover a myriad of ways you can start up your Mac:

For even more how-tos, browse our complete archive of Mac tutorials.

Need help? Ask iDB!

Not sure how to do certain things on your Apple device? Let us know at and our future tutorials might cover your specific problem and provide a solution.

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