Do you use macOS’s incredibly useful zero-configuration Time Machine feature to keep the personal files, settings and documents residing on your Mac safely backed up to an external disk? If so, is your backup disk nearly full? The best way to make room on your backup disk is to delete old Time Machine backups using Finder.

For example, the disk in my AirPort Time Capsule is nearly full because I have backups dating back to 2010. In this day and age of iCloud Drive and other cloud-storage services, keeping years worth of backups is kind of useless. That precious disk space could be put to better use for storing your photos and videos, for example.

In this tutorial, you will learn how to delete old Time Machine backups to help clean up your disk and regain storage space on it.

Deleting old backups should be your first order of business in situations when your Time Machine backup disk runs out of space. By default, Time Machine deletes older backups to make room for new ones as your backup disk fills up.

There are a couple ways to remove entire backups created on specific dates. We will describe both, but note that Apple seem to prefer the first method

How to delete old Time Machine backups

1) Click the Time Machine icon in your Menu Bar to enter Time Machine.

2) Navigate through the interface to the desired date.

3) Once you have located the day you want to delete from your backup, click on the gear icon and select Delete Backup.

4) You will be asked to confirm you indeed want to delete the backup, and you may be ask to enter your administrator password too. Once done, the backup for that specific day will be deleted.

How to remove old Time Machine backups using Finder

1) Click the desktop and open a new window by selecting New Finder Window from the File menu, or press the Command (⌘)—N keys on your keyboard.

2) Connect the disk containing your Time Machine backups to the computer and wait until its name appears underneath the Devices section in the Finder sidebar, then click it.

You may be asked to enter your administrator name and password to continue. If you use AirPort Time Capsule, you may be asked to enter a password to access the backup disk.

3) Navigate to the “Backups.backupdb” folder on your Time Machine backup disk as you would other folders. It should be a top-level folder of your backup drive.

4) Once inside the “Backups.backupdb” folder, navigate to the sub-folder named with your Mac computer’s name. For instance, if your Mac is named “iMac Retina” in System Preferences, Time Machine will store backups inside the “iMac Retina” sub-folder.

TUTORIAL: How to change your Mac computer’s name

5) You will see a bunch of sub-folders, each prefixed with the date of the backup in the YYYY-MM-DD format. For example, backups of your iMac created on April 19, 2017 would we stored in the sub-folder with the name beginning with “2017-04-19”. To delete a desired backup sub-folder, right-click or Control (⌃)-click it, then choose Move to Trash from the popup menu.

This will delete all copies of a backed-up file or folder from your Time Machine backup disk.

6) Repeat the process for other full-day backups you’d like to remove. When done, disconnect the disk by selecting its icon on the desktop, then choose Eject from Finder’s File menu.

While you can safely delete sub-folders within the “Backups.backupdb” folder, you are not allowed to delete individual items inside the dated folders.

You’re wholeheartedly discouraged from using Terminal or any other app other than Finder to move, copy or delete items from the Backups.backupdb folder.

You also cannot delete items from local snapshots stored on your internal drive.

To save space on the backup drive, why not exclude individual files or entire folders of files—like your Applications or Downloads folder—in the Time Machine preferences window?

That’s all, folks!

If you have a question, post a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer it. Please share this tutorial on social media and pass it along to the folks you support.

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  • Max Rojas

    How do i delete a back up that i sent to the trash can? i try deleting it but it does not let me. Help.

    • velinn

      Search for an app called TrashIt!, it’s free and it’ll wipe your trashes and rebuild them. It takes a LONG time to run and there is no progress indicator, but just leave your Mac alone and it’ll eventually fix the trash. This right here is exactly why the advice in this article is bad. If you want to remove backups please use the Time Machine interface to remove them, or if you need to remove years of data like the
      author learn the tmutil commands in terminal. If you’re not comfortable with that, you’re probably better off leaving Time Machine alone.

  • 1 John 3:23

    This is not a wise thing to do! If you delete backups in this way, you risk losing data in your backup because of the way backups work on HFS+ volumes. You can easily delete from within the Time Machine interface, which is a lot safer!!

  • velinn

    This is absolutely terrible advice. Using finder to remove files from Time Machine is the wrong way because of how TM uses hard links. The best way is to use the Time Machine interface itself to remove backups easily and safely. If you need to remove large amounts of data, then use tmutil commands in terminal. If you try to do this with finder it can even break your trashes (in which case you need get the freeware TrashIt! app to ‘rm -rf’ your trash and rebuild it – I speak from experience).

  • velinn

    First, this article says “You can delete all copies of a backed-up file or folder from your Time Machine backup disk”. This is talking about removing ALL copies of a specific file or folder from backups. It is not talking about deleting all backups of a set (eg, all backups from 2011). It then is telling you that you CAN use Finder (ie, the system won’t stop you) but that doesn’t mean you should. If you have no other option it’s good to have this ability, but it is not the go-to way as your article seems to suggest. Using the Time Machine interface (the cog wheel, delete) is the correct ways to handle this, as the article points out – “this” meaning removing ALL copies of a file or folder from your backups.

    The `tmutil’ terminal command is a complete interface to Time Machine that can control all aspects of it, including doing mass deletions of a specific set, which is a more complex issue that the support article does not refer to. Just going into the backups.db folder and deleting stuff willy-nilly IS going to cause problems, especially with your trashes because Time Machine uses hard links to files. Apple doesn’t want you mucking around with this command for something simple like removing all copies of a file. However, if you’re trying to remove a set of backups from say 2011 but retain backups newer than this (which, again, the support article is not addressing), the correct way to do this is: sudo tmutil delete /path/to/Backups.backupsdb/user/2011-*

    The reason this command works and doesn’t break anything is because Time Machine is aware that 90% of the files in the folders are hard links and can simply remove them. Finder (and `rm’ in terminal) is not aware of this and treats every hard link as if it were an actual file (a hard link points directly to a physical location on the hard disk, as opposed to an alias/symbolic link which is a file that points to another file). This is why using Time Machine itself is the correct way to interact with your backed up files, whether by doing simple “remove all” deletions from the interface, or the terminal command for more fine-grained control. The only option you have when Finder becomes confused/overwhelmed by the hundreds of thousands of hard links is to simply `rm -rf’ your trashes and rebuild them. If you start deleting your TM backups with Finder you’re going to run into this.

    • El Aura

      Nonsense, the Finder can handle multiple hard links just fine. They have existed for files far longer than Time Machine (TM added multiple hard links for folders to the file system). The heavy lifting of multiple hard links (for files and folders) is done at the file system level. To the Finder, two hard links pointing to the same physical location on disk just look like two independent files. And deleting either of those two ‘files’ in the Finder only removes one of the hard links.

      The only risk of using the Finder to delete TM snapshots is that the Finder in itself tends to crap out when it has to delete a very large number of files.