How to sync your iPhone without iTunes on a Mac

sync iPad via the finder

With iTunes in macOS Catalina 10.15 split up into three separate apps, Apple had to make sure there would still be a way to sync your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch with your Mac computer so that you could back up, update and/or restore your devices just like before, but without iTunes.

With macOS Catalina, you’ll find your backup, update and restore options right in the Finder. Furthermore, connecting an iOS device to your Mac will no longer prompt macOS to automatically open iTunes, bless its heart. Instead, you will access your iPhone or iPad through the Finder’s sidebar along with your other connected hardware.

sync iPhone via the finder
The new Music app in macOS is how you sync music files with your iOS devices.

If you’d like to continue syncing your media to your iOS devices using a cable, macOS lets you do so quickly and easily in the new entertainment apps. Movies, TV shows and other videos are synced through the new TV app. Your favorite podcasts are synced in the new Podcasts app. And your music is synced through the new Music app.

The trouble with syncing

While many people (this author included) have not been syncing anything with a computer anymore thanks to iCloud and streaming, some people may prefer having the connection to the computer and keeping their iOS device backup files handy in case there’s something wrong.

That’s especially true when it comes to backing up your important information. If you’d like to cover all your bases, you should have your important data stored on your iOS devices, as well as backed up in iCloud and stored physically on your computer.

sync iPhone via the finder
Podcasts are synced to iPhone via the macOS Podcasts app (same for movies and TV shows via the new Apple TV app).

Preferably, you’d also copy a backup file from your computer to an external drive and store it offsite. That way, if the cloud gets hacked or you lose your device or someone steals your computer or your house gets burgled (not necessarily in that order), you’ll still have an offsite copy of the backup file that you could use to salvage your most important information.

How to sync iPhone without iTunes on Mac

As mentioned, your iPhone or iPad will immediately pop up in the sidebar of Finder when you plug it into your Mac, letting you instantly back up, update or restore the device.

1) Using its cable, connect your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch with iOS 13 or later to a Mac computer running macOS Catalina 10.15 or newer.

2) Open a new Finder window by clicking the desktop, then select the File menu and choose the command New Finder Window. Alternatively, select the Finder by clicking the desktop and press the Command – N shortcut on your keyboard.

3) Click your device in the Finder’s sidebar, listed underneath the Locations heading.

If this is your first time connecting this device to your Mac, you’ll be asked to trust it by clicking the Pair button in the Finder window. To confirm secure pairing, you’ll also need to tap Trust on the mobile device and authenticate with your passcode.

sync iPhone via the finder pair button

4) Now select content items to be synchronized underneath the Photos, Files, Music, Movies, TV Shows and other content subsections lined up alongside the top of the Finder window.

5) Click the Apply button near the bottom-right corner of the window to start the syncing process using the parameters you just set in all the previous steps.

sync iPhone via the finder apply button

Wait for the syncing process to finish, then unplug the device from the computer.

How to back up your iPhone without iTunes

To create a local backup file of the connected iPhone or iPad on your Mac, which contains (among other things) all of your settings, files and app data, follow the steps below.

1) Start by plugging an iOS 13+ device into a Mac running macOS Catalina 10.15+.

2) Open a new Finder window by clicking the desktop, then select the File menu and choose the command New Finder Window (or press Command – N on the keyboard).

3) Now click your device in the Finder’s sidebar, it’s listed underneath the Locations heading.

If a message asks for your device passcode or to Trust This Computer, simply follow the onscreen steps and you’ll be fine.

4) Under the Backups section, click the radio button labeled with the text “Back up all of the data on your iPhone to this Mac”.

sync iPhone via the finder back up locally

Doing so will ensure that your settings, files, information and app data is backed up locally on your Mac computer rather than in iCloud (regardless of whether or not iCloud Backup is turned on in iOS Settings).

5) Tick the box next to “Encrypt local backup” in the Backups section, then create an encryption password and click Set Password to continue.

sync iPhone via the finder encrypt

You’re wholeheartedly recommended to write down the encryption password and store it some place safe because you won’t be able to restore from this backup should you lose the encryption password. We always recommend making encrypted backups because that’s the only way to include your saved Wi-Fi passwords and other logins in the backup file.

sync iPhone via the finder encryption

6) Lastly click the button Back Up Now found in the Backups section.

To confirm that the backup process finished successfully, simply look under the entry Latest Backup near the bottom of the Finder window to find the date and time.

How to restore your iPhone without iTunes

To restore your iOS device from a backup stored on your Mac, do the following:

1) Firstly, connect your device with iOS 13 or later to a Mac running macOS Catalina 10.15+.

2) Open a new Finder window by clicking the desktop, then select the File menu and choose the command New Finder Window or press Command – N on the keyboard.

3) Click the device in the Finder’s sidebar right underneath the Locations heading.

You may need to click Pair if this is the first time connecting this device to this Mac.

4) Under the Backups section, click the button Restore Backup.

5) Look at the date and size of each backup and pick the most relevant, then click Restore.

sync iPhone via the finder restore backup

Wait for the restore time to finish, which can take anywhere between a few seconds to an hour or more, depending on the size of the backup file and the speed of your computer and iOS device, and other factors. If asked, enter the password for your encrypted backup.

Keep your device connected after it restarts and wait for it to optionally sync with your computer. You can disconnect after the sync finishes.

Archiving and managing backups

You can optionally archive any backup file you want.

By default, all iOS device backups are incremental—after syncing your iPhone or iPad for the first time with your Mac, any subsequent sync sessions will append any changed data on the device to the backup file, thus overwriting old information.

Creating an archived backup prevents an iOS device’s backup file from being changed going forward, in turn letting you restore to that specific backup. I always create an archived backup of my iPhone prior to installing major new iOS releases, which allows me to easily downgrade to the previous version in case I determine that I dislike the new one.

To archive any backup file, click Manage Backups in the Finder window and right or Control-click a desired backup file, then choose Archive and confirm the operation by clicking OK.

sync iPhone via the finder manage backup

An archived backup is labeled with a timestamp. To find an iOS backup file on your Mac, Control-click the backup that you want, then choose Show in Finder.

As mentioned earlier, an archived backup file is never overwritten by any subsequent backups for that device. As such, it gives you a fixed point in time to restore an iOS device from.