Have you ever encountered a situation where your Mac crashes or stops working, and you lose all your important files and data? It can be a nightmare, especially if you don't have a backup.

Mac users often rely on external hard drives to store their important files and create backups. These devices provide a convenient way to keep your data safe and secure. In this article, we will guide you through the process of restoring your Mac from an external hard drive, ensuring that you don't lose any important data in the process.

Table of Content
    1. Restore a Mac Time Machine Backup From an External Drive
    2. Recover Mac From an External Hard Drive Using Recovery Software
    3. Restore a Mac From an External Hard Drive Using Local or Cloud Backup

Can I Restore Mac From an External Hard Drive?

Yes, in most instances, it is possible. However, it heavily depends on the extent of the software and hardware damage.

In the case of common file corruption issues or accidental deletion, restoring essential files without professional help shouldn’t be a problem. In the case of extensive hardware damage, on the other hand, restoring your Mac could be an insurmountable challenge.

The good news is that the risk of both your Mac and your external hard drive getting corrupted simultaneously is relatively low. Therefore, as long as you regularly back up your Mac on an external drive, you should always be able to restore all your critical data with the utmost ease.

how to restore mac from external hard drive

Considering how quickly you could lose essential files due to an accident, malicious program, or even physical damage, creating backups should be second nature to you. Whether you just want to ensure that you never lose all your photos and videos or that all your school and work documents remain safe and sound, you’ll need to back up your Mac to an external hard drive as frequently as possible.

How to Restore Mac From Your External Hard Drive

Now that you know it’s possible, it’s time to see how to restore a Mac from the backup on an external hard drive. You could go for several approaches, the most effective ones being restoring with Time Machine, using reliable recovery software, or opting for your local or cloud backup.

Method 1. Restore a Mac Time Machine Backup From an External Drive

Time Machine is the built-in backup feature that comes with your macOS. It allows you to seamlessly back up all your essential files on an automatic schedule that best suits your needs. You can create hourly, daily, or weekly backups to protect your files and determine your preferred backup frequency.

Keep in mind, however, that your backups will be stacked on top of one another. Time Machine will delete the oldest files when your disk gets full to make space for the newest ones.

To restore Mac Time Machine backup from an external drive, you’ll need the help of Migration Assistant. It will allow you to restore everything from your user account, including apps and personal files.

To get started, you’ll first want to ensure that your macOS is up and running. If you need to reinstall it, do so, then follow the next few steps:

  1. Connect Time Machine backup to your Mac;
  2. Go to Applications > Utilities > Migration Assistant;
  3. Select how you want to transfer your information (From a Mac, Time Machine Backup, or Startup Disk);
    migration assistant information transfer
  4. Click Continue;
  5. Select Time Machine Backup > Continue;
  6. Choose your backup, then click Continue;
  7. Select the information you wish to transfer, and click Continue.

Depending on the size of your files, it could take a while for them to transfer. Once the transfer is complete, exit the Migration Assistant, log into the account you’ve migrated, and examine your files.

Method 2. Recover Mac From an External Hard Drive Using Recovery Software

In some instances, restoring files via Time Machine and Migration Assistant isn’t possible. If you’ve tried and couldn’t restore your MacBook from an external hard drive using this method, you’ll need the help of third-party recovery software.

Solutions like Wondershare Recoverit for Mac offer simple, streamlined data restoration processes that will have your Mac up and running in no time.

Recoverit can restore over 1,000 file and folder types and is compatible with over 2,000 storage devices, including external hard drives, USBs, SD cards, cameras, internal hard disks, and more. What’s more, it can restore files lost in dozens of different scenarios – from accidental deletion and human error to hard drive damage, virus attack, system crash, software failure, and repartition, among others.

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Free Download

Whether you want to recover files directly from your Mac or from an external device, the entire process is seamless:

  1. Connect the external hard drive to your Mac;
  2. Launch Recoverit and choose the connected external hard drive under the External Devices section;
    select the external hard drive
  3. Recoverit will automatically start scanning lost files after selection; You can pause the scan at any time if you find the data you’re looking for;
    scan files on the external hard drive
  4. Preview files, select those you wish to restore, and click Recover.
    restore mac from external hard drive

The process is the same if you want to restore files from an external hard drive or directly from your Mac. Simply choose the target location you want to restore in the first step under Hard Disk Devices or Desktop and restore your essential files.

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Method 3. Restore a Mac From an External Hard Drive Using Local or Cloud Backup

An alternative to using Time Machine or third-party recovery software is using your local or cloud backup to restore your Mac files.

Using the Disk Utility app, you can put your Mac in recovery mode and restore files from your local backup with the following steps:

  1. Shut down your Mac and connect local backup;
  2. Hold the power button (Apple Silicon Mac)/Press the power button, Control, and R (Intel Mac);
  3. Click Disk Utility > Continue;
    mac disk utility
  4. Select your hard drive and go to the Restore tab;
  5. Under Restore from, choose your external local drive, and under Restore to, choose Mac hard drive;
  6. Select Restore.

You can also restore files from your cloud backup, such as iCloud. Keep in mind that iCloud backup isn’t a full backup. It will only contain files from your photos, videos, contacts, notes, and the like. Still, if those are the files you want to restore, you just need to follow a few simple steps:

  1. Log into your iCloud;
  2. Click on your profile in the upper right-hand corner and select iCloud settings;
  3. Go to Data Recovery and select your data category;
    icloud data categories
  4. Select files to recover and click Restore > Restore.

It could take a moment for your files to be restored. Once the process is complete, you should have access to all your restored files without issues.

When to Admit Defeat and Bring Mac to a Professional?

In instances where you’ve accidentally deleted important files or downloaded them incorrectly, you can restore them using one of the methods above – you can even restore files after a system failure or malware attack. However, if your device has extensive physical damage, you might have to admit defeat.

As a general rule of thumb, it could be in your best interest to try all three methods discussed above to restore a backup from an external hard drive on Mac before you send your device in for a professional repair.

None of the methods are complicated, nor will they put your device and its files at risk. Considering how expensive professional repairs can be, you should only use them as a last resort.

If none of the methods work, it’s probably time to cut your losses and send your device for repair.

Part 4. How To Avoid Data Loss on Mac

If you’re not careful, you’ll face the problem of data loss on your Mac sooner or later. Accidents, software failures, malware attacks, and more happen more often than you think. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to minimize your risks of facing data loss.

Tips Explanations
🔄 Regularly backup your data The most important step to avoid data loss is to create regular backups of your important files and folders. You can use the built-in Time Machine application on your Mac to create automatic, incremental backups to an external hard drive or network-attached storage (NAS). Remember to test your backups periodically to ensure they are working properly.
⏰ Save your work frequently While working on documents, spreadsheets, or other files, make sure to save your progress frequently. Get into the habit of using the keyboard shortcut Command + S to save your work.
↻ Keep your Mac updated Install system updates and software updates as they become available. This will help to fix any bugs or compatibility issues that may lead to data loss.
🛡 Use a reliable antivirus software Malware and viruses can also cause data loss or corruption. Install a reputable antivirus program to scan your Mac and protect it from potential threats.
📁 Manage your storage space Keep an eye on your Mac's storage capacity and ensure that there is enough free space available. Running out of storage space can lead to data loss or corruption.
💽 Use quality hardware Make sure you are using high-quality external hard drives and USB drives to store your data. Low-quality devices are more prone to failure and data loss.
⚡ Protect your Mac from power surges Sudden power surges can cause data corruption or hardware damage. Use a surge protector to safeguard your Mac and connected devices.
❗ Be cautious with third-party software Only install software from trusted sources and be cautious when granting applications access to your files and folders. Some applications may accidentally or maliciously delete or corrupt your data.
🔧 Avoid physical damage Keep your Mac in a safe, secure location and avoid exposing it to extreme temperatures, humidity, or potential physical damage.


  • Can I restore my Mac from an external hard drive?
    Yes, you can restore your Mac from an external hard drive, especially if you have a backup created using Time Machine. Time Machine is a built-in backup application on macOS that allows you to create regular backups of your files, applications, and system settings on an external drive.
  • How do I restore my Mac from an external hard drive?
    To restore your Mac from an external hard drive, follow these steps:
    1. Connect the external hard drive containing the Time Machine backup to your Mac.
    2. Restart your Mac and hold down the Command () + R keys as soon as the computer starts up to boot into macOS Recovery.
    3. In the macOS Utility window, select Restore From Time Machine Backup and click Continue.
    4. Follow the on-screen instructions, and when prompted, select the external hard drive containing your Time Machine backup.
    5. Choose the backup you want to restore from the list and click Continue.
    6. Your Mac will begin restoring from the selected backup. This process may take some time, depending on the size of your backup.
  • Can I restore individual files from a Time Machine backup?
    Yes, you can restore individual files or folders from a Time Machine backup without restoring the entire system. To do this:
    1. Connect the external hard drive containing your Time Machine backup to your Mac.
    2. Click on the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and choose Enter Time Machine.
    3. Navigate through the timeline to find the file or folder you want to restore.
    4. Select the file or folder and click the Restore button.
    5. The selected file or folder will be restored to its original location.
  • Can I restore my Mac to a new or different Mac using an external hard drive?
    Yes, you can restore a Time Machine backup to a new or different Mac. During the setup process of the new Mac, you will be prompted to transfer information from another Mac, a Time Machine backup, or a startup disk. Choose the Time Machine backup option and connect your external hard drive containing the backup. Follow the on-screen instructions to complete the transfer.
  • What if my external hard drive is not recognized by my Mac during the restore process?
    If your external hard drive is not recognized during the restore process, try the following troubleshooting steps:
    1. Ensure the external hard drive is properly connected to your Mac.
    2. Check if the drive is formatted in a compatible file system (Mac OS Extended or APFS).
    3. Try connecting the drive to a different USB port or using a different cable.
    4. Restart your Mac and try the restore process again.
    5. If none of these steps resolve the issue, it's possible that the external hard drive or the backup itself is damaged. In such cases, you may need to seek professional help for data recovery.


Losing essential files from your Mac can seem like a nightmare come true. However, with the right tools, you can seamlessly restore your Mac with the utmost ease. Whether you’ve lost your files due to accidental deletion, software failure, malware attack, or anything in between, you can try restoring them via Time Machine, third-party software like Recoverit, or your local or cloud backup.

If nothing works, you can always look for professional assistance and send your device to a registered Apple repair shop.

Theo Lucia
Theo Lucia Jun 14, 24
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