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You want to do a Time Machine backup.

You’re looking at external drives for your Mac. And wonder what the difference in file formats mean?

One manufacturer says their drive is NTFS formatted.

While another one claims theirs is ExFAT formatted.

And yet another says it’s for Mac.

But which format should you get if you have no idea how any of this works?

Are you spinning around confused?

Settle back and discover the best format you need for your Mac’s Time Machine backup.

Best Format For Mac Time Machine Backup

When your MacBook Pro, MacBook Air or iMac is running MacOS Big Sur (version 11.0). The best drive format for a Time Machine backup is APFS.

But for earlier MacOS versions like Catalina, Mojave … The best format to use is HFS+.

You’ll see HFS+ listed in your Mac’s operating system as Mac OS Extended (Journaled).

They are the same thing.

Time Machine And Macs

First thing to know about your Mac’s Time Machine software is that it’s been around for a long time.

It’s a reliable way of backing up your Mac.

And the best part is it’s right there for you.

Part of your Mac’s OS.

There no separate software for you to buy to do a basic backup of your Mac.

And it backs up everything.

Your Mac’s operating system, all your applications, your photos, music, videos, spreadsheets.

Everything you have on your Mac.

Having a recent Time Machine backup of your Mac will dig you out of a hole if anything happens to your Mac.

If you have to get it repaired or reset back to its factory settings.

Or the worst of the worst your MacBook is stolen.

At least you’ve not lost all your files. You can get back to where you were by restoring your Mac’s Time Machine Backup.

Why Does Time Machine Need A Special Format

The format of a drive is also known as its file system.

What is a file system?

It’s how your files are laid out on the drive.

And it’s how your Mac understands how to write and read your files from your drive.

It’s how your Mac knows where to find your files.

Time Machine as part of your Mac’s operating system, needs to know how to write your backup to your drive.

And how to read your backup, back off your Mac’s drive.

So it’s pretty important.

Do you know how to check your external drive’s format?


Then head over to this article on the site to tell you how.

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Is APFS A Good Drive Format To Use For A Time Machine Backup?

Since MacOS 11.0, Big Sur, Apple now supports backing up to APFS (Apple File System).

APFS is the latest file system format for Mac. And has been around since MacOS High Sierra.

It’s made for and created to run on Solid State Drives (SSDs). And takes advantage of the faster drive speeds of SSD drives.

You can run APFS on mechanical external hard drives. And there are advantages because it’s a more robust file system format.

You have the choice of picking to backup to APFS encrypted or non-encrypted. And if your files are sensitive. Then picking an encrypted format allows you to set a password on your drive and secure your files.

HFS+ The Alternative Format For Your Mac’s Time Machine Backup?

If your Mac isn’t running MacOS Big Sur yet. Because you’ve not upgraded.

Or you’ve an older Mac and it’s not supported.

And definitely if you’ve a mixed collection of Macs. Some running Big Sur, some not.

Then the next best Time Machine backup format is Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system. It’s also known as HFS+.

Because MacOS operating systems before Big Sur can’t read. Or write to an APFS format drive for a Time Machine backup.

Advantages of HFS+ In A Time Backup Backup?

HFS+ (Mac OS Extended (Journaled) is a journaled file system.

So what?

This means that HFS+ does what it can to bypass small errors on your external drive.

So when you have a drive that’s acting up. HFS+ does what it can to allow you to get to your files.

Extra, extra useful when it’s your backup files you want to get to.

And it’s an advantage because all releases of MacOS can read a Time Machine backup on a HFS+ drive.

And those ‘for Mac’ drives you see advertised as delivered HFS+ formatted right out of the box. You can use them right away on your Mac for a backup.

Want to check one of those drives out? You can take a look at one here.

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What If My Mac is Running Big Sur But My Backup Drive Is HFS+?

Ok, so you’ve upgraded your Mac to Big Sur and your existing Time Machine backup is on an HFS+ formatted drive.

No issue.

You can carry right on using your backup drive. Your Mac will back up to it perfectly fine.

Does It Matter For Your Time Machine Backup If You’ve An External Hard Drive OR SSD?


It’s not the type of drive that matters. It’s the format on it that Time Machine cares about.

But when you look at the cost of an SSD versus a mechanical based hard drive you’ll see quite a difference.

And perhaps a real consideration when you have a lot to backup.

Tons of photos or movies. Or you may have several Macs to backup.

Most of the time the speed of your backups isn’t the most important thing.

There’s no issue in backing up your Macs internal SSD drive to an external hard drive.

The difference in speed of the two is not an issue for Time Machine.

And if you need the fastest backup and cost is not an issue. Then sure, get yourself an SSD Drive for your Macs Time Machine backup.

What If The Drive You Want To Use Isn’t Formatted As APFS or HFS+

You can reformat any drive.

And your Mac can reformat the drive for you.

If you’ve files already on there you want to keep. Then copy them off first.

Then you can reformat.

And if your drive is large enough. You can create a formatted section of the drive for your Time Machine Backups. And another section to store other specific files you want.

Not sure how to go about reformatting an external drive? You can read this post on the site.

What If My Macs External Drive For Time Machine Is NTFS Formatted?

NTFS is a file format for Windows PCs. Mac can read NTFS formatted drives but can’t write to them.

And it’s not a format that your Mac’s Time Machine software can use for a backup.

But don’t panic.

All external hard drives can be reformatted by your Mac.

Just make sure that any files on the external hard drive or SSD drive are copied off first.

Then your Mac can reformat the drive to APFS or HFS+ – Mac OS Extended (Journaled). It’s your choice.

Don’t Need The Whole External Drive For Your Mac’s Time Machine Backup?

Then you can create a Time Machine backup partition. Or section on a large enough external drive.

And use that for your Time Machine backups.

Curious to know how to partition an external hard drive for your Mac? Learn more here.

In Closing

In this blog post, you found options for drive formats to use for your Time Machine backup. And heard about the benefits of APFS or HSF+ for a Mac backup using Time Machine.

If you’re looking for more information on this topic, be sure to check out our other related posts!

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Reference: MacOS User Guide


  1. Just a thank you, Simon, for a clear and concise article confirming my thoughts about formatting an external drive for Time Machine.

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