Backup Macbook Pro To External Hard Drive Title Image

How do you back up your Mac?

If you are like most people, the answer is probably “I don’t.”

But if something happens and your Mac crashes or gets stolen.

What happens to all those important files on your MacBook?

Don’t go there!

Or you may just not like the idea of having an online Cloud backup.

Because you never know when your Cloud backup might fail. Or you can’t access it because of a network issue.

Let’s talk about how to back up your MacBook Pro to an external hard drive using Time Machine.

Instead of relying on a cloud storage service alone.

The 4 Things You Need For Mac Backup

1. To back up your MacBook Pro to an external hard drive. Time Machine needs a directly attached USB external hard drive.
Or Time Machine can also back up your Mac to an Apple Time Capsule. Your Time Capsule with its hard drive must be on the same network as your MacBook Pro.

2. You need enough space on your external drive to hold your Time Machine backup. Or enough space on your disk’s partition. If you’re backing up to a partition on your drive.
In an ideal world you’d have an external drive at least twice size of the space your documents take up. And this is so that you can grow into your backup drive.  You’ll hear why later.

3. The external drive you’re backing up to formatted to APFS (Apple File System). Or Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system (also known as HFS+).

4. Time Machine. Why pay for software. When you’ve great backup software as a standard feature of your Mac’s operating system.
With MacOS there’s no extra software for you to buy.

This article covers backing up to a directly connected external hard drive. If you’re doing a Mac Backup with Time Machine to an Apple Time Capsule. Take a look at this article. Apple Time Capsule Setup.

How To Backup Your MacBook Pro To An External Hard Drive

1. Sign Into Your Mac And Connect Your External Drive’s USB.

If you know your external hard drive is not set up for your Mac. But you are running Mac OS Ventura or later. Then Time Machine will format your external drive as part of the Time Machine setup.

However, it will format the entire drive for Time Machine.  If you already have files on the drive you want. Copy those files off first.

Or if you plan to use only part of your external hard drive for Time Machine. Then create your Time Machine partition first and use that for your Time Machine backup.

Running a Mac with Monterey, Big Sur or earlier operating systems?

Then you’ll first need to use software on your Mac called Disk Utility to format your drive for Mac. Take a look at this article here on the site. Format an External Hard Drive For Mac.

Then head straight back here.

Is your external hard drive set up for Time Machine backups?



2. Can You See Your External Hard Drive Icon On Your Desktop?

It’ll look something like this.

External Drive Icon On Desktop
External Drive Icon On Desktop

If your hard drive is not showing up. Then take a look at this article here. Connect An External Hard Drive To Mac. As you’ll find some tips there for you.

Can you see your external hard drive on your Mac’s desktop?


Now to connect it up to your Time Machine backup software. It’s easy to do.

Mac OS Ventura or Later

1. Open System Settings.

System Settings From Apple Menu

Scroll down to the General heading and click on it. Then Scroll down to Time Machine and click that option.

System Settings General Time Machine

2. Click The Button Add Backup Disk.

System Settings Time Machine Add Backup Disk

Pick your external hard drive, then click Setup Disk.

System Settings Time Machine WD Elements Setup Disk

3. If you’ve previously set up a backup drive for your Mac.

You may have upgraded your Mac from Mac OS Monterey and your Mac remembers your previous backup drive.

And you want to add another backup drive or change from your previous backup drive. Then click the + button.

System Settings Time Machine Plus Button

Pick your drive. Then click the button Setup Disk.

Your Mac will then format your Elements hard drive as a Mac drive. And set your drive up for Time Machine.

4. Set Up To Show Time Machine Icon In Menu Bar

You can set your Mac to show the Time Machine icon in your Mac’s menu bar.

In System Settings click on Control Centre. Then scroll down to Time Machine. Then Click the option ‘Show In Menu Bar’.

System Settings Time Machine In Menu Bar

In Mac OS Monterey or Earlier

1. Start Up Time Machine.

To link up your external hard drive to Time Machine the first thing to do is to open up and configure Time Machine.

Click on Spotlight search at the top of your Mac’s desktop screen.

Spotlight Search Symbol

Type in the text ‘System Preferences’. You configure your Mac’s Time Machine backup in there.

Spotlight Search System Preferences

Click on System Preferences in spotlight search and start up the software. Scroll down your System Preferences screen a little. Then click on Time Machine to start it up.

Time Machine in System Preferences
Time Machine in System Preferences

2. Set Up Your MacBook Pro’s External Hard Drive In Time Machine.

You’ll see a pop up window like this.

Backup External Drive Time Machine !st Window

You’ll see a check box that says ‘Back Up Automatically’.

For now, set that box to off by leaving it empty. That box kicks off automatic backups and we’re not ready to do that yet.

A red arrow in the picture above shows you where.

You’ll see toward the bottom of the Time Machine popup window another check box. It says ‘Show Time Machine in the menu bar’. Put a check in that box.

The arrow in the picture shows you where that box is.

You’ll find that useful later.

Then Click Select Disk.

3. Pick Your External Drive For Your Mac’s Backup.

The next pop up window shows you all the drives you can use for your MacBook Pro’s backup.

Your external hard drive will be on this list as an available drive.

You’ll see it in the list by the name you gave it when you formatted it.

Or you’ll see the partition name. If you formatted a partition of your external hard drive to back up your Mac to.

Time Machine Available Drives

Click on your external hard drive’s name. Or the name of your partition.

Now you have some options.

If you want Time Machine to encrypt your backup. There’s a check box for that bottom left of the pop up window. You give your drive a password. And Time Machine will encrypt your backup.

Keep your password safe. MacOS is one of the most secure operating systems. You lose your password – you lose your backup.

Now Click on ‘Use Disk’.

And Time Machine is now configured to use your hard disk. Or partition for your MacBook Pro’s backup.

4. Kicking Off Your Mac’s Backup.

You’re now back to the Time Machine pop up window you saw earlier.

Backup External Drive Time Machine !st Window
MacBook Backup External Drive Time Machine Window

Now if you want you can start up your automatic backups. You do that by putting a check in the box to ‘Back Up Automatically’.

And you’re done. Your MacBook Pro’s Time Machine backups are set up.

You can just keep your external hard drive connected to your Mac. And leave it up to Time Machine to decide when to kick off your next backup.


You can ask Time Machine to back up your Mac right now.

To kick off a backup right away. You click on the Time Machine icon at the top of your Mac’s desktop.

Time Machine At Top of Desktop
Time Machine At Top of Desktop

Remember that option to show Time Machine in the menu bar? Did you check the box?

If it’s not at the top of your desktop you can go back to system preferences. Then into Time Machine and check the box.

Click on the Time Machine icon. And from the drop down menu pick ‘Backup Now’.

Time Machine Backup Now

And Time Machine will prepare your backup and start backing up.

You can check the progress of your backup anytime by clicking on the Time Machine icon.

If it’s your first backup. Or you haven’t backed up for a while. Then the preparing stage may take some time. Don’t worry let Time Machine do its thing.

And there you are, Time Machine is backing up your external drive nicely.

When Time Machine Has Finished Your Mac’s Back Up

You can check by clicking on the Time Machine icon at the top of your desktop. You’ll see the progress of the current backup if it still doing it.

Or you’ll see the time of your last back up if it’s done.

Depending on your Mac’s operation system. An orange colored external hard disk icon on your desktop. Means your Mac’s backup isn’t done yet.

The drive icon turns Green when your backups done.

Disconnect Your External Hard Drive From Your Mac When You’re Done

To make sure you don’t accidentally corrupt your external hard drive.

Disconnect it properly. You do this by ejecting your external hard drive from your Mac.  Hover over the Icon for the External Drive on the desktop. Right click and pick the Eject option from the menu.

Right Click to Eject External Drive
Right Click to Eject External Drive

Or go to your finder window and click on the arrow to the right of the drive name to eject the drive.

Wait a few seconds for the icon to disappear.

This allows your MacBook to write whatever it needs to down to your external hard drive.

You may hear the fan wind down or the light on the external drive flicker and go dark.

Now you can remove your USB cable from your Mac.

And safely put your drive away where it won’t get knocked or banged around.

Other MacBook Pro Backup To External Drive Questions Answered

How Does Your Mac’s Time Machine Backups Work?

Time Machine’s first backup of your MacBook is a full back up of your Mac.

Time Machine backs up everything on your Mac. Your Mac’s operating system and your files.

This backup can take some time. The time it takes depends on how many files you have on your Mac’s internal drive.

After that backup Time Machine will take incremental backups.

Incremental backups? You ask.

Backups of the files that have changed since the last time it backed up.

When you look at a Time Machine backup it is like looking back in time. All your backups are time stamped with the latest showing first. 

If your external drive is connected to your Mac for Time Machine to use.

Time Machine will make and keep hourly backups for the past 24 hours. Daily backups for the past month. And weekly backups after that.

Or you can plug in your external hard drive when you want to. And using your Time Machine icon tell Time Machine to backup now. And away it will go.

What Happens When My MacBook Pro’s External Hard Drive is Full?

When your Mac’s backup drive is full. It deletes your oldest backups.

Remember earlier I said it’s best to have a backup drive. Or your Mac’s backup partition at least twice the size of the space taken up by your files on your internal drive?

That’s why.

Time Machine allows you to go back through your backups as you need.

But when your external hard drive is completely full with your backups. Time Machine deletes the oldest backup.

With a large enough hard drive. Or backup partition you can keep more backups without the risk of deletion.

How Long Does It Take To Do A Mac Backup?

That’s a difficult question to answer.

Because it depends on the speed of the drives.

And by this, I mean the speed of the drives inside your MacBook. And the speed of the drives you’re backing up to.

It also depends on how many files you have to backup.

The very first back can take a while, so leave your MacBook Pro, plugged in and set it off overnight if you have to.

You can of course use your Mac while it’s backing up.

Your back up may take slightly longer but that’s all.

When Should You Do A Backup Of Your Mac?

Depending on how important your files are. And how much work you’re doing on your MacBook Pro.

At least weekly.

Other than that, back up your files before an upgrade of your MacOS.

You never know. a new MacOS version may break something. If it does at least then you’ll have a backup to go back to.

Backup when you’ve finished an important piece of work.

If it’s important to you, back it up.

Backup if you start to have any issues with your MacBook’s internal hard drive.

That way if the worst happens. You’ve a backup.

What Does Time Machine Backup?

Everything except your MacBook’s operating system; Photos, Music, Documents.

Everything on your internal drive.

If you need to restore your MacBook’s OS. Since MacOS Big Sur you reload your Mac OS by putting your Mac into MacOS Recovery mode. How to do that?

Check out this Apple article here.

How Do I Cancel My Mac’s Backup Once It Has Started?

Click on your Time Machine icon at the top of your desktop. You’ll find the option to skip your backup there.

What If My MacBook Pro Goes Into Sleep Mode While I’m Backing Up?

If your MacBook Pro goes to sleep while your back up is underway. Your back up will continue.

What If I Want To Use More Than One External Drive For Backup?

That’s fine you can backup to several external hard drives.

Repeat the steps above to set up your second external hard drive.

Then plug in the drive you want to back up to. Your Mac will know what was last backed up to that drive and back up the changes since the last backup.

It’s an excellent idea to have two external drives to back up to and inter change them.

And that way you’ve extra security for your MacBook Pro’s backups.

What About Backing Up Your Mac To APFS (Apple File System)?

Time Machine since MacOS Big Sur allows a Time Machine backup to an APFS external drive.

But earlier MacOS releases can’t read a Time Machine backup to an APFS drive.

So, if you’re backing up several Mac’s to one large drive.

And not all of them are running Big Sur. Stick to formatting your MacBook’s backup drive to Mac OS Extended.

In Closing

And now you should be backing up your MacBook Pro like a Pro.

The best option for backing up your Mac are external hard drives.

Here’s why.

Because you never know.  A network issue or some other problem could mean you need another backup local to your Mac. And Quick.

Use Time Machine to back up all files and folders on your Mac. Including any documents that you’ve saved to the desktop. As well as music, videos, photos and anything else …  

What now?

How about checking out the other related posts on the site?

Related Posts

What’s the Best External Hard Drive for Mac.

Best Format For Your Mac’s External Drive Time Machine Backup

Best Format For Mac External Hard Drive

External Hard Drive For Mac And PC With Data Interchangeable