How to Restore from a Time Machine Snapshot

As Apple notes on its support pages, Time Machine now keeps what are called local snapshots on the startup disk for your Mac, meaning that you can restore data even when you don’t have your backup drive handy. As you can read in that article, High Sierra will also create a snapshot automatically before doing operating system updates. Neat!

If you need to recover stuff from one of these snapshots, though, the way you’ll go about it depends on what you’re trying to do. If what you need is just a file or two, then you’ll simply restore from Time Machine the way you normally would; if you find, though, that you need to roll back your entire system, you can do it through macOS Recovery. To get started with that, shut down your Mac, and then press the power button to turn it back on. Right after you do so, hold down Command-R on your keyboard until you see the Apple logo appear. When the machine finishes starting up, you should be within macOS Recovery, which’ll give you a number of options for helping out a misbehaving Mac:

macOS Utilities Screen in Recovery Mode

Here’s where you’ll forgive me for the crappy Recovery pictures, right? Right.

So select “Restore From Time Machine Backup” on that first screen as I’ve done, and then click “Continue.” You’ll get a screen informing (and warning!) you of what you’re about to do…

Restore from Time Machine Warning Screen in macOS Recovery Mode

…but on the next screen, you can select a source to restore from. Obviously, you’ll only have your internal drive to pick if you don’t have a backup disk available.

Select a Restore Source in macOS Recovery Mode

After that, you’ll need to enter an administrator password to confirm your choice if you’ve enabled FileVault encryption.

macOS Unlock Disk dialog for FileVault in Recovery Mode

Once that’s done, you’ll see a list of the snapshots you can use to roll back your system!

Select a Time Machine Local Snapshot Screen in macOS Recovery Mode

Choosing one will of course reveal another warning about how this’ll revert changes to your disk:

Warning Box confirming you want to restore from a Time Machine snapshot

So just be sure you know what you’re doing!

Anyway, though, you can also use Terminal to manage these snapshots, at least a little bit; if you want to create one immediately, the command is tmutil localsnapshot, like so:

Terminal Window showing command to create Time Machine Snapshot in macOS

After you press Return, your Mac will confirm what you’ve done:

Terminal Confirmation of Time Machine Local Snapshot

You can also list your existing local snapshots with this command:

tmutil listlocalsnapshots /

Like this:

Terminal Window for Listing Time Machine Local Snapshots in macOS

For example, here are the ones my Mac had done recently:

List of Time Machine Local Snapshots in macOS Terminal

That last part of each item is the date followed by the time in hours, minutes, and seconds. (So the first snapshot there was taken at 13 seconds past 10:21 in the morning on May 16.) If you’ve read the first support article I linked above, you’ll know that Time Machine saves snapshots every hour, and it automatically cleans out items every 24 hours. So for the most part, you really don’t need to manage this system yourself in any way, though there are also Terminal commands for deleting snapshots and so on (type man tmutil in Terminal for more info). But it’s nice to know that your Mac has got backups of itself now, isn’t it? Weird, and sort of meta, but nice.

4 thoughts on “How to Restore from a Time Machine Snapshot

  • I have a 2017 iMac with the fusion drive.

    Here is what I see with regards to snapshots:
    Last login: Tue May 22 10:39:28 on ttys000
    new-host-4:~ joepitt$ tmutil localsnapshot
    Failed to create local snapshot
    new-host-4:~ joepitt$
    new-host-4:~ joepitt$ tmutil listlocalsnapshots /
    new-host-4:~ joepitt$
    new-host-4:~ joepitt$

    No snapshots for me.

    May be something to do with the lack of APFS on fusion drives. But sounds like APFS may be coming soon. I’ll check when that happens.

    1. Hey cjpitt!

      It’s my understanding that these system-restore snapshots work on any APFS SSD drive, so if the iMac in question had one, I would think it would be creating snapshots (I believe that support article you linked was referring specifically to Sierra, not High Sierra). But I could be wrong, certainly, and I don’t have an SSD iMac to test it on! Perhaps another reader can clarify?

      And I’m sorry for not including that in the original article, so good question! 🙂

    2. So I contacted a friend of mine who has an iMac with an SSD in it because your question made me curious, and he did indeed get the same options within macOS Recovery for restoring from snapshots. So it looks like that Apple support article should be edited, at least!

      But I hope that’s helpful, and thanks for piquing my curiosity!

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