How to Back Up Your iPhone to an External Hard Drive

Free up space on your Mac's internal drive

What to Know

  • Go to Finder > Locations > select your iPhone> Manage Backups. Select a backup > Show in Finder.
  • In Finder, drag the backup to the external drive in Locations.
  • Or use Mac's admin settings and Terminal to permanently change the iPhone location backups.

If you are in the habit of backing up your iPhone data to a Mac computer, you might find space is limited. While Apple doesn't make it easy to back up an iPhone to an external hard drive, it is possible. This guide shows you how to do so using iOS 13 and macOS Catalina (or later).

How to Find Your Current Backup on MacOS

Because of the complexity, we've broken down what needs to be done before moving your iPhone backup to an external hard drive into multiple steps.

First, you need to know where the backup is stored on your Mac. It's not hard to find. 

  1. In the Mac Dock, select Finder.

    Mac with Finder highlighted on the Dock
  2. Go to the Locations section of Finder and choose your iPhone.

    MacOS Finder with iPhone under Locations highlighted

    If you use an older version of macOS than macOS Catalina, use iTunes to find your iPhone instead.

  3. Click Manage Backups.

    Manage Backups highlighted for an iPhone
  4. Long-press the Control key and click the backup name you want. It may be named "Backup" or it may be a long string of letters and numbers.

    iPhone location with backups highlighted
  5. In the drop-down menu, select Show in Finder.

  6. You've successfully tracked down the backup.

How to Move iPhone Backup to an External Hard Drive

Now you've found your backup, you need to move it to your external hard drive. This step is pretty simple. 

Make sure your external hard drive is plugged in!

  1. Go to the Finder window that displays your iOS backup.

  2. Select the Backup folder. 

    It will either be called Backup or consist of a series of numbers and letters.

  3. Drag it to the external hard drive under Locations in the Finder sidebar.

    Moving an iOS backup to an external hard drive with the need to enter an admin password

    You may have to enter your administrator password to do this.

  4. Rename the iOS backup folder on the external hard drive to ios_backup.

    Renaming an iOS backup folder in Finder
  5. Switch back to the original finder window and rename the old backup to old_backup.

If you want, you can stop right there and repeat the process outlined above whenever you want to back up your iPhone to an external drive. If you are uncomfortable working with the Mac Terminal, that's probably your safest choice.

Can You Change Where Your Mac Saves iPhone Backups?

If you want, you can permanently change where the Mac saves your iPhone backups. The process involves being comfortable changing a few background settings on your Mac via the Terminal command. If you've never dealt with Terminal before, it can be intimidating as it's powerful and not exactly user-friendly. 

You can break how your Mac back ups your iPhone, so we recommend performing a full system backup via Time Machine first so you can retrace your steps if need be.

Changing Mac's location for iPhone backups is the trickiest part of this process. To always have your iPhone back up to an external hard drive, you need to create a symlink so that your Mac knows where to look for future backups.

Creating a symlink isn't essential as you can manually move your backups across, but it's much easier if you set up your Mac to do this automatically. Plus, it means you don't have to worry about having enough free space on your Mac's internal hard drive to perform the backup.

It's not hard to change the location if you follow these steps, but it does require some concentration. You also need to change some permissions on your Mac first to get to the result.

Update Permissions on Your Mac

Here's how to change those permissions.

  1. Click the Apple icon.

  2. Select System Preferences.

    MacOS Apple menu with System Preferences highlighted
  3. Click Security & Privacy.

    MacOS System Preferences with Security & Privacy highlighted
  4. Select Privacy.

    MacOS System Preferences with Privacy highlighted
  5. Click the Lock to make changes.

    MacOS System Preferences with the lock to unlock changes highlighted
  6. Enter your admin password.

  7. Select Full Disk Access.

  8. Click the plus (+) sign.

    MacOS System Preferences with Full Disk Access highlighted
  9. Scroll through your applications and select Terminal.

    MacOS with Terminal highlighted in Applications list

Change iPhone Backup Locations

Now you've completed that step, here's how to change iPhone backup location on Mac.

  1. Open Terminal.

  2. Paste this code, ensuring you change the relevant parts to the name of your external hard drive.

    ln -s /Volumes/**yourexternalharddrivename**/ios_backup ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup/

    MacOS Terminal with commands for creating a symlink
  3. Select Return.

  4. Close Terminal.

  5. You've now made a symlink between the new folder and the old folder that contains your backup. 

How Do I Know the New iPhone Backup Worked?

When dealing with backups, you want to be certain that you've done it all correctly. Here's how to double check.

  1. From the iPhone Location in Finder, choose Back Up Now.

    MacOS with an iPhone 'open' and Back Up Now highlighted
  2. Once the backup is complete, open the new ios_backup folder on your external hard drive and check that the Date Modified next to it has changed to the current time.

How to Disable Automatic Backups

The downside to having a backup on your external hard drive is if you don't always have the external hard drive plugged in, you can have issues. Here's how to disable automatic backups so you only back up your iPhone when you want to do it.

  1. Open Finder.

  2. In the Locations section, select your iPhone.

  3. Uncheck the Automatically sync when this iPhone is connected box.

    MacOS with an iPhone 'open' and the automatically sync when this iPhone is connected box ticked and highlighted
  4. Don't forget to manually back up regularly.

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