From time to time on this blog, I’ll post quick tutorials about technical issues that have previously caused me problems. Today isn’t the first time I’ll be writing about how to solve issues with Apple’s Time Machine backup system. In fact, a previous tutorial on how to force your Mac to empty its Trash when there is an old Time Machine backup stuck in it, is one of the most viewed blog posts on this site, and has literally hundreds of comments on it thanking me for “the only solution that actually works”. So, if you’re here for photography chat, you can skip this post, but if you’re here to solve a Time Machine copy problem, I think I have the best solution.
Time Machine is a great backup feature that has saved my ass on more than a couple of occasions, but it has severe issues when it comes to copying the backup files to a new location. The Apple support document makes things sound easy, but in my experience, you can run into a host of problems if you try and follow the instructions. If you then happen to post a query on the Apple support forum, no matter how concisely you explain your issue, you just get bombarded with people who simply quote the Apple instructions back to you. *sigh*
Most of the time I run into problems when I want to copy the Time Machine backup from an old drive to a new, larger drive. Yes I know I could simply start afresh on the new drive with a whole new Time Machine backup, but I have backups on the old drive that date back two years, and if I started afresh, then later realized I needed an old, now deleted file, I’d feel pretty stupid.
Essentially Apple’s instructions simply tell you to turn off Time Machine, then drag and drop your old Backups.backupdb folder from one drive to another. In my experience that rarely works.
Firstly if you have a Time Machine backup that is measured in the terabytes (mine is currently 2.4TB), Finder will spend about a day “preparing the files to be copied”. You can’t even leave it to do this while you go away, because at some point – who knows when – you will be prompted for your password to continue the process. Then the actual copy process can take another day or more, at which point you can find the backup fails. This then leaves you with a partial copy of the backup on the new drive that requires moving to the trash. Emptying millions of files from the trash can then take another day, and then you might run into the previously documented issues with deleting Time Machine backups from your trash.
I just went through this myself, again, and the process of simply trying and then failing to copy the Time Machine backup took me three days each time. After copying 1.3TB of my backup folder the copy would fail with the message “The operation can’t be completed because you don’t have permission to access some of the items“.
This sounded like a permissions issue, so I played around with all obvious options there and tried twice more, yes, another 6 days of messing around, but to no avail.
Many people suggest using a program called Carbon Copy Cloner to copy the backup files, but certainly in 2020, with OS Catalina, Carbon Copy Cloner WILL NOT copy Time Machine backups. The developers say so themselves. I have owned CCC for many years, it’s a wonderful piece of software and I think that in the past it used to copy Time Machine backups, but it no longer does. With the internet being what it is, full of people that just blindly repeat what they have read elsewhere, the Apple support forum is full of people telling you to use CCC even though it no longer works (for copying Time Machine backups).
The solution to the problem is to use another piece of free software called SuperDuper. There are paid versions of SuperDuper, but to copy a Time Machine backup folder you don’t need the paid version. Once downloaded, you simply select your old Time Machine drive as the source and set your new drive as the destination. Note that it will wipe the destination drive and format it before it begins the copy process, but after that, it will clone your source to your destination.
This worked absolutely perfectly for me, with the added benefit that it was MUCH faster than copying the folder compared to using the Mac Finder window.
Finally! A reliable and (reasonably) fast way to copy Time Machine backup folders to a new drive without getting error messages. I’m a happy chappy.
but what if i don’t want to format the destination drive? destination contains all my other backup files. :/
Then I think you need to buy another drive.
After 17 days of using Finder to “preparing to copy” 3.8TB from a 4TB drive to a 16TB drive and then crash, I was beyond angry ?
Scouring the internet I found this page. Thank you!! I am considering buying the software for all the aggravation it saved me.
Happy New Year, Dan!
p.s. I got a Nikon Z6 from Santa…..eager to try it out….
Thank you so much for this article! I work in tech support and this has literally saved my sanity.
I tried Super Duper and it failed for no apparent reason. I also notice that it does not give any estimated time to completion. I tried several other alleged cloning programs, but in the end I found Finder is the best free method after all. I agree with your comment that it the ‘preparation’ step is annoying, and also note that it does not tell you if it completes successfully, it just closes the window; it does however give an estimated time left. I copied a 1Tb disk in about 6 hours (overnight) after a preparation that took about 1 hour. (iMac with 3.2Mhz quad core i5).
Here is a summary of all my trials:
Program Result Notes
Carbon Copy Cloner NOT SUITABLE Refuses to copy Time Machine drive
ChronoSync NOT SUITABLE Looks like a good way of synchronising folders, but will not copy a disk
Disk Unitly (included in MacOS) NOT SUITABLE It did not work. Backup 2 is “not valid for restoring”.
Do Your Clone NOT FREE for cloning Looks simple to use, but requires activiation to clone.
EaseUS Todo NOT SUITABLE Does backups, not cloning
Finder (included in MacOS) Works OK, though not perfect. Annoying ‘preparation’ step after which user interaction required before copying, but does copy reliably and gives progress bar with time estimated to complete. Does not confirm completiojn (progress bar disappears when finished).
Stellar Drive Clone NOT SUITABLE Will not run on a 64-bit machine!
SuperDuper FAILED Started OK but does not give estimated time remaining. Stopped part way for no apparent reason!.
True Image NOT FREE for cloning Cloning only available in the full version
Thanks Andrew for the Finder possibility. Unlike others, and you, I only have a smaller (1 GB) Backups.backupdb file but its contents go back to land before time… It sits pretty on a single partitioned (scheme: Apple Partition Map) 2 TB external drive. A complete waste of space as the scheme renders partition boundaries unmovable. So, you are telling me that a simple Finder copying of said file will result in a flawless “clone” in another folder on a different drive? If so I could properly erase and format/partition the 2TB and copy back using Finder… Would this approach work without data loss?
How to move do the Time Machine folder from a HD (external, connected by USB3) to a Time Capsule HD (connected by Ethernet cable)? The Time capsule HD didn’t appear on right pop up window…
Sorry, I’m not too sure about that. Never used one of the network-connected Time Machines.
I have multiple Time Machine backups from different computers (three laptops, a workstation, a recent iMac) from the last 12 – 13 years. I’ve only used Time Machine to find a few lost things when a hard drive died very unexpectedly.
What’s frustrating now is that one of my backup removable drives has lost it’s permissions AND I can’t copy it to a new drive – exactly as you have noted here I have lost a few days on this.
So what I am doing is going through the time machine backups and run them through “Duplicate File Finder” – the Pro version.
I plan to keep everything but will be building a new “home” drive based on all this.
Also, I’m not certain about the Duplicate File Finder when it comes to photography because it has the option to batch “similar” and “identical” and that in and of itself is a lot of work to pare down.
But for normal documents, I hope this works.
this is really valuable info, and similar to your post on clearing deleted TM backups from the trash, this is the best advice and breakdown I could find on the internet regarding the TimeMachine copy issue plaguing many.
Currently trying to transfer a 45TB backup to another Drobo since the initial backup, I just found out wasn’t formatted correctly. Kinda a horror show since Apple and Drobo both lack much experience with the issue and the “preparing to copy” prompt was running for 4 days when I hit cancel. I plan to try a second time using this method.
One question; in SuperDuper what script are you using under the “using” tab? restore – all files, sandbox, backup? Thanks you for taking your own time to help others!
Thanks Max. Afraid I can’t help with your question, though. I don’t copy Time Machine backups very often! Haven’t done it for years since I figured it out and wrote the post. I just can’t remember that setting at all, to be honest.
now worries at all. Still suffering through attempts to transfer a massive sparse bundle file but figured out that step and found great info in your piece. thx again
Hi Dan.. Great post! I found this article on the first page of a Google search for “copying time machine backup preparing”. SuperDuper worked great and I used the default settings. Just for others; I copied a 3TB Time Machine backup from a Western Digital MyBook 3TB to a TerraMaster TD2 Thunderbolt 3 Plus 7-in-1 Dock with RAID Storage External Hard Drive Enclosure (containing two WD Red 3TB NAS drives). The process took 2 days but the best part is being able to see the number of files copied as it progressed versus “Preparing to Copy”.
Hi, I started using SuperDuper and it was working fine and then I noticed the Apple instructions say the drive should reformat to: Format: Mac OS Extended (Journaled)
Scheme: GUID Partition Map. Super Duper did not have the correct scheme so I restarted using the finder which is not predicting 18 days for the copy to complete (ugh) Is the Scheme something about which I should worry in your experience?
Sorry, Paul, that’s a technical question beyond my expertise.
I just had a problem now.
It has taken me 5 days to copy from one disk to another. And then today, my computer crashed and have to restart it. So the whole process was interrupted while there are still more folders to transfer. How do I continue? Do I have to start all over again? Please advice.
Thank you so much for this tip. Literally saved me days, and thankful that SuperDuper at least has a progress bar so you can see how long it takes. For me it was roughly 27 hours for a 1TB transfer.
I tried to copy my old backup drive of Time Machine backups to my new backup drive following instructions from Apple. The process took 4.5 days and FAILED! It was “preparing” the backup the entire time and had not even gotten to the copying stage.
I found your instructions to use SuperDuper!, which took half the time and completed the entire process flawlessly.
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
You are very welcome, Kristen!
Once the copy is made, do you rename the new drive to have the same name as the old drive so Time machine will use that one or how do you change the Time machine settings to use the new drive?
Oh yay, I just started on my journey of copying my 1T drive to a new 4T drive. I only had a few hours of preparing copy before searching the internet for how long this may take. I dusted off my copy of SuperDuper and started the clone (thanks W. for telling me how long it took your 1T drive to clone). This thread make me go check on SD to see if they figured out how to do bootable backups in Big Sur and it looks like they might be back in business so double yay!