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How to backup a Mac to Time Machine with any hard drive

With the news that Apple has officially discontinued its AirPort lineup, many users will look to backing up their Macs with something other than Apple’s Time Capsule or AirPort Extreme with a connected external drive. Follow along for how to back up a Mac to Time Machine with any hard drive.

Apple’s AirPort products go all the way back to 1999, with its first gen Time Capsule launching almost a decade later in 2008. The most recent AirPort Extreme and AirPort Time Capsule models were released back in 2013. Now, all remaining AirPort products will be sold while supplies last. For more on Apple’s discontinuation and some great alternatives, check out our coverage here.

If you’ve been using a Time Capsule or just want to back up your Mac on a fresh drive, read on.

How to backup a Mac to Time Machine with any hard drive

  1. Plug in your external hard drive to your Mac
  2. When you see the Time Machine prompt, click Use as Backup Disk
  3. Your backup will begin automatically
  4. Alternately, you can click the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and choose Back Up Now

How Time Machine works and detailed walkthrough

Once Time Machine is configured properly, your Mac will backup hourly for the past 24 hours, daily for the past month and will save a weekly backup for all previous months to an external hard drive or external SSD (solid state drive). You can use most external hard drives, but it will need to be formatted for macOS if it didn’t come that way from the manufacturer.

If you don’t have an external hard drive or want to get another one, this 1TB (1,000GB) option by Seagate is great for $55. It’s plug and play ready, doesn’t need an external power source, and has a large enough capacity for most people (check how much storage you’re using by clicking in the top left  → About This Mac → Storage). Seagate also offers 2 and 4TB options.

The only reasons your Time Machine automatic backups will stop is if you turn the feature off manually, eject/unplug your external hard drive, or turn off your computer. If you turn your machine off regularly or use a MacBook, your backups will continue automatically when you plug your external drive back in and your Mac is on.

The beautiful part about Time Machine is that it will keep backing up your new information even if your drive fills up, in which case it will delete the oldest backups.

Here’s how to set up an automatic backup with Time Machine on your Mac with an external hard drive:


When you plug your external hard drive in for the first time, this dialog box will appear (external drives that don’t need a power source will power on automatically when plugged in, hard drives that use an external power source may have an on/off switch). Click Use as Backup Disk.


You’ll notice in the middle area of the Time Machine window that your backup will start automatically. The Back Up Automatically box will be checked by default.


You can also check the Show Time Machine in menu bar at the bottom of the Time Machine window to have quick access and control to Time Machines settings and info. You can choose to Back Up Now if you don’t want to wait for the next scheduled one to occur.

You may also notice if you are using a MacBook that the automatic backup may not start until you plug in your power adapter.


Once your backup has started you’ll see the details of your backup and a time estimate (take the estimate with a big grain of salt. This backup estimated 14-19 minutes, but it ended up actually taking two hours).


When your backup is complete you’ll see it in the Time Machine window as well in the menu bar. If you ever need to get back to Time Machine preferences and don’t have the menu bar option turned on you can find it by clicking top left of your Mac  → System Preferences → Time Machine.

For more help getting the most out of your Apple devices, check out our how to guide as well as the following articles:

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