Moving a Time Machine Backup to a Time Capsule

I bought myself a Time Capsule, for a few reasons. Our wireless network at home has been pretty flaky—our AirPort Expresses (AirPorts Express?) seem to drop off the network a lot, and the "AirTunes" feature cuts in and out—and I have this vague hope that a network made up of all Apple hardware will work better. I also like the idea of always-available, wireless network-attached storage, since I'm only pretty good about remembering to hook up the external backup drive, and Rachel never remembers. Now that we're both running Leopard, Time Machine + Time Capsule seems to add up to painless backups.

The hitch was that I've been running Leopard with Time Machine backups on my external LaCie drive for a few months now, and I wanted to move those backups to our shiny new 1 TB drive and maintain that backup history. When I called Apple support (our first Time Capsule was a dud) to ask how one might migrate an existing Time Machine backup from an external hard drive to a new Time Capsule, the nice man put me on hold for fifteen minutes and then came back to say it couldn't be done.

Puh-leeze.

I know moving Time Machine backups isn't as simple as just dragging the files from one drive to another. Because of the way the files are stored (Time Machine seems to use hard links to avoid wasting space) a regular file copy would massively inflate the size of your archive, and possibly screw up metadata, too. But surely Apple must have recognized that disks fail, archives grow, and people buy new hardware! There must be a way to move a Time Machine backup.

And there is! I found the solution on the discussion forums for SuperDuper, so that's the software I used to accomplish the move. It's possible that Apple's DiskUtility would do the trick as well, but I didn't try that. After going through it myself, I thought I'd gather the instructions in one place.

Here's how to move a Time Machine backup from an external drive to a new Time Capsule:


  1. Hook up the external drive where you store your Time Machine backups, and do one more backup, just to be safe, by choosing "Back Up Now" from the Time Machine menu on the menu bar.

  2. Make sure your computer has a name in System Preferences -> Sharing or else your first Time Capsule backup will fail. This would be annoying later on.

  3. Set up your Time Capsule using the AirPort Utility. When you're done, you should be able to see the Time Capsule under Shared in the sidebar of a Finder window:

  4. Mount the Time Capsule drive, by selecting the Time Capsule in the sidebar, and then, if necessary, clicking the Connect As... button and entering your Time Capsule password (that you set up in the AirPort Utility).

    You should then see a folder called Data. This represents the internal disk in your Time Capsule.

    Double-click on the folder to open it; it should be empty.

  5. Open the Time Machine preference pane (by choosing Open Time Machine Preferences... from the Time Machine menu) and click Change Disk... Choose your new Time Capsule from the list.

  6. From the Time Machine menu, choose Back Up Now to force Time Machine to start backing up to your Time Capsule. Once it starts whirring along, check out the Finder window that was showing the contents of your Data folder. Very soon you should see a file appear in that window whose name ends with .sparsebundle. Once you see that file, cancel the Time Machine backup—we were only using it to create the sparse bundle file. Once it stops, turn Time Machine off.

  7. Download SuperDuper, which is a pretty nifty backup and disk copying program. The free version is all you'll need, but if you like it, you might consider buying the full version to support the fine people who made it possible.

  8. Double-click the sparse bundle file that you saw created earlier. This should cause a new drive to mount on your desktop, called Backup of your computer name.

  9. Launch SuperDuper. Set it to Copy your old backup drive to Backup of [your computer name] using Backup - all files. Click the Options... button, and choose Erase backup, then copy.



    Double check that your old backup drive is the source (on the left) and your Time Capsule is the destination (on the right). I mean, seriously. Then, take a deep breath, and push Copy Now.

  10. Go kill some time! This will take a while. My 200 GB of backups took about eight hours, copying from a FireWire 800 drive to a Time Capsule over wired Ethernet.

  11. When it finally finishes, go back into your Time Machine preferences and make sure your Time Capsule is still selected as the backup drive. Now, Enter Time Machine and verify that your backup history is still present. Voila!

  12. At this point, I recommend doing one more Back Up Now just to make sure everything's working properly. This first backup after the copy will take a long while during the Preparing... phase. I'm not sure why. After that, you should be in business.



Hope this helps someone else!

49 thoughts on “Moving a Time Machine Backup to a Time Capsule

  1. da

    Thanks, I’m planning on migrating to a Time Capsule, too. The one thing I’m still not sure about from your post is if I can migrate two Time Machine backup disks to one Time Capsule.

    I have both my iMacs using TM to external drives and I know that TC supports backups for multiple machines. So I assume I can repeat this process and I’ll just have two sparsebundle files – one for each computer.

  2. ipress

    I also want to move my sparse bundle from the external drive to the replacement time capsule. Apple’s advice did not work.

    It seems very complicated to take only the sparse bundle off of my external drive when I have another 20 things there. How do you do that?

  3. matt Post author

    ipress, I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re asking, but I think you can follow my instructions and then just delete whatever you don’t want on your Time Capsule once you’re done. Does that make sense?

  4. Pete

    Well I did this and almost got it to work. I used Disk Utility rather than SuperDuper to clone my old drive, and my new drive is not a time capsule but rather a drive I am accessing over my network, so it uses the same sparsebundle disk image, so I’d think the steps would be the same, however…

    While everything seemed to go ok and the file structure form the old backups remains intact, and time machine preferences list my oldest backup correctly, when I go into time machine I am not able to navigate back (I can access newly created backups since the drive swap). Hmmm….

  5. Tyler

    Okay… so I was scared to death for about 10 minutes. Mainly because:

    -It took about 33 hours to SuperDuper the drive
    -I had changed the backup volume a few times and then accidentally hit backup now when I meant to go to the Time Machine backups first.
    -And it read, Error Reading Data, try another drive… or something to that effect.

    But…
    -Double-checked the sparsebundle’s contents via remounting the one ON THE TC
    -I reconnected the TC – changed a setting through Airport Settings, and hit “Enter Time Machine”

    Voila! Worked. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! This was a great tutorial.

  6. KD

    Thank you, excellent summary of the Shirt Pocket forum. After reading your tutorial I knew exactly what to do, which was not the case after reading through the original forum. As we speak, my original TM backup is now duplicating to the new TC. Doing it over wireless BTW. Looks like the copy is progressing at somewhere between 1.5 and 2 Mbps. As I only have 95 GB or so to copy (just started using Leopard and TM), it should be done in 30 hours, at the minimum. Fingers crossed and boy will they be sore by the time the transfer is done!

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  8. Collin D Blackman

    Matt – you comment on a flaky wireless – try putting the IP numbers for your ISP into Sys Prefs/Network/DNS and see if that helps.

  9. hoyla

    Hi – thanks for this, Matt.

    Apols if a dumb question, everyone…

    Matt says in point 10 “My 200 GB of backups took about eight hours … over wired Ethernet.” Does that mean you were connected to the TC by Ethernet throughout steps 3-8? Or did you connect wirelessly to set up the TC, then unmount and then mount it over Ethernet later?

    I have nearly 250Gb of backup data on the old drive and want to use the fastest possible connection to the TC for the migration … Haven’t bought mine yet so can’t experiment. Perhaps mounting the TC by USB is an option…?

  10. Fred Duck

    With regards to the extra-long “Preparing…” phase, when I migrated my backup, I took a look at console.app and it starts off with:

    /System/Library/CoreServices/backupd[36984] Waiting for index to be ready (905 > 0)

    then moves to:

    /System/Library/CoreServices/backupd[36984] Waiting for Spotlight to finish indexing /Volumes/Backup of Computery/Backups.backupdb

    The upshot being that even though SuperDuper! restores the Spotlight index, Time Machine doesn’t believe it and will happily spend hours and hours (and hours) redoing it.

  11. sl

    Thanks for the wonderful tips! I tried these steps with my newly purchased Time Capsule 2TB, and everything went fine except at the very last part.

    The transfer itself went fine without a hitch, and it was done with an ethernet cable connecting my mac and the TC. However, when I removed the ethernet cable and try to enter Time Machine or try the back-up, it is not able to recognize the backup volume.

    Finder does seem to find the drive and the volume with no trouble. I can even navigate into all the backup directory for the past history. However, when I do “Enter Time Machine” or a back-up, Time Machines takes a LONG LONG time to connect to the volume, and eventually fails.

    At one point, it did mount it but it did not recognize any backup history. Any idea how to troubleshoot the problem? Thanks!

  12. el_mio

    Thanks Matt, this procedure indeed worked fine for me!
    However, if you had two Macs backing up to the same external drive (like I did) the backups of both machines will end up in the sparse bundle files of each of the machines. That initially doubles the actual space required on the TC.
    My solution was to temporarily move the entire backup folder (within the Backups.backupdb folder on the external drive) of the ‘other’ Mac to another drive. The external drive then only contained the backup data from one Mac that I could easily copy to its newly created sparse bundle file on the TC according following your procedure. By then moving back the data from the ‘other’ Mac to the external drive and deleting the data from the first, I could repeat the process.

  13. Ben

    Thanks so much for this. After searching the Internet far and wide, and finding post after post saying it wasn’t possible, couldn’t be done, just shoot yourself — I stumbled upon this, and it saved my life.

  14. Steve S

    Thank you SO MUCH for posting this. I tackled this project this weekend and transferred 500 GB of data. I did have a few hiccups, though, so in the interest of paying it forward, here are some things I’ve found:

    1) First of all, I upgraded to Snow Leopard last week, so some things may be slighting different for that reason.

    2) After setting up the Time Capsule with the Airport Utility, you definitely want to turn off your computer’s wireless and then hard-connect to the Time Capsule via ethernet. I have zero experience connecting a drive via ethernet but it seemed to work flawlessly.

    3) Double-clicking on the sparse bundle file did not mount new drive called Backup of [your computer name]. Instead, it mounted a drive called “Time Machine Backups”. However, copying my old sparse bundle to this one worked fine.

    4) From a Firewire 800 drive my data rate went from 10 MB/s down to 8 MB/s. Total elapsed time was 14.5 hrs.

    5) First time I tried this, I came back the next morning and found a black screen, an unresponsive laptop and an idle Firewire drive. I had to restart and try all over again. My best guess is that the screen saver or energy saver kicked in and crashed everything. So I disabled these the 2nd time around and was rewarded.

    6) With my old back-up loaded onto the Time Capsule, I disconnected the ethernet cable and rebooted. My first time trying to access Time Machine took a LONG time, something like 15 minutes. It finally did access, though, and now appears to be working.

    Matt, whoever you are, you rock!

  15. Frederic

    I did what you said, and at the end of the process (which took 48 hours for 500G), there was an error message “could not mount the disk” or something to that effect. I tried to finish the process – TC is my backup disk, and I see the sparsebundle that is about 500G in size. I tried to do a Enter TIme Machine, but it said it could not. Am I missing a step? What do I do with a sparsebundle on the TC itself, and a disk image of Backup on my desktop?

  16. Qattan

    Thank you very much Matt for the great tutorial. Like Steve S, I got a mounted drive called ‘Time Machine Backups’. Now, every time I backup, the drive is mounted (and appears on my desktop). Does anyone know if this is supposed to happen and/or if there is a way around it?

  17. Gian

    Thanks a lot, Matt! Incredibly useful guide.
    I’m having the same “problem” as Qattan, though, but i think i’m gonna live with the tm drive mounted on my desktop ;)

  18. Gian

    Just to say that after the first manual backup, everytime it backs up on its own, the drive is mounted and unmounted automatically, so no problem at all!
    Everything worked and is working fine!
    Thanks again!

  19. Simon

    I have what is perhaps a silly question, but hopefully someone can answer it for me.

    When it comes to making the transfer by ethernet cable (Step 10), do I also need to be connected to the internet? And if so, does my computer automatically know to transfer the files via the ethernet cable rather than the much slower wireless internet connection?

    I hope that makes sense, thanks in advance for any help, your webpage is a great resource.

  20. Martin

    Is this any different if you make the transfer from one Time Capsule to another (I upgraded from 500gb to 1TB)?

  21. Sam

    Worked like a charm to move my data from a USB 320GB drive to a 500GB drive connnected to an airport extreme! Thanks!

  22. Vicki Randle

    You rule the world. I love that people are dedicated and geeky enough to actually print the method and steps to something that didn’t occur to me to wonder about until i actually got my time capsule running. hmmmm, it looks like i can’t just transfer from one drive to another. there’s got to be a way. to the googles!”
    thanks ever so, from someone you don’t know and will never probably meet, for the gift of your knowledge and willingness to share with anyone.

  23. Peter

    Thank you! My move didn’t succeed the first time so I had to buy SuperDuper! so I could copy the rest of the files.

  24. Jim

    Going to try this method.

    Charles, the apple support bulletin covers going from external to external, or time capsule to time capsule…but NOT external to time capsule.

    The external is formatted “journaled”, the TC Sparsebundle is formatted “case sensitive, journaled”. Not compatible. Just spent an hour on the phone with Apple. They are trying to figure it out. We’ll see.

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  26. Jose

    I am transferring back-ups from an external drive to a new 1 TB Time Capsule, but I think I made a mistake.

    On the same external drive I have my Time Machine back-ups, I also have my iTunes library along with some video folders. When I started the copying process, I selected to copy to TC the whole drive, didn’t realize that it also had these files.

    My questions are: will they be erased from the original drive once they process is done? Will I be able to access them easily on my TC? Did I mess this up and do I have to start it all over again?

  27. Jasper

    Well, actually, I do encounter a problem…

    Time Machine keeps prompting me that the backup can not be completed because the backup disk has changed…

    Any idea anyone?

  28. paul

    I am on this same path but wasted some time archiving the old backups to the new drive (250+ GB worth) before realizing the Time Capsule couldn’t use it that way. It wants to reform the drive for two small hidden partitions.

    [insert multi-jointed profanity of your choice here]

    So I am just using rsync (I’m more at ease in the Terminal that in the Finder) to do what I suspect SuperDuper will do. I’ll find out in the AM, I suppose.

    This is so easy. From turning of the TC to firing it up with a new drive might be 10 minutes. Why I waited, I have no idea.

  29. paul

    And as it happens, SuperDuper! is not so super at seeing the destination, the new target disk I just installed. It can open the sparseImage file I want to copy but can’t figure out where I want to put it. I can see it, rsync can see it, even the Finder can see it. So rsync looks to be my only option, without delving into more esoteric ideas (dd, hdiutil, &c.).

  30. Jasper

    I have now simply copied the backups.backupdb folder from the old drive to the new sparsebundle.
    First I have changed the access rights to RW.

    It now seems to work perfectly.

  31. Dominic

    A much easier way, assuming that your original USB drive was of adequate size, do your backup on the USB drive, then plug the drive into your Time Capsule. Once your USB drive shows up on the Time Capsule, go to Time Machine Preferences and select the USB drive for your future backups.

    Whilst granting that a USB drive is not as fast as a wired connection, it’s still faster than 300Mb/s 5GHz wireless, so will not affect a wifi backup speed. It also has the advantage that the sparsebundle will not take up the complete Time Capsule, so the internal drive is left for your normal files.

    Finally if you need to do a major change backup, you can just plug the USB drive back into the Mac and re-set the preferences back to local.

    Works for me.

  32. Michele

    Hi,can anyone help me out here? I have copied my older Sparsebundle file which contains all my old 500Gb TIMECAPSULE backups I saved /archived onto an external hardrive & used SUPERDUPER to copy the Sparsebundle image from my External HDrive to my new 1TB TIMECAPSULE BUT now I have 2 folders
    1 called backups.backupdb. That’s empty & the other is my Sparsebundle copied with Superduper so which one do I use as I want to continue & see & access all my older backups in the new TIMECAPSULES Timeline. I’m stuck here? CAN SOMEONE HELP ME PLEASE. Thanks.

  33. Michele

    PLEASE EMAIL ME IF YOU CAN HELP.?

    I was told by mac forums to Archive my previous Sparsebundle image to my external hdrive ,so I did becoz I had sold the TimeCapsule & needed to ship it ,
    So I then used Superduper to copy the archived Sparsebundle to my new larger TimeCapsule ,but now I have 2 folders when I double-click my TIMEmachine backups & my old Sparsebundle file is in the Archive folder NOT the backup.backupsdb. Folder. So I don’t know how to see all my old backups in the timeline of my new TimeCapsule .

    ID REALLY APPRECIIATE SOME HELP – queenofcoins66@yahoo.co.uk is email AD I can be reached. THANKYOU

  34. Michele

    I have managed to copy successfully with Superduper & in the under shared My TimeCapsule it now shows my previous Sparsebundle file when I double click,also in TIMEmachine system prefs pane it showing that I have the right amount available with the previous backups deducted & when I click the blue drive with the wifi icon it’s showing the previous Sparsebundle image & when I click on the mounted drive (TIMEmachine backups) on my desktop it shows my Sparsebundle image file inside it which is the previous amount but I’m having the same problem as (sl says) august 14th, It keeps failing when I try to backup & when I mount TIMEmachine I can’t see my previous backups?

    Anyone can help me please. . THANKYOU

  35. Al

    This is more complicated than it needs to be (for me at least)! I just dragged the one sparsebundle file itself from my external drive to the new time capsule. There was no increase in file size, no problems with hard links etc.. The only problem I had was that after I had copied the sparsebundle file and tried to go into Time Machine, I had to specifically mount the sparsebundle file at first because Time Machine couldn’t find it on it’s own. Then I did a “backup now”. This gave an error saying the sparsebundle was already in use. I unmounted the sparsebundle and tried “backup now” again. Now Time Machine found it and “remembers” where the sparsebundle file is and will automatically mount the sparsebundle when needed, just like before.

    I have SuperDuper, and originally followed the instructions in this blog posting, however for whatever reasons, it just wouldn’t work for me (and took a LONG time as well). I had problems with a weird ‘OS X Boot’ partition showing up, time machine wouldn’t see the old backups etc. In the end, the good ‘ol drag and drop of the *single* sparsebundle file worked fine for me. I can appreciate all the effort required to write this up and send my thanks, however, I thought I’d add my experience with this incase someone else runs into the same thing I did.

  36. Michele

    I did eventually copy my Sparsebundle to Superduper BUT I just couldn’t get it to work so I had to get help elsewhere & now I’m rocking

  37. Sardonick

    After killing myself for 5 days on the “proper” method, I used this one and it worked first time. It took just over 14 hours but worked like a charm. Thank you!!!

  38. TCGuy

    Well it took me 3 tries but it worked. The first time my anti-virus scanner bombed the thing. I uninistalled sophos and tried again. The second time it overheated my iMac. So I installed derman fan control, cranked the fan speeds up, and it worked great. 250GB of data copying took about 20 hours. Thanks!!!

  39. Giancarlo Gomez

    Thank you so much for posting this. Just upgraded my Gen1 to a new Gen 4 TC and this was the last thing I needed for my Mac Mini Server which used an external drive unlike the other machines in the house.

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  41. airmanchairman

    Perfect execution – Disk Utility failed me as it repeatedly refused to mount the temporary sparse bundle created by Time Machine (“Resource temporarily unavailable”).

    But SuperDuper scaled the enterprise neatly, and about 24 hours later I had migrated 165Gb of backups from August last year from my Maxtor 300Gb HDD to my spanking new 2Tb Time Capsule. All visible and reachable from Time Machine, w00t!

    And this after my local Apple Store Geniuses told me it couldn’t be done…

  42. Trevor Snarr

    Thanks so much for the step by step process. But after 4 days of transferring my files of 4.2 million it states that of the 4.2 million files evaluated only 3.2 were copied. It also said that it failed to restore spotlight state on my new time machine backups.

    Has anyone else had this issue? I read through all the responses here and couldn’t find a similar issue. Any advice would be great! Thanks.

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