How to move your iPhone or iPad backups to an external hard drive

If iTunes backups of your iPhone and iPad are taking up too much space on your internal hard drive (Macintosh HD), then here’s a handy guide to move iOS backups to an external hard drive.

If you have traditionally synced your iPhone or iPad with Finder on your Mac or iTunes on Windows, there’s a good chance that Finder/iTunes has been backing up all the data on your iOS device. Before Apple introduced the ability to back up all the data on your iPhone or iPad to iCloud, iTunes was the only recommended method of automatically backing up your iPhone and iPad to your computer.

Unfortunately, if you have been backing up your iOS device to the computer for a few years now, your computer is probably being overburdened by the large file size of these backups. Over the last few years, the storage space available on iPhone and iPad has been growing substantially, and we now have 256 GB and 512 GB devices commonly seen in the market. On the other hand, as Apple pushes for SSD internal storage on Macs, the in-built storage on Macs has been shrinking to 256 GB or 512 GB as well. You don’t have to be a genius at math to see the problem here. Your iPhone and iPad backups via computer will soon be big enough not to fit onto the internal hard drive of your computer. Similarly, you may be already starting to feel the pinch and might want to move these backups away from the internal drive to not run out of storage on your Mac.

If this is the case, here’s a handy guide that explains how to move your iPhone and iPad backups to an external drive so that you can clear up storage space on your Mac/Windows’s internal drive and instead back them up onto your choice of an external hard drive, be it a portable hard drive, USB pen drive, or a NAS drive.

Now, as easy or as trivial as it sounds, moving your iTunes backups to an alternate location isn’t exactly straightforward because Apple doesn’t provide you with an easy way to do this. So here is a step-by-step, three-part guide to help you move your iPhone or iPad backups to an external hard drive. First, you should probably understand where iPhone backups are stored on a Mac.

Part I — Where iPhone backups are stored on a Mac

In order to clear or delete old iPhone or iPad backups from your Mac or move them to an external hard drive, it’s important to know where iOS backups are stored on a Mac. Your iOS device, irrespective of what iPhone you have (such as the iPhone X, iPhone Xr, iPhone Xs, etc.) or what iPad you have (such as iPad mini, iPad, iPad Air, iPad Pro), all your data is backed up on your Mac via the iTunes app. And the iTunes app stores all this backup data in the same location — in a folder called MobileSync.

To locate an iPhone or iPad backup store on a Mac, follow these steps.

  1. Open the Finder app on your Mac.
  2. Click your device, then Preferences.
  3. Click Manage Backups under the General tab.
  4. Right-click on the backup that you want, then choose Show in Finder.
  5. Here, you’ll find a list of all device backups that iTunes/Finder currently has, along with the date and time when the backups were created.
  6. Your Mac will now open a new Finder window displaying the said backup file.

Now that we know where iTunes stores the iOS device backups on a Mac let’s take a look at how to move iPhone or iPad backups to an external hard drive.

Part II — How to move iPhone or iPad backups to an external hard drive

Next, we’ll copy any existing backups you have over to the external drive. In order to transfer old iPhone or iPad backups from your Mac to an external hard drive, follow these steps.

  1. First, ensure that your external hard drive is connected to your Mac.
  2. Create a folder on your external hard drive called iOS Backup.
  3. Next, locate the iTunes/Files backup of your iPhone or iPad using the steps detailed above.
  4. In the Finder window that opens, select the Backup folder and hit Command + C, then navigate to the external hard drive in Finder and hit Command + V.
  5. You can alternatively drag and drop the backup folder onto your hard drive.
  6. Once the copying is completed, rename your old Backup folder to ‘OldBackups.’ We’ll delete this folder later.

We’re not done yet. While we’ve copied your existing iTunes/Files backups to an external drive, we still have to ensure that the future backups of your iPhone or iPad are also copied to the new location and not the old one iTunes was using until now. For that, we’ll proceed with Part III of the process detailed below.

Part III — Create a symlink for iTunes backups on external hard drive

This is the part that may be slightly confusing and a bit difficult for some users, but don’t worry. We’ll guide you through the entire process so that you can finish this entire guide and have Files/iTunes automatically backup your iPhone or iPad to an external hard drive.

In this part of the process, we’re going to create what is known as a Symlink to tell Files/iTunes to create backups of the iPhones or iPads on the Backup folder we copied to the external hard drive. To do this, we first need to find out the name of your External hard drive. For example, your internal drive on your Mac is likely called ‘Macintosh HD.’ Similarly, your external drive, when you connect it to your Mac, has a name associated with it. You’ll see this name on your Desktop or in the Sidebar of your Finder window. Note down this name, as you will need to use it in the steps below.

  1. First, ensure that iTunes isn’t running.
  2. Plug in your External Hard Drive into your Mac if it isn’t already.
  3. Next, launch the Terminal app on your Mac. You’ll find it in the Utilities folder under Applications.
  4. Copy and paste the following string of text (known as the command) in the Terminal app and replace the string ‘NameofExternalDrive’ with the name of your External Hard Drive.

ln -s /Volumes/NameofExternalDrive/iOSBackup/Backup/ ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync

  1. Once you replace the ‘NameofExternalDrive’ above with your own hard drive name, press the Return/Enter key to run the command.

That’s the end of the difficult part. If you did everything right, your iTunes app is now programmed to back up your iPhone or iPad to your external drive.

Caveat lector: how to disable automatic sync & backups in iTunes

There’s a minor yet important step that we recommend you take before signing off on this guide. By default, Files/iTunes is set to automatically backup and sync your iOS device when you connect it to your Mac. Because we’re now backing up the data to an external drive, it is important that the drive be connected to your Mac when iTunes backs up your iPhone or iPad. If you have a Desktop Mac like the Mac mini or iMac, this is less of a concern to you. But for portable Macs like MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, you’re very likely to connect external drives only when required. If your external drive isn’t connected, the backup will fail.

To ensure that you don’t run into this problem, we’ll disable the option in iTunes to automatically back up.

  1. Launch the Finder/iTunes app on your Mac.
  2. Open iTunes Preferences by clicking on the iTunes option at the top left of your screen, then on Preferences.
  3. Navigate to the Devices tab in the Preferences window.
  4. At the bottom of this window, check the option titled Prevent iPods, iPhones, and iPads from syncing automatically.

From now on, you will have to manually back up your iPhone or iPad using Files/iTunes.