Here's the situation so far:

  • 20" Alum iMac 2007 HDD has died (3 days after I got a new Macbook Pro - coincidence, or suicide?)
  • It had a time machine backup on a regular external drive
  • I have connected that external drive to my new macbook
  • I tried Migration Utility but it wants to copy all files
    • Q1: Is there any way to make that thing break down to the individual folder or file level?
  • Giving up on Migration, I want to use Time Machine to restore
    • I read somewhere that I need to use the Browse Other Time Machine option ...
    • But I can't even run Time Machine without setting it up, so I do - I turn it on and point it at my external drive with the old time machine
    • Q2: Uh oh - wait a minute, is it going to wipe my old backup and replace it with backup of the new machine?
  • I turn off Time Machine quickly
  • I add a new external drive to another usb port and set up That one as a Time Machine backup for the new machine - turning TM back on.
  • More research and I find out that I can get at the Browse feature from the Time Machine icon in the dock. (Why not from the system bar!) Anyway, I put TM in the dock, right-click and sure enough - there it is.
  • Now I select my old external TM disk and start to browse
  • The Today backup shows only stuff on my new macbook
    • I guess I created that when I selected it
    • But I'm hoping it didn't overwrite my old backups of the old machine
    • I see on the timeline on the right various dates going back but I can't select them
  • Q3: How do I get access to those previous backups - I can see them there in the timeline but can't browse to them (back arrow doesn't work, nor does clicking in the time line - they're all faint purple)

  • Now in desperation I look at the old TM drive in Finder - I can browse to the backupdb and see backups for the dates

    • But these dates seem to only include files which I worked with on those dates
    • That kind of makes sense for a backup - but ...
  • Q4: ... is there a way to merge all the date folders in Finder to get the latest version of the folder? Or is that only possible through the TM UI (which doesn't let me access - per Q3)

Really finding TM to be very frustrating when moving to a new computer.

[Update] I found something. It turns out that the reason the backups are there but not selectable in the timeline is to do with the (frustrating) TM UI: It requires that you navigate to the right directory to see it's history. I found this out from the tan coloured box on this page: http://pondini.org/TM/E2.html

The problem is that the directory structure is not the same on my new machine. I want to explore and retrieve things from the root directory on the old machine. What's more, the user directories like Documents and Pictures are not the same - even though i am using the same user name on both machines, so the path is the same /Users/me - so I can't see the history, of say, Documents.

However, if I click on the All Files link in Finder I can see old files from my back up and can go back through the timeline. But how I do I get at the folder structure. To sum up: - I have my TM disk from my broken iMac attached to my new macbook pro - I have TM running on the new machine with a different disk and the icon in the doc - I right-click and Browse Other Time Machine disk and can select the old one - I see a bunch of backups in the timeline but they are greyed out (actually, light purple, if we're being precise - non selectable anyway) - If I click on All Files in Finder now, I can see the backups of the files But I really need to be able to explore the file system, not just from the unorganized All Files. Note that I tried making local directories with the names of dirs I know to be in the TM backup, but that doesn't work - it recognizes, I think, that these are not the same dirs.

  • 1
    In general I have found "Time Machine" extremely difficult to use and obtain data from. It seems to be a default "Write Only" memory, meaning you can write to it but then never read it.
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 16:43
  • This is a great topic.. .but your link doesn't work. Can you post a picture here in your post or perhaps on a more permanent site?
    – Otheus
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 13:27

8 Answers 8


Just Checking that you have not missed the "holding option key down in time machine" thing that I missed for ages:

Source: http://www.macworld.co.uk/feature/mac-software/complete-guide-time-machine-mac-backup-3626572/

Complete guide to Time Machine: Can I browse Time Machine backups from another Mac, or older Time Machine backups from my own Mac that I no longer use? Yes. Attach the disk, or attach the Time Capsule to your main Wi-Fi/internet router, then hold down Alt (Option on some keyboards) on your Mac and click the Time Machine menu bar icon. Select Browse Other Backup Disks. The Time Machine disk should appear in a list, and once you've selected it you'll see the standard Finder-based Time Machine view where you can move back in time to retrieve older files.

If the backup is encrypted you'll be prompted to enter the password before you can gain access.

This worked well for me so thought I would share here.

  • Holding down "option" is a nice way to obtain the "Browse other backup disks" menu (I would not have thought of that myself). However, it only gets me one step closer: It shows me an empty list of other backup disks to choose from. My main laptop has failed, I know the data from that is on my TimeMachine box (because I have retrieved that data in the past using that same laptop). It seems I am unable to retrieve the data from another laptop. I purchased TimeMachine for such emergency situations, but I have been frustrated with retrieving data from TimeMachine at every step of the way.
    – Michael
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 16:54
  • 5
    This brings up the option, as you say and sometimes but not always allows selecting other disks. As of Catalina, however, mounting a different time machine backup and selecting it doesn't do anything different than going into the current machine's backup. The time machine of the current machine is always shown. So this feature essentially no longer works despite there still being a menu item for it.
    – lucian303
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 21:04

Oh Rhubarb, I do feel for you. The pains and struggles you have are a bit too common.

What makes this even tougher is the fact that you probably do need to work and create new documents on the MacBook Pro while at the same time want to recover files.

I might go and say that you have to do a bit of Terminal trickery as I suspect you have permission issues, OS issues (from the dead iMac and the old TM disk), and maybe haste issues so let's trim the fat and see if we can save your stuff.

I would say it might be necessary to set the permissions on the external drive to be read and write for every user and directory. You can speed this up by not doing it on the entire disk but just the latest folder with the date name.


$ sudo chmod -R 7777 /Volumes/old TM disk/backupsdb/2014-01-01-2350000/

Do not set up the command to running on the "Latest" folder/alias. If you aren't familiar with Terminal much then you can just type in the first portion (everything before the first "/") and then from Finder drag the latest dated folder into Terminal.

After the folder is in the prompt hit enter and you will need to enter your MacBook Pro's admin password (be aware that terminal will not print any *) so you will be typing blind.

Now this can take time, estimate that if your hard drive is healthy/ no structure or hardware issues it will be about 100GB per hour. So run this and let the system do it's thing (perhaps disable screen saver but turn brightness down so that you don't waste energy. ;)

Once the command has finished check to see if you can access the files now from Finder in that folder you dragged into Terminal. Then try and see what the Time Machine.app says when you browse the files. If that resolved things super.

If not then you might want to consider something else. If you have the space on the MacBook Pro's internal drive, consider saving just the User folder from the dated folder you chmod'd before. I prefer rsync for this and would suggest creating a temporary folder on your MacBook Pro for this action maybe Macintosh HD/Recovered TM User


$ sudo rsync -av /Volumes/old TM disk/backupsdb/2014-01-01-2350000/Users/ /Recovered TM User

Again this copy could take approximately an hour per 100 GB but speeds depend on file number and size.

Try these things out to your discretion and get back to us! Qapla'

  • 2
    wow...can't wait for the part 2 of this story :)
    – Ruskes
    Commented May 8, 2014 at 18:02
  • I have a similar problem, I want to go into the Library folder and grab a suitcase font vault file out of Application Support folder but when I tried this on the Library folder it asked for password and then returned chmod: Invalid file mode: 7777/ error Commented Aug 11, 2015 at 9:14
  • @wide_eyed_pupil I think Andrew mistyped the file mode. As far as I know, to enable full read+write+execute permissions is 777. I think he just accidentally added an extra 7 at the end. I doubt I've gotten to you in time, but for anyone seeing this in the future, the file mode for carte blanche file/directory access is 777, not 7777. Here's a breakdown: execute = 1 write = 2 read = 4 execute + write (1+2) = 3 read + execute (4+1) = 5 read + write (4+2) = 6 read + write + execute (4+2+1) = 7 7 #1 — owner can read, write, and execute (rwx) 7 #2 — group can, too 7 #3 — everyone else can, too
    – Ben Stock
    Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 4:54
  • thanks Ben I parked that issue. I know have original mac back from apple so I could access that way but I want to grok this for future reference. will attempt this week. problem was TM backup wouldn't let me into user folders even though I know the user/password pair for it. intact it's same as the one i'm using on new machine but tried chmod and had no luck Commented Nov 9, 2015 at 9:17
  • 1
    After you rsync, you should also remove the extended attributes that TimeMachine keeps on its files in order to prevent them from being deleted accidentally. xattr -d com.apple.metadata:_kTimeMachineNewestSnapshot YOURFILENAME and xattr -d com.apple.metadata:_kTimeMachineOldestSnapshot YOURFILENAME and, finally chmod -N YOURFILENAME to remove ACLs that prohibit deletion.
    – Kent
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 0:32

Before going into Time Machine, open a Finder window and choose "Computer" from the Finder's Go menu. (That's the key to being able to browse another computer's backup drive.) Then hold the option key and choose "Browse Other Backup Disks".

  • It should work -- that's the whole point of the "Browse Other Backup Disks" option. Could you please give more information: what OS you're running, what exactly you try, your setup, what exactly happens...? That would enable people here to better help you.
    – doray
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 14:42
  • Can you browse the backups.backupdb folder at all, in the Finder? Please don't change or move anything because that could corrupt it, but can you just see whether your stuff is there or not? If you can browse that folder, are there dates from before, when the drive was used to back up Mac#1?
    – doray
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 1:31
  • Also see Pondini's excellent site about Time Machine, especially the following entry: pondini.org/TM/E2.html
    – doray
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 1:50

The easiest way to do what you are looking for is

  1. Open Finder -> Go -> Computer
  2. Option Click on Time Machine Icon -> Browse other Backup Disks

At this point Time Machine will recognize the older backups and allow you to browse through history of the entire filesystem and restore files and directories as you would expect.


There may be an easier and quicker way that just worked for me if you have disk permission issues. The first part of the task is the same:

Open Finder -> Go -> Computer

Option Click on Time Machine Icon -> Browse other Backup Disks

Find the file(s) or directories you want to copy within the other machine's Time Machine backup and press restore.

If the restore option is not available, close Time Machine. The window with the files you want is now visible in your finder (a Christmas miracle...). You can now copy the files wherever you want like a regular Finder operation. No disk permission fix necessary.


If you want to browse individual files from a backup and then restore them or move them somewhere, I'd suggest the software BackupLoupe, which lets you do exactly this!

  • A thumbs-up for BackupLoupe. I tried mounting the backup on Monterey by double-clicking, with mount, with "Browse Other Backup Discs" — nothing worked. BackupLoupe saw the backup and mounted it just fine and then I could open it in Finder without even having to pay for the app.
    – Emily
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 1:50

I've not seen this mentioned yet...

The .sparseimage can be mounted like any other disk image. Double-click to mount it. Inside you will find one folder per computer. Inside each computer's folder, you will find one folder per backup. Inside the per-backup folder will be the entire filesystem looking like you would expect it to.

If you have any trouble mounting the disk image, try using Disk Utility (under File>Open Disk Image...)

Also, will second that BackupLoupe is a good option if you frequently find yourself fighting Time Machine. It's basically an all-options-exposed GUI for TimeMachine


There's a simpler way without even start TM.

  1. Plug in your external disk
  2. In Finder, browse the external disk
  3. Look for a folder "Backups.backupdb"
  4. Underneath it, you will find a folder with your other computer's name
  5. Drilling down, you can find folders with date-of-backup

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