I am doing a restore of a Time machine backup to a new hard drive. The latest backup was completed on Feb 1, but I was very surprised to see that OS X Installer restore utility only lets me restore from "full backups" and the latest full backup was done Jan 15.

First, I thought every Time Machine backup was full backup. Time Machine never reported any errors or any indication it was not doing complete backups. What happened and how can I prevent this from happening in the future?

Second, once I have completed the restore of the full backup from Jan 15th, what is the proper procedure to update to the latest backup on Feb 1st. Can I just restore all the files in the user's home directory?

  • Are you using the same version of OS X as the backup was taken on?
    – Jan
    Commented Feb 11, 2014 at 13:27
  • Yes. Both backup and restore are running on Mavericks.
    – user27478
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 1:50
  • 1
    Time Machine backups are complimentary. Every time a backup is made, hard links are created from the previous backup for each file that did not change, deleted files do not get a hard link and new files are added (more, and with pictures here: pondini.org/TM/Works.html). To my understanding, except from the first run, there is no such thing as a 'full backup' moment. No mentioning of a 'full backup' in the docs either: support.apple.com/kb/ht1427 Your backups after Jan 15th might be corrupt though... Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 8:22
  • @CousinCocaine I thought all Time Machine backups were full backups too, but the OS X Installer actually says something like "only complete backups of OS X can be restored" and it didn't give me an option of restoring the latest backups indicating that be something about them is not complete. Someone else has reported the same problem and some ideas are given, but no definitive explanation or solution. discussions.apple.com/message/22479349#22479349
    – user27478
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 13:02

3 Answers 3


It appears that you disabled backing up system files by dragging /System directory to ignore list. "Full backup" means that OS X files are also backed up. It seems that in your case they are not, so you cannot restore the system from this backup.

Your way to go now is:

  • Backup the last time if you still can
  • Boot to Internet recovery if your Mac has it (if not, update EFI to get Internet recovery) or from disks that came with your Mac (if you have them)
  • Reformat the disk, keep "Macintosh HD" name
  • Install a fresh copy of OS using Internet recovery or disks
  • Internet Recovery will give you the same version of OS X as your Mac originally had. If it is not Mavericks, get Mavericks from the AppStore, make a bootable drive (google for it, it is easy), boot the drive, reformat the disk again and install fresh Mavericks.
  • On the last step of the installation you will be asked to migrate your files. Do that.

This way you will get a fresh copy of the system with all your files from the last backup.

  • I looked at the latest backup that wouldn't restore and all the top folders appear to be there--Applications, Library, System and Users. I can't see any obvious difference with what the Installer is calling the last "complete backup" although perhaps there is something missing buried in a folder somewhere. Either way, I never changed any Time Machine settings myself and Time Machine never reported any errors. Seems like a bug to me. Anyway, your suggestion of doing a migration is probably the best way to proceed.
    – user27478
    Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 5:18

What I would do if I where you, and I had some time on my hand, is to run Migration Assistant. From there you can restore your account with all your information from your latest backup.

However I should mention, the "full backup" thing—never heard of it, and I have used plenty of Time Machine restores, however the migration assistant approach is the best way to give your mac a fresh boost too, hence it doesn't load all the OS parts, only your home directory!


I had a similar situation recently which I resolved in the following way - it's not pretty so I'm not sure it qualifies as the proper procedure but it worked for me:

  • Install OS X on the target machine
  • (Re)Create a user with the same UID
  • Install patches / updates if necessary
  • Connect the Time Machine disk
  • Use rsync(1) or other symlink aware tool to copy from: Time machine volume/Backups.backupdb/hostname/Latest/volume name to your target volume.

You can pick and choose the files below the 'Latest' folder if you only want to restore certain files - in my case I was only interested in the User folders.

My command to copy the user folders was something like:

rsync -avu --progress /Volumes/Time\ Machine\ II/Backups.backupdb/apollo/Latest/Mavericks/Users /

Alternatively you could, as you've suggested install, restore from the available 'Full Backup' and then carry out the final step to restore the most recent 'incremental'.

In practice before all of that I actually checked and then duplicated the contents of 'Latest' onto a separate drive for safety but that does depend on you having spare storage.

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