How can I restore a single file from an old Time Machine backup using only the Command Line Interface?

I took a snapshot of my MacOS system using Time Machine some time ago, and I'd like to restore just one file from it.

Also, I don't have GUI access to this box; only ssh (with root privilege).

Is it possible to restore just one file from a Time Machine backup using the CLI over SSH? If so, how?


2 Answers 2


You can browse to the files directly and restore them with the rsync command.

Determine path to Backups

First, list all of your existing backups using tmutil listbackups

user@host ~ % tmutil listbackups
user@host ~ %

Enter Backup Directory

Next, cd into one of the above directories (the one from which you want to restore)

user@host ~ % cd /Volumes/externalBackups/Backups.backupdb/host/2020-06-21-110109
user@host 2020-06-21-110109 % 

Enter Backup's Data Directory

There should be a - Data directory with the data from this particular Time Machine backup. In this case, our backups were created with tmutil startbackup, so the Data Directory is Untitled - Data

user@host 2020-06-21-110109 % ls | grep -i Data
Untitled - Data
user@host 2020-06-21-110109 % 

user@host 2020-06-21-110109 % cd "Untitled - Data"
user@host Untitled - Data % 

Restore with rsync

You can restore a given file with rsync. For example, to restore the /private/etc/resolv.conf file to your system, you can now execute the following

user@host Untitled - Data % sudo rsync -av --progress private/etc/resolv.conf /private/etc/resolv.conf
user@host Untitled - Data % 
  • 2
    Personally I prefer using rsync rather than cp. However, since the intention is to use the cp command to restore a file from a "backup", I would recommend using cp -p. This way the restored file preserve the following attributes of each source file in the copy: modification time, access time, file flags, file mode, user ID, and group ID, as allowed by permissions.
    – wch1zpink
    Jun 14 at 20:44
  • Yes to the above, and ideally rsync -a for the same reason @wch1zpink mentioned.
    – Scot
    Jun 14 at 22:03
  • changed to rsync. I also prefer it, but I wasn't sure if it was installed by default in MacOS. Jun 15 at 9:19
  • ls *[dD]ata* might be more elegant than using grep. You can even make a (not actually very bold) assumption and just type cd *[dD]ata*.
    – nohillside
    Jun 15 at 9:25
  • Also, did you run sudo -s at the beginning? The cp/rsync at the end most likely will fail for non-root users (depends on the file to be copied of course).
    – nohillside
    Jun 15 at 9:27

If you find a GUI easier to navigate, you should be able to use an FTP client (Transmit, Filezilla, Cyberduck, etc.) and connect to your Time Machine backup via sftp.

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