Time Machine: Delete Files or Folders from Backup

   Posted October 19, 2007 by David Kirk in Apple Mac

Time Machine does an amazing job of backing up all files on your system. However, sometimes you do not want every file saved forever and ever. Here is how you remove a backed up file or folder from the time machine.

I really will not judge you for your huge file collections. Images, videos, programs — whatever they are. However, you may not want these files saved on your backup drive in perpetuity. In all versions of Time Machine, you can use this technique to delete a particular file or folder from all Time Machine backups.

Here is how to remove files and folders from your Time Machine backup.

1. Hit the Time Machine icon to jump into the starfield view

2. For some crazy reason, you can’t ctrl-click (right-click) in the starfield view. So pull-up the options by clicking the “gears” Options icon as shown below. From here, select Delete All Backups…

Ahhh… safer you are, young Time Machine Jedi.


About David Kirk

David Kirk is one of the original founders of tech-recipes and is currently serving as editor-in-chief. Not only has he been crafting tutorials for over ten years, but in his other life he also enjoys taking care of critically ill patients as an ICU physician.
View more articles by David Kirk

The Conversation

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  • A User

    Thanks that’s really helpful.
    I was trying to right-click.

  • http://scarydevil.com/~peter/ Peter da Silva

    Any way of getting this without going into the damn starfield view?

    • http://www.EcoReality.org/ Jan Steinman

      You can drag folders from within /Volumes/Backup/Backups.bacukpdb to the trash and then empty the trash. But this will only delete an instance of a backup of a folder — not all the backups for eternity.

      There doesn’t seem to be any way to do it from Terminal, because of extended attributes and hard-linked directories, I’d guess.

      • juliette

        > Thank you so much Jan S/ so glad your message is still posted !! finally can understand that Time Machine

  • Fred

    Finally someone who can actually explain me how to do it! Puff, thanks a lot man!

  • John

    What if you do this, and nothing happens. I am trying to delete the movies folder from itunes, (it is huge and I manage another backup of it elsewhere) but it does not go anywhere. Nothing happens at all.

    • Roy

      > Hi John – when you say “nothing happens”, is it possible that this is because:
      – you are in the starfield view
      – and the instance you are looking at is “Now”

      I just did this procedure, as described, and noticed that when I first enter the starfield view, until I click on an earlier time in the timeline on the right side of the view, I’m at the “Now” state. It wasn’t until I selected an earlier date that I could verify that the folder I deleted was no longer in the Time Machine backups.

      just a thought, that might explain your experience (or not…)

  • Franky

    Thank you so much for that tip.

    You are my hero 🙂

  • micros

    So after doing that, does it still have a backup of the most recent state of this folder, or is that one also removed?

  • TM Newbie

    I tried to my back ups of Parallels XP from TM. The files disappeared in the Star Field view, but the free space on the disk did not change? Do I need to empty the trash somehow?

    • TM Newbie

      I forgot the word “delete”, i.e. I tried to delete my back ups…

  • Jim

    After following your instructions, it then asks for my password, but I can’t type anything into that area. No curser, so I still can’t delete pictures.

    • Diane

      I can’t enter my password either. Guess it’s time to wipe the drive and start over.

  • Diane Bechtler

    it takes a longish time depending on what is being deleted and how big the files are. Previous system in my case. 10 copies

  • CSims

    Thanks a ton. That is the fastest tech answer I have found in some time!

  • d2

    Did you try entering entering the starfield view, selecting the item to delete all backups of, telling Time Machine to delete all backups from the gear menu, EXITING THE STARFIELD VIEW, then typing your password in the pop-up window that remains popped up?

  • Anonymous

    hmm, too bad that it is not possible to selectively delete files from time machine …

    * all instances prior to a certain date;

    * all instance in a range(s) of dates;

    * all instances of a certain attribute … such as size; or label (eg draft1, draft2 etc); or permission mask (ie ACL); or f-stop; or geo-tag; or comment; etc etc

    as usual, apple takes a great idea & never finishes the proper execution of it!

    … and because apple has not offered any OSAX support (for scriptable plugins) nor designed a proper API (for parametric control from the shell), there is no way for the user to implement the features they need extensibly or modularly …

    as is usualy with apple 🙁


    • Eric

      Loved your comment about Apple. Yes, Apple never quite makes anything clear, and always falls short in their functionality. Another good example of this is the Mail program, which allows you to turn off external HTML loading for all messages or for no messages. Every other mail reader in the entire known universe allows you to selectively load based on your address book.

      Time Machine bugs me because for something as important as backup software, you never know quite what is going on. I don’t really trust it because I don’t really know what it has backed up and what it hasn’t. Love the error messages too. (“Your backup has failed! Error -12345”). Very reassuring.

      • Anonymous

        You can actually see what’s gone wrong with Time Machine by opening the Console, clicking on “All messages” and searching for “backupd” in the upper right corner. It will give you all log messages from Time Machine. Hope that helps. 🙂

  • Klaus Huber

    I can`t see the gears, what is wrong?

    Greatings from Germany K. H.

    • Anonymous


      Before you enter Time Machine do the following:

      1. Open a Finder Window
      2. Click the View menu
      3. Select Show Toolbar

      Now enter Time Machine and you will see the gears.

      • Klaus Huber

        Thanks, now it`s all working perfect.

        Greatings from Germany.

  • rafi

    Hi there,

    a Question: I made a big big mistake of deleting a folder (with all my pictures over the past 4 yrs!), that was in the actual time machine. NOT on my mac (desktop, documents etc). Anyway, after deleting the folder by mistake, i didnt even have to ’empty trash’, it just got lost!!! HOW DO I GET IT BACK? I am going crazy over this!

    • Joshua


      I hate to say that you’re screwed. When I first purchased my Mac last year, Time Machine has been great – deleting files not so much. I transferred my old 60 gigish of software from the past 3 years deleted by doing the same “delete backup” method as stated above. It absolutely pissed me off, but at least it wasn’t as precious as pictures or immensely important e-mails/documents, etc.

      When I utilize “Delete Backup”, it deletes THE ENTIRE BACKUP INSTANCE, meaning – anything that was backed up during that time period will be gone as soon as you enter your administrative password.

      I’m currently thinking of scrapping Time Machine and saving all my truly important files and switching to NTFS. Backing up is great, but some of this is really half-baked.

  • Anonymous

    OK, I deleted things but my back-up hard drive is still full. The menu shows only about 30G so I should have over 30 left. Why is my hard drive not getting cleaned up? Thoughts.

  • Anonymous

    i’ve used time machine for 2 years now… and love it. but same problem, it’s taking up to much space on my ekstra harddisk. if i go back a year and delete things, will i then delete the backup from 2 months ago? if i delete my photo folder from januar 2008, how much of it will be lost?

  • T

    Thank you. These were great instructions.

  • Anonymous

    mmm….useful info

  • Anonymous

    I am trying to delete unnecessary reoccurring back ups. I have viewed the forums but I do not have the “gear” icon in the time machine window. I have tried to add that via the “finder” but it does not accept this. What next?

  • http://www.brucegreene.com/ Bruce Greene

    I tried to delete Time Machine files and nothing happened after following instructions

  • Godzilla68

    Worked for me, went into TM, selected the file or files I didn’t want and an option was to delete ALL back ups of those particular files. Worked great thanks!

  • Josh

    In Snow Leopard (10.6) you can right/control click. No need for the gears.

  • Abc_c_b

    woooowwww…. you are mi herooo
    thank you soo muuch…

    don’t have any more problems =)

  • Thierrydemontblanc

    Right click on mac: select the item then depress “control” and, maintaining the pressure on ” control” just click normally : there you are!

  • Michael

    I tried this in Leopard 10.5.8, but it doesn’t seem to work. I select the folders and click the option in the gear menu, it asks me to confirm. But there is no change in the Time Machine history. When I exit Time Machine (press Cancel or Esc key), there is no prompt for my username/password or anything. The backups are still there.

  • nnua

    OMG. I make monthly backups of my TM, and I want to get rid of certain months and preserve others. I selected the specific date file which I want to delete using the gears method. TM deleted ALL my backups from my external HD, every single month!!

    What went wrong, anybody has any ideas?

  • http://spencerjharris.com spencer

    I dragged the folders in the backup folder on the drive to the trash. When I try to delete the folders in the trash I get an ‘unexpected error’ message and the folders won’t delete. I tryed putting them back into the backup folder and it won’t let me because the backup folder ‘can’t be modified’.

    I essentially am trying to free up some space on the backup drive and am having a difficult time doing that.

  • Joyce

    I really need some advice. I lost a picture and thought I would use time machine to go back and get it in a recent file of iphoto. I did not catch the date was not current for iphoto (ie 2010 instead of 2012) and when I updated l lost over 5,000 photos I really need. Unfortunately thats when I saw that all of my recent backups of iphoto where dated 2010?
    I had no problem with time machine and have had no need for it since switching to snow leopard? (about 2010 it was installed) Is that my problem ? and is there any way to get my photos back?

    very frustrated photographer

    • David Kirk

      If you have not backed up since 2010 and you restored your system back to 2010… sadly, I think you’ve lost those 2 years. Ideally, you would have just grabbed that single photo from TM and not reverted your entire iPhone library back to 2010. I am so very, very sorry for your loss. The loss of 2 years worth of photos is incredibly painful. If you had continued to use TM, you could have just restored your library to it’s most recent backup.

  • Colin

    I have a related, possibly dumb, question. I want to delete photos from my MacBook to make space on its hard drive. Will the backed up photos still be safe on the external TM drive? I guess the answer is Yes, but I’m just making sure.


    • David Kirk

      Not forever. Time Machine only keeps files as long as space exists. Eventually as your backups multiply, older ones are deleted. Time Machine is meant as a backup, not as storage. If you want your pictures copied to your external drive forever, just copy them with finder directly. If you photos are as important to you as mine are to me, you might even make copies to two different drives…

      • Colin

        Thanks, that sounds like good advice. I have a 1 terabyte backup disk so I guess it’ll take a long time to fill it. However, I will transfer the photos to another drive as extra backup for safety.

  • leah

    I only have the move to trash option. There is no delete backup option. When I go to move into the trash it says “Cant be modified or deleted because its required by mac osx”

  • brianj

    I found Time Machine was refusing to back up to my 2nd backup disc which I hadn’t backed up to for quite some time (it seems to tend to lead to very lengthy backups if you do that and possibly was the reason why it said my backup disc didn’t have enough space). The problem appeared that people described to be my Movies folder which had many versions of some movies getting up to some 70GB. The official procedure had absolutely no effect — I approved the delete but ended up just as before.

    I therefore used brute force, going into Terminal and used rm to get rid of the big folder on the backup disc completely (instead of moving it to the trash folder) before doing the backup, which it then did OK.

    Note that if you want to delete a whole folder you use the recursive version of rm, which looks like

    rm -rf [folder name]

    (the f option forces the removal of every file without asking for each one whether you want to delete it or not as the interactive version of rm does).

  • Eric

    This option now seems to be missing in Mountain Lion – at least in 10.8.2 it is.

    Delete All Backups of a particular file or folder within a Time Machine Backup was a useful feature. Hopefully, Apple brings it back.

  • Michael Robertson

    snow leopard 10.6.9 – – went from desktop view into time machine in order to delete all previous backups of some folders on my desktop. Having right clicked and selected “delete all backups of the particular folder” , instead of just deleting that particular folder, all previous backups of my desktop disappeared from time machine as well. Not good.

  • Star Emerson

    I’m trying to delete: ADWARE/Error Clean.A.13 from my external HD. I was told to go here: http://www.tech-recipes.com/rx/2655/time_machine_delete_files_folders_from_backup/.
    It says to go into time machine and delete all backups. That scared the ____ out of me. Do I really want to do this?
    Also on that pg there was a tutorial for Leopard time machine. I clicked on it: no response. Then did a search on same pg : no response.
    I started out checking my external HD for viruses when i found these. And wanted to remove them. Then was told i should turn off time machine and check the top link.

    Thank you so much for this site!

  • Kelly

    I’ve deleted the files, but the backup drive still says only 214 gigs capacity instead of the full 500g. How do I erase this thing and get all the storage room back?

    • Roy

      Hi Kelly, to do what you request, just open the Disk Utility (/Applications/Utilities/Disk Utility), select the drive that you want to clear, and click on the Partition Tab. Then setup your partition name and type, and perform the partition.

      This will erase all (*ALL*) your TimeMachine backup files and any other data stored on that particular drive.


      1) if you don’t see the Partition tab in Disk Utility, likely you have the “volume” selected, and you need to select the “disk” containing that volume

      2) if your TimeMachine backup files are on a partition of a disk, that has other volumes that you don’t want to lose, select the “volume” containing the TimeMachine backup files, rather than the “disk”, and use the Erase feature from the Erase tab.


  • Deb

    What is a time machine button?

  • EMP

    I’m trying to delete my old backup for 2011 but seems like it stuck… anything can I do? how to cancel the actions?.


  • biletubes

    What I’ve always wanted file systems to do is allow you to set a property on a file or folder such as “delete after __ years”. I would use that for scanned bills etc. that take up memory but are no use after 2 years say. Does this exist? If not why not?

  • Fausto Stampiglia

    I did push both erase and quarantine buttons. No erasing or quarantined. I disconnected the Time machine (It has some problem: doesn’t back up, the message form the Mac is that mac cannot fix the problem or repair it. Maybe some bugs got to it, actually to BOTH of them, one for each Mac. HELP! please, Thanks, God bless you. Rev. Fausto

  • Sy Cohn

    I wanted to just delete the infected back up files from Mackeeper. After I openedthe time machine I couldn’t find those files and tried trashing the whole back up files. It too long so I put it back into the time machine (over 500,00 files) which is taking a long time
    Please Help,
    Sy Cohn