How to delete Time Machine backups and snapshots

6 min read

Knowing how to delete Time Machine backups and local snapshots comes in handy when your Mac starts struggling for storage space.

Apple’s native backup mechanism, Time Machine, is an essential tool for most Mac users, and it’s arguably one of the easiest ways to back up your important personal data.

Once you’ve activated and enabled Time Machine, it’ll automatically back up your files hourly, daily, and weekly to your connected external hard drive or storage device and simultaneously store local snapshots. I’ll get to the difference between these in just a moment.

The problem is both backups and local snapshots take up precious space on a MacBook, so knowing how to thin these out can help you reclaim capacity and enhance your Mac performance. 

Not sure where to start? Well, look no further; we’ve put it all together in one simple article right here.

We’ll cover the basics and get to the important removal tips, too. So, let’s begin.

Should you delete Time Machine backups or snapshots?

Wondering what is the difference between Time Machine backups and snapshots? We’ve got you covered.

The primary difference between backups and snapshots is backups are saved to your connected external hard drive, whereas local snapshots are stored on your Mac.

Backups essentially store all your files and folders that are not considered part of the macOS installation, so these are things like music, applications, documents, and photos.

Snapshots are an image of your macOS at a specific point in time; they aid recovery and protect your personal data against data corruption or hardware failure.

It comes as a surprise to many users that Time Machine uses your Mac to store backup data, so knowing how to delete backups on Mac is a great place to start if you’re running low on storage space.

How to use Time Machine

If you don’t regularly back up your personal data, now is the time to start. Data loss is a subject no one ever wants to encounter. Plus, Time Machine is so simple to set up; here’s a reminder for those who haven’t configured it yet.

System Preferences - Time Machine

  1. Connect your chosen external storage device.

  2. From the main Apple menu > System Settings > General > Time Machine.

  3. Click the Add Backup Disk button and select your storage device from the list.

  4. Click Set Up Disk and simply follow the instructions.

Now that you know how to set up Time Machine, it’s time to delete unnecessary old backups and reclaim space. Let’s go.

Tip: While we're on the topic of setting up Time Machine, here are some additional tips for you: transferring Time Machine backup to a new disk and more on what Time Machine backs up.  

How to delete Time Machine backups on a Mac

Time Machine automatically removes old backups when it starts to run out of space which is a great built-in feature, but there are still times when you might also want to do this manually:

  • To create additional storage space on your external device for non-backup files.

  • When Time Machine indicates there isn’t enough available space on your external drive to complete a backup.

If these scenarios sound familiar, you’ve got three options; let’s take a look.

1. Use Time Machine

You can use the Time Machine application itself to remove old backups; here’s how:

How to delete Time Machine backups on Mac

  • With your external storage device connected, open the Time Machine application from Launchpad.
  • Locate a backup for removal, then select it.
  • Click the gear and select Delete Backup.
  • You’ll need to confirm your password to complete the removal.

This method is fairly simple, but there are other ways, too; head to the next tip to see your options.

2. Use the Finder

Finder usage on Mac

  • With your external storage device connected, open the Finder and locate your external drive in the sidebar.
  • Open your external drive and locate > Backups.backupdb.
  • Inside, find a folder that has the same name as your device.
  • Backups will be displayed individually; the date it was created will form their name.
  • Right-click on any backup that you want to remove and select Move to Bin/Trash; don’t forget to empty your Bin/Trash before safely ejecting your external drive.

3. Use Terminal

If you’re a fan of Terminal, then you’ll be pleased to hear you can also delete Time Machine backups via Terminal. Here’s how:

Terminal on macOS

  1. Open the Finder and go to Applications > Utilities > Terminal.

  2. Type in this command:

    tmutil listbackups

  3. Backups are displayed by date. Once you locate the backup you want to delete, make a note of its directory path, enter the below command followed by its path:

    sudo tmutil delete

  4. Press Return to delete it.

          Can you turn off automatic Time Machine backups?

          If you find yourself spending masses of time manually cleaning and removing backups, it might be a good idea to turn off automatic Time Machine backups; this way, you can control the frequency and save space on your external device. It’s simple to do; here’s how:

          1. From the main Apple menu, go to System Settings > General > Time Machine.

          2. Connect your external hard drive and wait for it to install. 

          3. Deselect Automatic Backup.

          If you do disable automatic backups, don’t let this task slip from your radar. Backups are important, so add a couple of calendar reminders to help you stay on track.

          So, you’ve successfully cleared some space on your external storage device; now, let’s tackle the local snapshots and free up some space on your Mac.

          How to delete Time Machine snapshots

          Like backups, Time Machine should automatically remove snapshots, but it’s not always the case. It’s quite normal for users to want to have manual control over what’s on their device and when it’s deleted, so here are a few tried and tested methods to help you remove snapshots.

          1. Snapshot thinning

          The easiest way to thin your snapshots and save space is to use the Maintenance module from CleanMyMac X. This smart module has a specifically designed feature called Time Machine Snapshot Thinning. It does exactly what it says. No need to fish around finding old snapshots — this tool does all the hard work for you, carefully selecting the right and necessary data for removal.

          How to remove snapshots the easy way:

          Time machine snapshot thinning

          • Open CleanMyMac X or download and try the app for free here.
          • Select Maintenance from over in the sidebar.
          • Click View All Tasks and select Time Machine Snapshot Thinning from the list.
          • Click Run.

          It’s honestly that simple! If you’d rather not use a third-party tool, even though this particular application is notarized by Apple, below is another method for you to try.

          2. How to delete Time Machine snapshots in Terminal

          Follow the steps below to locate and delete Time Machine snapshots in Terminal.

          How to delete Time Machine snapshots in Terminal

          1. Open Terminal from within Launchpad and type in the following command:

            tmutil listlocalsnapshots /

          2. Snapshots have names similar to this one: 

          3. Locate the snapshot you want to delete and make a note of its name.

          4. Then type in the below command followed by the date, for example:

            tmutil deletelocalsnapshots 2023-02-25-180515 

                You’ll need to replicate this process for every single snapshot you no longer want, so although it works, it’s most definitely not as simple or efficient as the method outlined in the tip above.

                Now you know everything there is about how to delete old backups on Mac. 

                These smart and simple tips will help you save valuable storage space on your Mac and external hard drive.

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