Can I backup my iPhone directly to an external hard drive?

Quick Answer

Yes, it is possible to back up your iPhone directly to an external hard drive instead of your computer or iCloud. However, it requires some setup and preparation to get it working properly.

Setting up an External Hard Drive for iPhone Backups

To use an external hard drive for iPhone backups, you’ll need:

  • An external hard drive with enough storage space for your iPhone backups
  • A hard drive that is formatted for Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system
  • The hard drive connected directly to your Mac computer, not through a USB hub
  • The latest macOS and iOS updates installed
  • iTunes installed on your Mac

Here are the steps to properly format and configure an external hard drive for iPhone backups:

1. Format the External Hard Drive

Connect your empty external hard drive to your Mac. Open Disk Utility, select your external hard drive, and click “Erase” at the top. Choose “Mac OS Extended (Journaled)” for the format and “GUID Partition Map” for the scheme. Click Erase to format the drive.

2. Designate the External Hard Drive for Backups

Open System Preferences > Time Machine. Click “Select Disk” and choose your external hard drive. Toggle Time Machine on. This will now dedicate this hard drive for any Time Machine backups.

3. Connect iPhone and Choose Backup Disk

Connect your iPhone to your Mac with a Lightning cable. Open iTunes and click the iPhone icon. Go to Backups and select “This computer” for backups. Check “Encrypt iPhone backup” and click Back Up Now.

In the sidebar, choose your external hard drive as the backup destination disk. iTunes will now back up your iPhone to the external drive.

Why Backup iPhone to External Hard Drive?

Here are some of the benefits of using an external hard drive for iPhone backups:

  • Frees up space on your Mac computer’s internal drive
  • Allows for storage of very large backups from high capacity iPhones
  • Backup drive can be portable and work across multiple computers
  • External drives often have higher storage capacities than what internal drives offer
  • Encrypting backups provides extra security and privacy

Doing iPhone backups to an external hard drive frees up your Mac computer’s internal drive space. This is important if you have a Mac with a smaller solid state drive (SSD). Backups can quickly eat up precious internal storage.

External hard drives also have very high storage capacities, often larger than most internal Mac drives. This allows you to save multiple backups from high capacity iPhones and ensures you don’t run out of backup space.

Managing External Hard Drive iPhone Backups

Once you have your external hard drive configured for iPhone backups, iTunes will automatically save all new backups to that drive. Here are some tips for managing your backups:

View Existing Backups

In iTunes, you can view all existing backups for your iPhone by going to Preferences > Devices and selecting your iPhone. This will show details on your device backups including the backup size and last backup date.

Delete Old Backups

Over time, your backups can quickly consume storage space. When your backup drive starts getting full, you may want to delete old backups that you no longer need. Simply right-click on the outdated backup and choose Delete Backup.

Do Manual Backups

iTunes will do automatic wireless backups whenever you connect your iPhone. However, you can also manually trigger a backup by going to Backups and clicking Back Up Now. This will force a backup even if one isn’t due yet.

Encrypt Backups

For greater privacy and security, you can encrypt your iPhone backups. Encrypted backups will be protected by a password. Enable the “Encrypt iPhone backup” option in iTunes before each backup. Never forget your backup password, or you could lose access to that backup.

Turn Off Auto-Backups

If you need to temporarily halt automatic backups, toggle off automatic syncing in iTunes. Go to your iPhone Preferences and uncheck “Automatically sync when this iPhone is connected”. This will prevent iTunes from doing any automatic backups.

Restoring or Migrating from External Hard Drive Backups

If you ever need to restore your iPhone from a backup, you can select the backup on your external drive when prompted during the restore process in iTunes. This will retrieve the data and settings from that external drive backup.

You can also use an external drive backup to migrate your content over to a new iPhone. Simply connect your new iPhone to sync to iTunes, then select the option to restore from the backup of your old iPhone and pick the external drive backup. iTunes will then transfer your apps, settings and data to your new device.

Potential Drawbacks of External Hard Drive iPhone Backups

While using an external drive for iPhone backups provides several benefits, there are also some downsides to keep in mind:

  • The drive must be connected to your computer to do backups, unlike iCloud
  • Hard drives can fail and backups could be lost if the drive crashes
  • Apple does not provide tech support for backups on third-party drives
  • Drive should always be ejected properly before disconnecting to avoid corruption
  • Drive needs to have enough capacity for the backup size, or backups may fail
  • Backups rely on a single physical drive, so no redundancy if that drive fails

The external hard drive must always be connected to your Mac for backups to run. Cloud services like iCloud offer the flexibility of doing wireless backups over the internet instead.

External hard drives are also prone to failure or corruption, which could cause backup loss. Using a cloud service gives redundancy across multiple servers. So if one part fails, your data still exists elsewhere.

You’ll also need to be diligent about properly ejecting the external drive before disconnecting. Improper disconnects while a backup is running could lead to corruption.

Overall, backing up your iPhone to an external hard drive gives you greater control over your data. But it requires more maintenance and diligence compared to a service like iCloud. Weigh the pros and cons of each approach to determine what best suits your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I backup my iPhone to an external hard drive?

Yes, you can backup your iPhone directly to an external hard drive that is connected to your Mac computer. iTunes allows you to designate an external drive as the backup location instead of your internal drive or iCloud.

Does the hard drive have to be formatted a certain way?

Yes, the external drive must use the Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system in order for Time Machine and iTunes to work properly with it. drives formatted with FAT32, exFAT, or APFS are not supported.

Can I encrypt my iPhone backups on an external drive?

Absolutely. Encrypting your iPhone backups is recommended for privacy, and works the same way on an external drive as it does with iCloud backups. Just be sure to remember your encryption password.

Do I need to keep the drive connected after a backup?

The external drive only needs to be connected during backups. You can safely eject and disconnect it after a successful backup has completed. However, you’ll need to reconnect it again before your next backup.

How do I restore my iPhone from the external drive backup?

In iTunes on your Mac, initiate a restore to your iPhone, then select the specific backup file on your external drive when prompted. iTunes will retrieve that backup from the drive and restore it.

Can I backup multiple iPhones to the same external drive?

Yes, iTunes allows you to backup multiple iOS devices to the same designated external drive. Each device will be saved as a separate backup file on that drive.


Backing up your iPhone to an external hard drive allows you to offload these large backups from your internal drive and provide almost unlimited storage capacity. With some formatting and setup in iTunes, you can configure a compatible external hard drive as the backup location for your iPhone.

Just remember the drive must be connected and properly ejected to avoid any corruption issues. Periodically review and delete old backups you no longer need. Also consider encrypting your backups for extra security.

While external drive backups provide more control, make sure to weigh the risks and limitations compared to cloud services like iCloud. With some diligence, external hard drive iPhone backups can be an excellent part of a comprehensive data protection strategy.