How To

The Ultimate Guide to iPhone and iPad Backups and Storage

Posted on April 7th, 2021 by and

The data on your iPhone or iPad is essential, and backing up your iOS device is critical to ensure the integrity of that data. You’re a lot more likely to damage or lose your iPhone than your Mac, and, unfortunately it’s not that uncommon for people’s iPhones to be stolen. While there are many backup solutions available for the Mac, including Apple’s built-in Time Machine and Intego’s Personal Backup, there are only two options for your iOS devices: iCloud and the Finder.

Which of these should you use to back up your iOS devices? Can you use both? How does each solution work? In this article, I’ll explain how to back up your iOS devices using both methods, and the pros and cons of each.

How to check your iCloud storage

iCloud backups are simple, automatic, and happen in the background, but there can be a limitation: the amount of iCloud storage you have available. By default, each iCloud account receives 5 GB of free storage space, and if you need more you can purchase it from Apple. The prices at the time of writing are as follows:

  • 50 GB for $0.99 a month
  • 200 GB for $2.99 a month
  • 2 TB for $9.99 a month

Note that you can also get increased iCloud storage as part of Apple’s Apple One subscription bundles, and if you use Family Sharing, then your entire family will can share a pool of storage.

Your iCloud storage is used for many apps, and the one that generally uses the most storage is Photos: if you have your iCloud Photos active (in Settings > Photos, on iOS; in the Photos app, Photos > Preferences > iCloud on Mac), then all your photos and videos go into the cloud. If you take a lot of photos, and especially if you take a lot of videos, your storage dwindles quickly.

To find out how much storage you have, and how much is available, go to Settings, tap your name, then tap iCloud. At the top, you’ll see information about your storage.

If you tap Manage Storage, you’ll be able to see how much storage is used by each app, and you’ll be able to change your storage plan.

You can see in the screenshot above that most of my storage is used by my Photos library. You can cull your library from time to time, if there are photos, and especially videos, that you don’t want to save. Unfortunately, you can’t choose which items in your Photos library get synced to iCloud, but you can drag some from the Photos app on your Mac to a folder somewhere, then delete them from the Photos app. You’ll still have local copies, but they won’t go to the cloud.

How to back up an iPhone or iPad using iCloud

Now that you know if you have enough storage for backups, tap Backups in the storage list; you may need to scroll down to find it, especially if you haven’t turned on iCloud backups. You’ll see any devices that are being backed up to your iCloud account.

If you don’t see Backups in this list, then none of your devices are being backed up to iCloud. Go back to the previous screen; here you see toggles for apps using iCloud. Scroll down to iCloud Backup and toggle it On.

You’ll notice that you can tap Back Up Now on this screen; tap that to perform your first backup. An iCloud backup doesn’t back up data that is already in your iCloud account. So your photos and videos won’t get backed up again. However, the backup may be too large for your available storage, or it may reduce your storage so much that you need to make more room.

After the first backup has completed, go back to the Manage Storage screen, tap Backups, then tap your device. You see here when the last backup was performed, how large it is, how large the next backup will be, and then you see a list of apps that want to back up data.

This list is important: it shows which apps back up data as part of your iCloud backups, and how much space they take up. In the above screenshot, you can see the largest amount of data is from Bear, an app I use to store notes. But since Bear already stores its data in iCloud, I don’t need to add another copy in an iCloud backup. So if I toggle that app off, I’ll save 485 MB of iCloud storage. The next app in the list is Audible; the 172.6 MB being backed up is one or more audiobooks, which I certainly don’t need to back up: I can re-download them at any time.

If I continue down the list, I see lots of other apps that are backing up data that really don’t need to. At best, these apps are storing settings; but does the Netflix app need to story 46 MB of data just for settings? Toggle off any apps where you know the data either is already in iCloud, or, for apps such as Netflix which don’t need to back anything up. Since so many apps already store data in the cloud, or on their own servers, much of what gets backed up here is redundant. It uses potentially valuable iCloud storage (though if you have 2 TB, you may have plenty of room), takes longer to back up, and especially takes a lot longer to restore, if you need to do so.

As I said above, iCloud backups occur automatically. You can tap Back Up Now to initiate a backup, and it’s a good idea to do this the first time you set up iCloud backups. Automated backups happen when the device’s display is off and it’s connected to a power source. Backups typically occur when you’re asleep; in my screenshot above, you can see that the last iCloud backup ran at 2:24 am.

Your first iCloud backup can take a considerable amount of time, depending on the speed of your internet connection and the size of the backup. You can stop the backup at any time, and it will continue next time you tap Backup Now, or you can just let it run automatically. If your iCloud plan does not have enough storage, you will be alerted and offered a chance to purchase additional storage space.

How to backup your iPhone or iPad using the Finder

Until macOS Catalina, iOS device backups on the Mac were handled by iTunes (they still are on Windows). But since Apple split iTunes into several apps, it’s the Finder that manages these backups.

Connect your iOS device to your Mac via USB, and look for it in the Finder sidebar. Click it, and you’ll see an overview of your device, including basic specifications, model information, backup options, and sync options. At the bottom of this window, you can see a bar graph that shows how much space is taken up on your device and what kind of data is taking up that space. Hover over the sections of that bar to see more details.

The Backup section of the window is what we’re interested in. You can see that my iPhone is set to back up its "most important data to iCloud." While a backup to a Mac backs up all the phone’s data, iCloud backups don’t; see below for an explanation of what gets backed up.

Configuring backups is straightforward. Select Backup all of the data on your iPhone to this Mac, and check Encrypt local backup to secure the backup file that macOS creates on your hard drive. Keep in mind if you forget this password, your backup will be inaccessible. The benefit of encrypting your backup is that account passwords, Wi-Fi settings, Health data, website history, and call history are backed up as well. This data is not backed up if encryption is off.

Once it’s set up, click Back Up Now button and let the Finder perform its backup. Each time you back up your devices, the Finder creates a new backup file, but only copies what is new or changed, so the first backup will take longer than subsequent backups.

What data is backed up in iCloud and Finder backups

iCloud backups

iCloud backups include most of the data and settings stored on your device. However, iCloud backups do not include the following data:

  • Data that’s already stored in iCloud, like Contacts, Calendars, Notes, My Photo Stream, and iCloud Photo Library
  • Data stored in other cloud services, like Gmail and Exchange mail
  • Apple Mail data
  • Apple Pay information and settings
  • Face ID or Touch ID settings
  • iCloud Music Library and App Store content (If it’s still available in the iTunes, App, or iBooks Store, you can tap to re-download your already purchased content.)

Finder backups

A Finder backup includes nearly all of your device’s data and settings. However, a Finder backup does not include:

  • Content from the iTunes and App Stores, or PDFs downloaded directly to iBooks
  • Content synced from Apple’s media apps, like imported MP3s or CDs, videos, books, and photos
  • Data already stored in iCloud, such as iCloud Photos, iMessages, and text (SMS) and multimedia (MMS) messages
  • Face ID or Touch ID settings
  • Apple Pay information and settings
  • Apple Mail data
  • Activity, Health, and Keychain data (This content is backed up if you choose to encrypt your backup.)

The pros and cons of each solution

Restore time

Restoring a backup from your Mac is considerably faster than restoring a backup from iCloud. Where a full restore from a Mac can be done in half an hour or less, an iCloud restore can take several hours or more. The actual restore time depends on the size of your backup, and in the case of an iCloud restore, your internet connection speed as well. Note that regardless of the size of the backup, it still takes a long time to render your device exactly as it was prior to restoring the backup. This is because apps are not backed up, and are redownloaded to the device after the backup is restored. This is the case with both iCloud and Finder backups.

Storage space

With Finder backups, you are limited only by the capacity of your computer’s hard drive. As long as the required space is there, your backup is fast and free. This is not the case for iCloud backups, however. Given the paltry 5 GB storage you get for free, most people spend the extra $0.99 or $2.99 a month just to back up their devices. Don’t skimp; it’s worth paying a bit more to ensure that your data is protected.

For comparison, on my iPhone 11, the iCloud backup, as shown in screenshots above, was 1.62 GB. When I backed up my iPhone to my Mac, the backup was about 7.6 GB.

Storing multiple backups

Both the Finder and iCloud overwrite your existing backups and save only the latest data. On your Mac, you can create a backup, archive that backup, and then create another backup. You can create as many backups as you want so long as you have space on your hard drive.

To archive backups, click Manage Backups in the Finder window, then right-click on a backup and choose Archive. The backup’s name will be changed to contain the date, and the next time you backup the device, a new backup will be created.

This is particularly useful if you want to test software, and want to be able to roll back your data to a previous version. If you want to test new versions of iOS, and encounter problems, you can also load an old backup, but you’ll need to have saved a firmware file for the previous version of iOS. To do this, you’ll need to have updated your iOS device on your Mac, so it saves the firmware file. In that case, look in your home folder, in /Library/iTunes folder, which will contain different folders for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch firmware, if you have downloaded any of them.

With iCloud, you will have the latest backup, which means you can’t downgrade, and if the backup happens to be corrupted, you can’t load another.

Backing up your backups

Backups created by the Finder are stored on your hard drive. This means they will be backed up again by Time Machine or other backup software you may use, so you have multiple backups of your iOS device-. As we’ve said elsewhere, multiple backups are always a good idea!

Cleaning out old iCloud backups

As mentioned earlier, only one copy of your current device’s backup is saved and constantly overwritten. But there may be old backups from other devices on iCloud that you no longer need, using your storage. To see if this is the case, go to Settings, tap your name, then tap iCloud Storage > Backups. If you see multiple devices that you no longer own, tap one of them, then tap Delete Backup.

Cleaning out old Finder backups

In the Finder window, when an iOS device is connected, click Manage Backups, and you may see a long list of backups going back years, for multiple devices. If you find devices you no longer own, click a backup, then click Delete Backup.

You may also want to have a look in the folder that stores your backups; in some cases, there may be backups that don’t show in the Device Backups window. Right-click a backup in that window and choose Show in Finder. This opens the folder which stores your iOS device backups. (The folder is, in your home folder, /Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup). You may see a long list of backups going back years, if you’ve never cleaned out this folder.

What’s the best backup solution for an iPhone or iPad?

It’s a lot easier to back up your device to iCloud, because it can occur automatically. When you back it up to your Mac, you have to connect the device , then click a button to back it up. (You can do this over wi-fi as well; to do this, in the Options section of the General tab of the device window in the Finder, chick Show this iPhone when on Wi-Fi.)

I prefer a combination of both. If I’m away from home, and there’s a problem with my iPhone, having a good backup at home won’t help me, so I want an iCloud backup. But, at least once a month, I also perform a Finder backup, so if I do need to restore my device, I can make sure that all my data is available when I get back home.

No matter which method you choose, make sure you regularly back up your iOS device to ensure that you don’t lose data. It’s simple, and can even be automatic.


How can I learn more?

Each week on the Intego Mac Podcast, Intego’s Mac security experts discuss the latest Apple news, security and privacy stories, and offer practical advice on getting the most out of your Apple devices. Be sure to follow the podcast to make sure you don’t miss any episodes.

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About Jay Vrijenhoek

Jay Vrijenhoek is an IT consultant with a passion for Mac security research. He conducts independent malware protection tests, and also writes about privacy and security related matters on his blog Security Spread. Follow him on Twitter at @SecuritySpread. View all posts by Jay Vrijenhoek →