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Josh Brown Oct 18, 2020

How to Backup Your iPhone to an External Drive – Crash Course

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Josh Brown Icon
Josh Brown Oct 18, 2020

Backups are the copies of your iPhone's data. They are the 'Plan B', in case you lose or damage your device. However, they can take up too much storage.

Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t let you back up your iPhone to an external hard drive. Instead, it makes you use iCloud (and pay extra). 

It’s still possible to move your iTunes backup location to the external drive. But unfortunately, it requires too much hassle. But don’t worry, just below you will find brief step-by-step instructions to help you move your iTunes backups to the safe space. In addition, there’s 1 absolutely painless workaround too.

Table of Contents

How to BackUp iPhone to External Hard Drive in 2 clicks

Huge backups are a nuisance, especially if you have limited storage space. Honestly, it’s such a bummer that iTunes does not let you change your backup location. Typical backups can take more than a hundred gigabytes. So how can you store your backups someplace else? 

This is where iMazing comes in. The name says it all – it’s an iTunes replacement app for Mac & Windows. Best of all, it backs up your iPhone to external hard drive no questions asked.

With iMazing, you just basically need to plug in your external hard drive & the app will do the rest. Here’s how it works: 

Step 1. Download & install iMazing. 

How to backup iPhone to an external hard drive with iMazing

iMazing is a desktop companion app for your iPhone. It’s a go-to device manager whenever you need to make a backup. Besides that, it helps you transfer anything: images, music, videos, contacts, text messages, you name it. 

It’s free to download and use during the free trial. So go ahead and give it a shot. 

You can download iMazing for free from the developer’s official website.

Step 2. Plugin your external hard drive & iPhone. 

Tap ‘Trust this computer’ on your device if your iPhone isn’t synced with your machine. 

Step 3. Launch iMazing. It should see your device immediately. 

backup to an external device

When you connect iMazing the first time – it will immediately ask you to backup your device. Best of all, you can choose your external hard drive as the desired backup location! 

Step 4. Choose your external drive as the destination path. 

backup iPhone to an external hard drive with iMazing

That’s all there is to it. There’re no complicated terms and settings. You don’t need to create symlinks or do anything of the sort. That’s the beauty of iMazing – simply choose the external drive as your backup location and you’re set!

Besides backups, iMazing helps with a ton other things: 

  • Export text messages & contacts

  • Add music & movies to your iPhone bullet-speed and no quality loss:

  • Easily set up a new iPhone in a matter of a clicks

  • Transfer apps, documents, ebooks, pictures back and forth from your device

  • You are no longer need to be tied to 1 iTunes library. Sync as many devices as you wish :) 

Can you backup your iPhone to the external drive using iTunes?

No. But you can move your backup from your computer to the external hard drive by creating a symlink. This can be a challenge if you are not very ‘techie’. But don’t worry! Even if you are technically challenged, you can still manage it. Just try to follow the instructions closely. We tried to make them as brief as possible. 

By default, your iTunes backups are located inside the MobileSync folder on your computer. Apple doesn’t encourage you to change, edit, rename, extract contents of your backup in any way. But if you strictly follow the instructions outline in this very tutorial  – you will be fine. Below there are the exact guidelines for Mac and Windows users. 

First, locate your existing backups. On a Mac, type or copy this into the Spotlight search:  ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup/. You will be immediately redirected to the Backups folder. Alternatively, do the following actions: 

On macOS Catalina & above: 

  • Connect your device, go to ‘Finder’. In the sidebar menu, under ‘Locations’ you will see your device. Click on it. 

  • Choose Backups from the menu bar. 

  • New Finder window will pop up showing all available backups. Right-click on the backup and click ‘show in Finder’.

It might be named as a ‘backup’ or a bunch of numbers and letters. Don’t worry – that’s how it typically is. 

If you have older macOS or Windows, do the following: 

  • Plug your device in,  open iTunes. 

  • Go to ‘Preferences’ > ‘Devices’. Choose the needed device from the list. 

  • Hold down ‘Control’ and click on the device.

  • Select ‘Show in Finder’/‘Show in Windows Explorer’ from the context menu. 

How to Move Your BackUps to an External Drive: a Step-by-step Guide

Moving backups is tech-savvy. Beginners need to be careful & do all instructions as follows. Pay attention that all of the names of the folders look good & coincide with the titles here.

  • Connect your external drive to your computer (if you haven’t already).

  • Open the external hard drive. Drag your backup file to the proper folder. On a Mac, you will be required to confirm the actions by typing in your password.

  • Alarm: Don’t delete your old backup just yet! 

  • Rename your backup folder on your external drive to ‘iphone_backup’. 

  • Change the name of the old backup folder that stays on your computer to ‘old_backup’

How to Create a SymLink: Quick Instructions

Now comes the techie part. You can’t just delete your old backup. If you do – iTunes will see an empty backup folder. It will create a new backup file in the same location. 

Therefore, it’s better to create a symbolic link (aka symlink). What’s a symlink? It’s a reference to a file that contains another file. Basically, it works like a shortcut. This is how you trick iTunes into backing up your device to the external drive instead of the default folder. You will need to use Terminal for creating a symbolic link. 

If you are on macOS Mojave and above you might need to change permissions for Terminal. Head over to ‘System & Preferences’ > ‘Security and Privacy’. Select the “Privacy tab’. The screen might be locked, therefore choose ‘Click the lock to make changed’ at the bottom. Type in your system password & click ‘Unlock’. From the sidebar menu choose ‘Full disk access’ and select ‘Terminal’ in order to give Terminal the permission to work with backup files. 

Here’s a formula to write in the terminal for creating a Symlink: ln -s /Volumes/Your_external_drive_name/iphone_backup ~/Library/Application\ Support/MobileSync/Backup/c38565b2312f0714b049a619aa4cb78b180f24a6

Make sure to double-check all the names before you write this command in the Terminal: 

  • Put in the name of your external drive instead of ‘your_external_drive_name’ in the formula. NOTE. If the name of your external drive includes spaces, type in backslash for each space. For example ‘External\drive’

  • ‘iphone_backup’ is the folder you renamed earlier on your external drive. Remember?) This should be the exact same name of the folder where your backups are stored on the external drive. 

  • Change ‘c38565b2312f0714b049a619aa4cb78b180f24a6’ to the exact name of the folder you are transferring. For instance, if you are moving all of your backups, then the folder will be named a ‘backup’. But if you move a backup for some specific device only, it will resemble a weird sequence of numbers, just like this. 

Double-check if each name is spelled correctly. Launch the terminal, write the code, and hit ‘Return’. 

Great! Now you should see a new folder in ‘Mobilesync’ with an arrow in the bottom left corner. This is a symlink! Amazing job! There’s 1 more thing to do. You will need to disable automatic backups for the future. 

How to Disable Automatic BackUps

Most likely, your external drive will not be connected to your computer forever. That means that if you connect your iPhone & the external drive isn’t on its place, you will get an error from iTunes. It will try to go through with the new backup – but the destination path will be gone.  To prevent this, you will need to turn off automatic  backups: 

  • Go to iTunes Preferences > Devices

  • Check ‘Prevent iPods, iPhones, and iPads from syncing automatically.’

That’s all there is to it! Congrats, you can now delete your old backup and enjoy additional storage you just recovered! 

Bottom Line

Let’s face it – moving backups, creating a symbolic link is a hassle. But this is the only way to move your backups to external locations if you are using iTunes. The only alternative here is to use a simple iTunes replacement called iMazing. Launch the app, connect the phone, choose a backup location – done! This solution takes all the pain out of managing your backups & iPhone files. 

Sure, there’s also iCloud backups. But they also don’t allow you yo back up your data to the external drive. With iCloud, you can only back up your device to cloud services. 

In the end, it’s your choice! You can use any of the methods described. You are welcome to write in the comments about what solution worked out the best for you. We will be happy to know!


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