How-To Geek

How to Use Windows’ File History to Back Up Your Data

File History is Windows 10’s main backup tooloriginally introduced in Windows 8. Despite the name, File History isn’t just a way to restore previous versions of files–it’s a fully-featured backup tool.

After you set up File History, you can just connect an external drive to your computer and Windows will automatically back up your files to it. Leave it connected and Windows will back up automatically on a schedule.

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How to Enable File History

File History is designed to be quick and easy to enable, unlike other complex backup tools. To enable it, first connect an external hard drive to your computer. Next, open the Settings app from your Start menu. Navigate to Update & Security > Backup.

Click or tap the “Add a drive” option under Back up using File History to add an external drive that File History will back up to. It’ll list external drives and give you the option to back up to them.

You could also use the Control Panel for this, but we’ll be covering the new Settings interface here. If you’d like to use the Control Panel instead (for example, if you’re still on Windows 8), open the Control Panel and navigate to System and Security > File History.

Select a drive, and Windows will use it for File History. The “Automatically back up my files” option will appear and be automatically turned on. Windows will automatically back up your files to the drive whenever you connect it to your computer.

How to Configure File History

Select “More options” to configure how often File History backs up, how long it keeps those backup copies, and–most importantly–which files it backs up.

File History automatically backs up your files every hour by default, but you can select a different time here. You can choose once every 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour, 3 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours, or once per day.

It will normally keep your backups forever, but you can have it delete them when they become one month, 3 months, 6 months, 9 months, 1 year, or 2 years old. You can also have File History automatically delete backups as necessary to make space on your File History drive.

By default, File History will be set to back up back up important folders in your user account’s home folder. This includes the Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Music, Pictures, Videos folders. It also includes the Roaming folder where many programs store application data, your OneDrive folder, and other folders.

You can check the full list of folders in this window, and add more folders. Select “Add a folder” and you’ll be able to choose any folder on your computer to back up. You can also select a folder here and use the “Remove” button to prevent Windows from backing it up.

NOTE: In Windows 8, you do not have the option to add folders from File History–instead, you must add folders to a Library in order for them to be included.

You’ll also find an “Exclude these folders” section that allows you to exclude specific subfolders from being backed up. For example, you could have Windows automatically back up every folder in your Documents folder, but ignore one particular folder. In Windows 8, you’ll find this on the left-hand side of the File History window.

To start backing up to a different drive, use the “Stop using drive” button. This allows you to stop backing up to your current drive and start backing up to a new one. The backups won’t be deleted, but Windows can only be configured to back up to one drive at once.

The “See advanced settings” link here takes you to the Control Panel, which offers another interface you can use to configure File History. Click “Advanced Settings” here and you’ll find a few more options, including the ability to view recent errors in the Event Viewer, clean up old versions of files, and allow other computers that are part of your homegroup to back up to your drive.

How to Restore Files from Your Backup

To restore files from your external drive, open the Settings app, select “Update & security,” select “Backup,” select “More options,” scroll down to the bottom of the window, and select “Restore files from a current backup.”

You can also open the Control Panel, select “System and Security,” select “File History,” and click “Restore personal files.”

(If you have File History backups you created on another computer, just set up File History on the new computer and select the drive containing your old File History backups. They’ll then appear in the Restore Files interface so you can restore files, just as you could if the backup was created on the current computer.)

This interface will allow you to view your backups and restore files. Browse the available files and select one or more files or folders. You can preview them by right-clicking them or select them and click the green button to restore them to your computer.

To choose a time period, click the arrow buttons or the panes at the side of the window. You’ll also be informed how many different backup time periods are available. For example, in the screenshot below, the “2 of 3” at the top of the window indicates there are three available backups, and we’re viewing the second one. There’s one older backup available, as well as one newer one.

How to Restore Files From Within File Explorer

You can also quickly restore a previous version of a file from File Explorer. Open File Explorer, right-click the file you want to revert, and click “Restore previous versions.” You can also click “Properties” and then select the “Previous Versions” tab.

Any available previous versions of the file from File History will be available here. You can preview them, restore one to its original location, or restore a previous version to a different location on your computer.

You can also view previous versions and deleted files that were in a specific folder. To do this, navigate to the folder in File Explorer, click the “Home” tab on the ribbon bar at the top of the window, and click “History.”

You’ll be presented with a list of files you can restore that were once in the folder. This is the same interface you’d use when restoring files normally, but File Explorer allows you to start from within a specific folder to speed things up.


File History is a very simple and useful backup option, and for it’s completely free. Windows 10 also allows you to create a system image backup if you want a full backup copy of your operating system state. This isn’t the ideal solution for backing up your files–even if you make system image backups, you should be creating more frequent backups of your important files with File History–but some geeks may find it useful if they’re playing with the Registry or other system files.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 02/25/16
  • For backups created on Windows with File History is it possible to recover files to another system - say Windows or Linux or MacOS. Or is it a personal service for that machine only?

  • Jamie

    Yes - start running File History -

    You will need to have a second hard drive available - and connected at all times.

    You will also need to ensure that you check periodically (well frequently) to see if the process has stopped and needs manually restarting - NOTE - YOU WONT SEE ANY specific WARNING ICON highlighting that the process has stopped.

    You will also need to ensure that the full-name (path included) of all the files you want backed-up is a maximum of 207 characters long - the file History does not user the filenaming API that allows names as long as 32K to be managed, it uses the normal Windows (File) Explorer file handling facility with the 255 character limit and the backups fullname get a storage folder\path\ added: That's the text string "\FileHistory\" and "\Data\" as well as your USERNAME and the COMPUTERNAME and the source drive letterand a date-timestamp such as (2015_12_08 15_17_24 UTC) added - so that's at least 48 characters - assuming your name and the computer names are each a single character.

    The help indicates that folders in libraries get backed-up - Yes - but once you have the initial backup set created, you can add, and exclude individual folders - Just remember to use SAVE before you exit from the management screen.

    You won't have to worry about the problems with there only being a single setting for how long to keep the data - the backups in the "FileHistory......\ folder are easily accessible by any user and can be deleted individually, or in groups - indeed, their content can be altered - just clear the Read-only setting.

    That means that you can use windows explorer to delete versions that are not needed - as in - if, for instance, you have backups taken on an hourly basis, and run Outlook to manage your email in POP3 mode, - you can use Windows (File) Explorer to easily delete the backups taken while you were actively changing the email (.pst) file contents.

    Now - some other considerations - The backup filename contains the partition letter - so any folders selected for backup should NOT have the partition letter changed.Neither should the partition containing the backup store - there is a process to disconnect the current backup partition letter - and take a new set onto a partition with a different letter - NOTE - a different letter - not just a partition on a new (replacement) drive.

    Restore is by right-click of the file - and select the backup version you want from the set of backups shown -

    BUT - what if you have deleted the file, so have nothing to right-click to get the selection list - well just use Windows(File)Explorer and find the backups on the backup drive - copy the one you want into the folder - and then remove the backup date-timestamp That works if you have moved the file to a new location - get the backup from the old folders backed-up contentAlso works if you have replaced the file - the backups will still be accessible for copying, deleting, or changing.

    Well that is IF:The backup process was runningThe file was of a type, and in a folder to be backed-upThe full-name of the file was not too long (beware of web pages saved to the Documents or Desktop)The fullname was actually only using characters from your systems default font character set - Sometimes accented characters get replaced with ones from your base system-font's.

    And - like the Windows Disk-image - expect your system to become very sluggish everytime the backup process starts - checking all the files for ones that have been changed.

    Me - I have a script on my backup drives that copies 'stuff' from the OS and data partitions into a timestamped folder on the backup drive - Yes it suffers from the filename problem, but the additional chars are only 13 characters - the source partition letter and YYYYMMDDhhmm. BUT Access to the folders is restricted to the creator.

    I also use Spideroak for 'cloud' based store of stuff that is important - Dropbox is also useful - as is onedrive - set sync to update your backup system - so you can get files downloaded to a replacement system - or re-installed OS.Spideroak can be run as a service - initiated at system startup, or as a batch process initiated when you want, and then stopped when you want.

    So - yes - use File History - but DO NOT rely on it!Maybe consider bvckup

  • Jamie

    ForgetIt

    Backup is (as my longer post) to a folder in a partition on the backup drive - so if that is accessible to another system that can process teh windows file management facility (FAT NTFS etc.) - then your backups are accessible - unprotected and unencrypted - unless the drive itself is encrypted - Bitlocker - etc.The backup is personal to the system running the process - as files have the SYSTEMNAME and USERNAME added to their folder namestring, That allows 1 backup drive to be used for several (many) systems - as long as the SYSTEMNAME and USERNAME are different.The lack of protection means any user with access to the backup can read ( delete and change) those backupsNOTE - tat is the backup copies of the files themselves - not any index that the FileHistory app creates and maintains - so manual changes to the folders content may not be reflected in any recoverable list of versions offered by the app.

  • Simon Ewins

    Does it remove deleted files on the source from the target? I use Karen's Replicator and it does that. Very useful.

    Simon

  • Byron Jacobs

    Thanks for the informative article. I'm not sure File History will work for me as I have a number of files where the file-name length limit will cause problems.However, a question for you:

    Can I make a hard archive of the external drive for later use to restore a file? And if so, is it possible to simply burn the external drive's files to the DVD or must I make a disk image?

  • Tr

    Tried twice to unsuccessfully use File History. Kept backing up a usb drive EVEN though I had it in the excluded drives, so had to go back to Backup sys image. :pensive:

  • Jamie

    @sjewins,AFAIK - just looked for files that were deleted from the desktop - and there are backup copies in the storage area.For them I cannot - right-click to select the file to restore as there is no primary to get to the backups - as in Restore points or FileHistory.BUT - copy and paste, then rename a backup from a FileHistory - and then Properties will list at least some backups to restore.

    Note from a FileHistory - and as it works by partition letter, that can be a fun thing when you swap USB connected drives around.

    Also - consider the new incidence of CRYPTLOCKER type malware - encrypts the attached drives too - and your backup store is in a File Explorer accessible - and attached location.Another reminder - cycle between backup devices so you always have at least 1 (maybe not quite up-to-date) set not attached to the running OS

    Personally I prefer to NOT lose backups just because I clicked Delete rather than Rename.However, you can set the cleanup to be a short(ish) period and at an appropriately shorter interval shut down the backup process, switch drives, or just rename the current FileHistory folder and restart the process on a 'new' partition to have a new set taken.

  • Jamie

    @SG1966 The backup store is a File Explorer manipulateable folder set so archive is just a matter of copy - I don't know if the indexing, or other processes use shortnames, so maybe xxcopy rather than xcopy or drag'drop But certainly you can just go find a data file in the backup store - and copy.paste it - assuming that shortname usage would only apply for files accessed by the OS, or for program files (.exe .dll etc.) for specialist, and somewhat non-conformist apps - such as those from Microsoft.

  • Jamie

    @statikgeekHaven't tried backing-up a USB attached drive - note the consideration re. partition id'sMaybe the folders of the drive ( partition letter) were included via another path, or inclusion in a 'library' and make sure to 'SAVE' the changes before leaving the exclusions page.

    Note system image is 1 copy of the files that CURRENTLY make-up your system. I'd recommend a facility that creates an incremental set of the files that make-up the partitions on your systems - TODO - Paragon or another system backup facility that allows specified file restores.

    script using xxcopy to put files that are in specific locations, and have recent 'creation/changed dates' into a separate (days-dated) folder.

    something like the script below - which uses XCOPY - as I have no worry about shortnames in the copied folders - note the script is on the destination drive and needs a file for the rundate "pfile.log" and a high-level folder "\backup of c" for the backups.You can adjust the namestrings if the backup is from a single PC, a single user, and/or a single partition. and maybe get robocopy and it's GUI as an alternative to XXcopy -Then there are alternatives Karenware (replicator) or Bvckup or ....

    Echo offset btimest=%date:~6,4%-%date:~3,2%-%date:~0,2%.%time:~0,2%.%time:~3,2%.%time:~6,2%

    for /F "delims=/-: tokens=1,2,3" %%H in (pfile.log) do (set bdatest=%%I-%%H-%%J set bdaterc=%%J%%I%%H )

    Echo %btimest% %bdatest% >nul:Echo btimest (%btimest%) is the datetime entry for the folder >nul:Echo bdatest (%bdatest%) is the date of the prior run from the logfile >nul:

    Echo So - make and goto new folder "backup on %btimest%" and xcopy with \date %bdatest%>nul:Echo Then post param btimest (%btimest%) into the log file >nul:Echo If not before date ask about overwrite /c /f /h /s /-y /d:%bdatest% >nul:

    Echo This script is about to copy files updated on, or after %bdatest% into a folder named "%USERNAME% on %btimest%" on this partition (drive)Pause

    Echo in the following commands >nul:Echo .\ means the current folder and bdatest is the earliest date (mm-dd-yyyy) of files to be copied >nul:Echo HOMEDRIVE and HOMEPATH point to the system variables for the users 'personal' storage area >nul:Echo Note the use above of USERNAME within the folder name to hold this users set of backups >nul:Echo - for Robocopy options enter command ROBOCOPY /? >nul:Echo Robocopy /256 option not used so system should copy files with long names - accessing them is your problem >nul:Echo Robocopy /MON:10 option not used - it would rerun the copy if more than 10 files in the folder change again >nul:Echo Robocopy /MOT:10 option not used - it would rerun the copy in 10 mins if any files in the folder change again >nul:Echo Robocopy /MAXAGE:yyyymmdd is the equivalent to xcopy /d:mm-dd-yyyy >nul:Echo Robocopy /R:3 and /W:2 set retries limited to 3 with 2 second wait - Don't expect user to close an open file >nul:Echo Robocopy /XJ options set to avoid copying files via their 'JUNCTION-NAME' >nul:Echo Robocopy /FP /TS /NP logging options set to list fullnamename and timestamp of copied files >nul:Echo Robocopy /TEE and /LOG+:robocopyactivity.log set so actions will be displayed and added to the named file >nul:

    Echo oncd "\backup of c"mkdir "%USERNAME% on %btimest%"cd "%USERNAME% on %btimest%"

    rem Robocopy "%HOMEDRIVE%%HOMEPATH%\My Documents" ".\%COMPUTERNAME%%HOMEPATH%\My Documents" . /S /ZB /COPY:DAT /R:3 /W:2 /FP /TS /NP /TEE /LOG+:robocopyactivity.log /MAXAGE:%bdaterc%

    xcopy "%HOMEDRIVE%%HOMEPATH%\Desktop*.*" ".\%COMPUTERNAME%\%HOMEPATH%\Desktop\" /c /f /h /s /-y /d:%bdatest%Pause Please check the summary, and data files listed above include all that you expect

    dir /scd \echo %date%-%Time% >pfile.log

    Pause Please check the data files (listed above) as now being in the new folder include all that you expect

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