External Hard Disk And Laptop Computer

Windows normally can’t read Time Machine backups — in fact, it doesn’t even understand the HFS+ file system format Macs require on their Time Machine drives. But you can recover all the files from your Time Machine backup on your Windows computer.

This won’t allow you to easily restore settings and applications, which are generally Mac-specific. However, you can extract all your important personal files from the Time Machine backup.

Connect the Drive to Your PC

RELATED: How to Back Up Your Mac and Restore Files With Time Machine

Either way, the first step is connecting that Mac-formatting Time Machine drive to your Windows computer. Hopefully you’re using a USB drive for Time Machine backups — most Windows PCs aren’t compatible with Thunderbolt.

When you connect the Mac-formatted Time Machine drive to your computer, you won’t see the files on it. That’s because Windows can’t understand the drive’s HFS+ file system. You can normally share drives between a Mac and Windows PC because Macs also understand the common FAT32 file system, but OS X insists that Time Machine drives be formatted with HFS+.

Don’t immediately format the drive with a Windows file system or you’ll lose all the Time Machine backups on it. Windows can’t read it, but all your files are still there.

Read the HFS+ Partition

RELATED: How to Share Files Between Mac OS X and Windows With Boot Camp

You’ll need software that can understand the HFS+ file system to access your Time Machine backup files. The only free application we’ve found for this is HFSExplorer. Unfortunately, it does require Java installed to function — we recommend uninstalling Java immediately after you’re done with HFSExplorer or at least disabling the Java browser plug-in to help protect yourself. Watch out for Oracle’s obnoxious installer junkware when you install it, too.

If you really can’t stand Java, other possible solutions include Paragon’s HFS+ for Windows and Mediafour’s MacDrive. Both of these are paid applications, and you probably don’t want to purchase them just to recover files one time. However, they do offer time-limited trials that will work for a one-time restore process.

Open the HFSExplorer application after installing it, click the File menu, and select “Load file system from device.” It should auto-detect the appropriate device for you. If not, you can select devices manually from the “Detected devices” box until one works.

Restoring Files From Your Time Machine Backups

Once you’re viewing the contents of your Mac-formatted Time Machine drive in HFSExplorer, you’ll see a folder named “Backups.backupdb”. This is the Time Machine backups folder.

Underneath it, you’ll find a folder with the name of your Mac. This is the folder that contains all the Time Machine backups from that specific Mac. Under that folder, you’ll see folders named after specific dates and times and a “Latest” folder.

The Latest folder is your most current Time Machine backup. Unless you want to restore old, deleted files or previous versions of files, go to the Latest folder.

Under the Latest folder, you’ll probably see a folder named “Macintosh HD” — that’s the Time Machine backup for your Mac’s system drive. You can restore any files you want from the Mac system, but you’ll find your personal files under Macintosh HD/Users/NAME.

To restore all your personal files to your Windows PC, navigate to this folder, select it, and click the Extract button. HFSExplorer will extract the files from your Time Machine drive and copy them to your Windows partition.

You could also extract individual files or every single backup file. For example, you could dig through the Time Machine backups to look for only the important files, select them, and click the Extract button to extract them. Or, you could select one of the top-level folders — the “Latest” backup for your entire latest backup or the “Backups.backupdb” folder for every single file in the entire Time Machine backup. HFSExplorer would copy the directories and everything inside to your Windows PC. You can then dig through them using normal Windows tools, recovering the files you want and deleting everything you no longer want.

You should probably have HFSExplorer follow symbolic links, although this may result in duplicate files. You can always clean everything up later.

If HFSExplorer doesn’t work for you for some reason, you can always try one of the commercial applications above — their free trials may allow you to get your files off the Time Machine drive this one time without paying a dime.

No, there’s no pretty Time Machine restore interface — it’s all manual. But you can get at all those important Time Machine backup files, even if you don’t have a Mac available to you.

If you do have a Mac nearby, you can always connect that Time Machine drive to the Mac, hold the Option key, click the Time Machine icon on the menu bar, and select “Browse Other Backup Disks.” You can then extract your important files from the Time Machine backup and copy them to an external drive formatted with the FAT32 file system, which Windows can understand.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
Read Full Bio »