An iMac and MacBook on a desk.

The time has come to replace your Mac. Once you’ve decided on a new model, forked over the cash, and unboxed your expensive new toy, it’s time to get down to business and transfer your data.

All the tools you need are bundled with macOS (give or take a cable or two, or an external drive). And, if you buy a new Mac, Apple will move your data over for free.

Apple Will Migrate Your Data for Free

If you don’t want to transfer your data yourself, an Apple employee can do it for you. You just have to bring your old Mac with you when you buy its replacement. Apple used to charge $99 for this service, but now, it’s free to anyone who purchases a new Mac.

For MacBook and Mac mini models, this makes a lot of sense. If you have an old iMac or Mac Pro, though, you might be better off transferring your data at home.

Your Options

Apple has a tool called Migration Assistant in macOS to help you with both sides of a data transfer.  In Migration Assistant, you can transfer data in one of three ways:

  1. Mac-to-Mac, over the local network (or a local wireless connection between machines).
  2. Mac-to-Mac using Target Disk Mode and a cable.
  3. Restore from a Time Machine backup stored on an external drive.

There are a few things to keep in mind if you want to use the first option. If both machines run macOS Sierra or later, then you can transfer wirelessly via a local Wi-Fi connection. This connection is made directly between the machines, and thus, doesn’t require that both machines be connected to the same network.

If your Mac is older and only supports OS X El Capitan, you have to make sure both machines are connected to the same network. You can do this over Wi-Fi or, for better results, use an Ethernet cable. Migration Assistant allows you to transfer data from older Macs that run OS X Snow Leopard 10.6.8 or later.

About This Mac Overview for a 2012 MacBook Pro.

Not sure which version of macOS or OS X your Mac is running? Click the Apple logo in the top-left corner of the screen, and then select About This Mac. You should see the name and version number of the current operating system listed on the Overview tab.

Option 1: Mac-to-Mac via the Network

One of the easiest methods (no cables or external drives required) to transfer your Mac’s contents is via network connection.

Despite its simplicity, this is the slowest way to migrate your data to a new Mac. If you have a large amount of data (over 200 GB) to transfer, you should plan on it taking several hours to complete. You might even have to wait overnight.

The macOS Migration Assistant pane.

One thing that gives you an advantage is if you use a wired network connection. Not only is a wired transfer more reliable, but it’s also faster. A “wired” connection means you have both your new and old computers connected to your router via an Ethernet cable. You don’t need an internet connection to transfer this way, so you could even relocate your network equipment temporarily to speed up the transfer.

Follow these steps to transfer your data Mac-to-Mac via the network:

  1. On your old Mac, launch Migration Assistant and click “Continue.”
  2. Choose “To another Mac” when prompted, and then click “Continue.”
  3. On your new Mac, launch Migration Assistant and click “Continue.”
  4. Choose “From a Mac, Time Machine Backup, or Startup Disk” when prompted, and then click “Continue.”
  5. Choose the Mac icon when prompted, and then click “Continue.”
  6. Note the security code and check that it matches the one on your old Mac (if provided).
  7. Select which information you want to transfer from your old Mac, and then click “Continue.”

Select "To Another Mac" in Migration Assistant.

Now, you just wait for the transfer to complete. If you transfer to a Mac that shares the same user account, you’ll be asked to rename or replace the user account on your new Mac. If you choose to replace the account, any data will be deleted, but since the Mac is new, this shouldn’t matter.

Option 2: Mac-to-Mac via Cable

Target Disk Mode is a faster method than transferring your drive contents over the network. If you connect your old Mac directly to your new one with a high-speed cable, you can cut the overall transfer time significantly.

Target Disk Mode works over Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.0 or later, Thunderbolt 2, and FireWire. Despite support for USB 3.0, you have to use a 2012 Mac or later if you want to connect over USB Type-A. Your new Mac will need to use a USB Type-C connector.

Two Apple Thunderbolt 3 cables.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You can make the connection from Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 3, or Thunderbolt 3 to USB 3.0 Type-C with an Apple Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) cable.
  • If you copy from a Thunderbolt 2 interface, you can use a standard Thunderbolt 2 cable with the Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) adapter.
  • To copy from a USB Type-A to USB Type-C, make sure you use a cable that supports USB 3.0 or later (USB 2.0 won’t work).
  • You cannot use the USB Type-C cable you use to charge your MacBook.

You must restart your old Mac in Target Disk Mode for this to work. When you do this, it mounts your old Mac’s drive onto your new Mac, so it appears as an external volume. If you have protected your drive with FileVault encryption, you have to type the password to decrypt it when you mount it.

Follow these steps to transfer data Mac-to-Mac via cable:

  1. Connect the transfer cable from your old Mac to your new one.
  2. Power-on your old Mac and press and hold the “T” key while it boots up. If it’s already on, go to System Preferences > Startup Disk, and then click “Target Disk Mode.” Wait for it to restart.
  3. On your new Mac, wait for your old Mac’s drive to appear. Type your FileVault password, if prompted. If you don’t see your old Mac, launch Disk Utility and check the sidebar. Select the volume when it appears, click File > Mount, and then type your FileVault password.
  4. With the drive mounted, launch Migration Assistant, and then click “Continue.”
  5. Choose “From a Mac, Time Machine Backup, or Startup Disk” when prompted, and then click “Continue.”
  6. Click the icon for the relevant startup disk.
  7. Select the data you want to transfer to your new Mac, and then click “Continue.”

Can’t get your old Mac to show up? Make sure you’re using the correct cable or adapter to connect the two machines. For best results over Thunderbolt 2 or 3 connections, use only Apple-branded cables.

The transfer time ultimately depends on which cable you use. Active copper Thunderbolt 3 cables are pricey but offer speeds of up to 40 Gbps (max. speed of 5 GB per second). Thunderbolt 2 cables provide roughly half that (20 Gbps), while USB 3.1 and 3.0 manage 10 Gbps and 5 Gbps, respectively.

When the transfer completes, eject your old Mac’s drive just as you would any other.

Method 3: From a Time Machine Backup

This final method of data transfer is ideal if you use Time Machine to back up your Mac to an external drive. All you have to do is connect your backup drive to your new Mac, and then import your data with Migration Assistant. Be sure to create an up-to-date Time Machine backup on your old Mac before you continue.

The macOS Migration Assistant.

This method is also usually quicker than using a network connection—particularly if you have a drive that supports USB 3.0 or later.

Follow these steps to transfer your data from a Time Machine backup:

  1. On your new Mac, launch Migration Assistant, and then click “Continue.”
  2. Choose “From a Mac, Time Machine Backup, or Startup disk” when prompted, and then click “Continue.”
  3. Choose the Time Machine icon when prompted, and then click “Continue.”
  4. When you see a list of available backups, select one (you’ll probably want the most recent one).
  5. Select the data you want to transfer from your old Mac, and then click “Continue.”

Don’t forget to safely eject your Time Machine drive. You’ll need to set up Time Machine again if you intend to use this drive to back up your new Mac.

The Great Data Migration

You don’t have to use Migration Assistant, but it makes life a whole lot easier. Alternatively, though, you can connect your old Mac in Target Disk Mode and manually copy any files you want to keep. Or you can make your entire Mac drive available over the network via System Preferences > Sharing.

Now it’s time to decide what to do with your old Mac. You could use it as a networked Time Machine drive, wipe your drive and install macOS from scratch, or sell it and recoup some of the money you spent on the upgrade.

Profile Photo for Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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