Backing up iOS devices for sale, transfer, and safety

This is sort of a “part two” to the Pointers we wrote last week about how to back up your Mac, both for immediate common-sense reasons and for other goals, such as long-term archival preservation, or for preparing to transfer data to a new machine, for example. This week, we’ll do the same for iOS devices, where — as with most things iOS — the process is quite a bit simpler. We’ll explain how to back up your iTunes purchases, your other data (and keep it safe), and how to transfer it to a new iOS device.

Most of what we’re discussing here was tested on very recent iOS devices, including an iPhone 6s, an iPhone 5s, an iPhone 4, and an iPad Air 2 — and at least one of these was not running iOS 9, but in fact limited to iOS 7 (have a guess which one). The methods described are the same on all the devices, and are important regardless of what you keep on your iOS device. If you’ve never backed up your iOS device, you should do so now — and we’ll explain how.

Backups: iCloud or iTunes?

There are two ways to back up the data on an iOS device: using iCloud, or using iTunes. The former has certain advantages, and so does the latter. The key difference is how they back up and what they back up — surprisingly, this is different. If you haven’t “tied” your iOS device to any Mac or PC, then you only have the iCloud option for backup. Doing a backup through iTunes, if you haven’t done it before, “ties” it to that particular machine (but don’t worry, when the time comes you can transfer that backup to your new machine, no problem).

The iCloud backup method is very quick, and wireless of course. The reason its quick is because it doesn’t back up absolutely everything, but it backs up the important things: the record of which apps you have, the iTunes Stores purchases, documents you’ve saved within the applications, photos, settings, and all that kind of thing. Since it already had a record of what you’ve bought, it doesn’t actually upload most of that, just the stuff you’ve added to them.

There is, however, an important limitation: iCloud accounts can only store 5GB worth of data for free, and that includes whatever else you’re using your iCloud account for (like email), so that might create an issue if you have a lot of stuff on your iOS device that wasn’t purchased from the iTunes stores. You may need to pay for more storage (this is fairly cheap, however: 99 cents per month for 50GB, and you may only need this extra storage for a month), or you may opt to back up through iTunes on your computer instead.

Backing up to your computer through iTunes has the advantage of backing up everything, including stuff like chat logs, music or videos that weren’t purchased through iTunes, photos that aren’t stored in the Camera Roll, your call history, homescreen arrangement, and more that an iCloud backup skips. The only thing an iTunes backup doesn’t automatically include is your health data; you need to turn on the encryption option to password-protect your backup before it will include that information. Make sure you create a password you can remember or retrieve, since there could be a lot of health-related data (like steps taken and heart rate) that you may not even be actively aware of. We generally recommend encrypted iTunes backups of iOS data as a matter of course.

When you get a new iOS device

Backing up your iOS data is a smart move and you should do it periodically; at least once a month would be our suggestion. This way, it rarely takes that long (if you’re doing the iTunes backup wirelessly, it can seem a bit slow; you can connect it directly via USB to improve the speed quite a bit) and it protects your data from getting lost if, for example, your iOS device was ever lost or stolen and not recoverable. The backup is also insanely great to have when you get a new iOS device.

Ideally, you would make a backup of your old device just before moving over to the new one, so that you had the most up-to-date backup possible. Regular backups, however, will minimize loss if the old device is no longer available — either because it is missing or because it just died on your, or is at the bottom of a lake or something. Plug the new device into your Mac or PC where the old device was backed up, click on the option to restore it from your backup, and before you know it you are back with all the stuff you had on your old device. The USB direct connection is fastest, again, but whatever works best for you is fine.

When you sell your old iOS device

What if it’s the other way round — that you’re selling your iOS device to someone else and you want to make sure it’s wiped clean? The procedure for this is simple, but it’s very important that you do all the steps. The first step — and the most important for avoiding future hassles — is to turn off “Find My iPhone” (or iPad, or iPod touch) on the device. You’ll be asked if you are sure, because this will disable an important tracking tool for finding a lost or stolen iOS device which we hope you have previously had on — but turn it off.

Next, sign out of iCloud. This also signs you out of all the things that use your Apple ID on the device, such as your Apple Mail account (if you have one), iTunes and the iTunes Stores, and so on. Finally, you then go to Settings, General, scroll all the way to the bottom (Apple made this hard to find on purpose), tap Reset, tap “Erase All Contents and Settings,” tap the confirmation — and a few seconds later you will have an iOS device that behaves exactly like it was just turned on for the first time, fresh out of the box. All your information is gone off the device — and safely stored in your backup on iCloud or iTunes until you restore it to another one.

When you change computers

If it’s not the iOS device that changed, but the computer, generally this will not be a big issue. You bought a new Mac or PC, and now you want your iOS device to be “tied” to it. Assuming you made a backup that was stored on iCloud or the old machine, you can restore from iCloud or by using Migration Assistant to connect your old machine to your new one — Migration Assistant will transfer over all your stuff, including your iOS backups, so everything will be just as it was.

When you plug the device into your new computer, your iTunes will recognize it and carry on — and if you do happen to get the computer saying it doesn’t recognize the iOS device, just have iTunes restore the device from your stored backup and it will get “back to normal.” If you didn’t associate your device with your computer previously and don’t want to this time, that’s fine too — just restore from your iCloud backup instead. With recent iOS versions, devices like iPhones and iPads don’t have to be associated with a computer if you don’t want them to be, though as we’ve mentioned there are some advantages to having a local backup.

There’s one other reason you may want to get more regular about backing up your iOS devices, and in particular your iTunes Store purchases: avoiding obsolescence. Although Apple will let you re-download anything you’ve purchased from them previously for free, there are some caveats to that. The biggest one is that sometimes — usually only temporarily, but “temporarily” can mean years — an artist or record company will pull songs or albums you purchased from iTunes for whatever reason.

You purchased it, it belongs to you, it’s right there on your iOS device as proof — but you can no longer re-download it if you happen to lose the copy you currently have. Similarly, movies and TV shows can get pulled, and much more frequently apps are discontinued and removed from the App Store (I have a handful of apps that fall into this category). If you’ve made backups, however, you’re covered from loss — those songs and videos can be put back on if you ever lose them or get a new device, and those games or other apps can carry on working for you as long as they are functional on the current iOS version.