Fix Can’t Delete Time Machine Backups on Mac/External Hard Drive [2021 Guide]

Updated by Potter on Mar 24, 2021

Time Machine is a great tool for backing up your Mac helping you save your data that is, either your macOS or an individually modified file for future recovery in case of any data loss scenario. Due to its ease of use, anybody can use it to effectively back up their Mac with no major complications. With time, your Mac SSD or your backup external hard drive becomes full of old Time Machine backups which prevent you from making new backups hence need to be deleted.

Unfortunately, sometimes users are unable to delete a Time Machine backup which is a common problem amongst Time Machine users. Once they want to empty the trash, it either remains stuck on “Preparing to empty the Trash” or refuses to empty the trash completely. This article will teach you how to delete time machine backups from your Mac SSD or External Hard drive.

Fix “Can’t Delete Time Machine Backups on Mac/External Hard drive” Error

To fix the error above, there are two steps to follow.

Step 1: Add the terminal app to your list of apps for full disk access

To begin with, full-disk access is a feature that requires that certain applications be given full permission to access a user’s files which are protected. Adding the terminal app to your list of apps for full disk access will permit it to access your Time Machine backups and be able to make modifications such as deleting some of your Time Machine backups. To give the terminal app full disk access, follow the steps below.

1. Open the Apple menu and proceed to System Preferences. Click on the Security & Privacy tab.

2. Choose the Privacy tab. Then scroll down and click Full Disk Access.

3. Finally add Terminal to it.

Once you follow the above procedure correctly, you grant full disk access to the Terminal app and hence are able to use it to delete Time Machine backups.

Step 2: How to use Terminal to delete Time Machine Backups on Mac/External Hard Drive

If you can’t delete Time Machine backups the normal way because of errors you encounter during the process, using Terminal is a great way to solve the issue. To use the terminal remember to back up your files before proceeding with the following steps:

1. Search and select the Terminal.app from the search results to launch Terminal.

2. To see the list of all your backups, type tmutil listbackup.

3. This will display all the backups made by Time Machine and they will be listed by date.

(For example /Volumes/Time Machine Backups/Backups.backupdb/macbookpro/2016-10-12-072210)

4. Choose the backup you want to delete and type: sudo tmutil delete followed by the path leading to the backup which is displayed when the listbackup command is used.

(For example sudo tmutil delete "/Volumes/Time Machine Backups/Backups.backupdb/macbookpro/2016-11-24-153843")

(NB: If the command above shows the error "Operation not permitted" then you have not granted terminal Full Disk Access and you will have to do so as directed above)

Use this method if you are comfortable using Terminal to delete Time Machine backups.

Alternative Solution: Use Finder to Delete Time Machine Backups

This is an alternative method of deleting Time Machine backups from your Mac/external hard drive. To proceed with this method,

1. From your Dock, open the Finder.

2. Plug in your external hard drive and check that it appears in the Devices section.

3. Go to Backups.backupdb within the drive and go into the subfolder labeled same as your Mac’s name.

4. A list of subfolders containing different backups organized by date will appear.

5. Locate the backup you want to get rid of by right-clicking and selecting "Move to trash".

6. Once this is done, empty your trash by right-clicking the trash icon in your Dock and finally select Empty Trash

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