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The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch
By Jesse Hollington | 11.15.12

With a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch model coming out pretty much annually, it’s inevitable that at some point most users are going to want to upgrade their older device to the latest and greatest new model.

This article is designed to act as a guide to assist users with the process of ensuring that they have a proper backup of their iOS device and then using either iTunes or iCloud to restore all of their settings, data and content onto a new device from there. In most cases, this is actually a very straightforward procedure, but like anything that are always exceptions and it’s helpful to have a good understanding of the procedures involved.

The Process

In the days of Click Wheel iPods, before iOS devices, the procedure for switching to a new device was relatively simple: Plug it into iTunes and go through a very straightforward setup assistant to determine what type of content you wanted to sync and whether you wanted automatic sync enabled. Users with more complicated configurations may have needed to tweak their sync settings, but that was about it. There were no settings to backup and restore and no apps to be concerned about. In fact, this is still how things work with the iPod classic, iPod nano and iPod shuffle.

With the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch the procedure is slightly different, although not necessarily all that more complicated. Essentially, a backup of your current device is stored either by iTunes on your computer, or in iCloud. Regular backups are made whenever you sync your device to your computer or on a regular schedule if you’re using iCloud and you can easily generate a manual backup to either destination on-demand. iTunes backups require that you have a USB or Wi-Fi sync connection to your primary iTunes library while iCloud backups require a Wi-Fi Internet connection; automatic iCloud backups will only occur once every 24 hours when your device is on Wi-Fi and plugged into a power source with the screen locked.

The backups made by iTunes or iCloud contain all of your settings and third-party application data, but they do not include items that are expected to already be stored elsewhere. For example, your backups will include things like the photos in your device’s Camera Roll but not those in your iCloud Photo Streams or originally synced from your computer. Similarly, your actual apps and media content are not stored in your device backups either; these would make the backups much larger and make the backup process much slower with no advantage since these items can normally be resynchronized from iTunes (just to be clear: application data is stored in the backup, the applications themselves are not). This does mean, however, that the restore process is essentially done in two steps: Restore the backup, and then re-synchronize everything else from iCloud and/or iTunes.

The process for migrating your data from an old iOS device to a new one is basically quite straightforward for most typical users.

  1. Ensure that you have a current backup of your iOS device and content, in either iTunes or iCloud.
  2. Set up your new device, choosing to restore your backup when prompted to do so.
  3. Synchronize your new device with iTunes to restore your applications and media content.

We’ll go through each of these steps in more detail a bit later.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when transferring over to a new device is Don’t Panic. The process doesn’t touch anything on your current device, so if things go wrong you can always very easily just go back and try again. In fact for this reason it’s generally a good idea to avoid erasing your old device until you’re completely sure that everything is working fine on the new device, even if looks like the restore procedure went flawlessly.

Note that iOS backups are not device-specific. You can restore a backup from any iOS device model to any other iOS device model; for example from an iPod touch to an iPhone, or even from an iPhone to an iPad, or vice-versa. This can be useful if you’re switching to a different device or you’ve bought a secondary device such as an iPad and want to start with the same basic settings, apps and data that you use on your primary device.

The only major limitation is that the new device must be running the same or later version of iOS as the one that was used to make the original backup. There are also a few other minor limitations that we discuss at the end of this article.

Using iTunes vs. iCloud

Traditionally, the Apple approved way to transfer your data, settings and content from your old device to a new one was to use iTunes, however with the release of iOS 5 in 2011, Apple took steps to lessen the need for a traditional Mac or PC with the introduction of iCloud, which can provide most of the same capabilities of iTunes in terms of getting your device up and running without actually requiring a computer.

We will discuss both methods separately later in this article, but in many cases if you do have a computer with an iTunes library, using iTunes to transfer the information to your new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch will be the much faster method simply due to USB transfer speeds as compared to those of a typical Internet connection. Further, iCloud does not handle the types of content that iTunes does, so regardless of which method you use, you may still be plugging your device back into your computer anyway to reload items such as videos and non-purchased music.

Note that there is no requirement to use one method or the other; even if you normally backup your device to iCloud, you can still easily make a backup in iTunes and restore from that.

What about third-party apps?

There are several third-party applications that promise to simplify the transfer process, but in reality none of these should be necessary for the vast majority of situations. Many of these really just do what iTunes already does quite well, and almost all of them need to be purchased separately. While some of them offer other useful features, if you’re considering buying one of these apps solely for transferring data to a new device, we recommend saving your money and just going with the standard—and free—iTunes/iCloud methods described here.

Step 1: Ensure that you have a current backup

Since the entire transfer process hinges on the backups made by iTunes or iCloud, your will want to make sure you have a current backup before doing anything else.

Remember that iTunes only backs up your device when you connect or sync it with your iTunes library. It is fairly obvious when this happens over a USB connection, but keep in mind that syncing over Wi-Fi only occurs when your device is connected to a power source. Similarly, iCloud backups are only made automatically once every 24 hours, and even then only if your device is on a Wi-Fi network and plugged into a power source with its screen locked.

Therefore, the best thing to do before beginning is to simply make another backup manually. In fact, why not make two? Although you have to choose one or the other for your automatic backups, you can easily make manual backups of your device to iCloud and iTunes.

To back up your device to iTunes, plug it into your computer and then right-click on it in the Devices list on the left-hand side of your iTunes window. A context menu will appear with Back Up as one of the options. Simply click on this and iTunes will immediately make a backup of your device. This can be done over USB or Wi-Fi, but we recommend doing it over USB as it will be faster and generally more reliable. Note that you can perform this backup regardless of whether you normally use iTunes or iCloud for your automatic backups.

 

To make a backup to iCloud, go into the Settings app on your device, choose iCloud and then scroll down and select Storage & Backup. At the bottom of this screen is a switch to enable iCloud Backup. If you normally backup to iTunes, this option will be off; simply enable it and a Back Up Now button will appear that you can tap to start an iCloud backup manually. Remember that you must be connected via Wi-Fi in order to do this.

 

You can confirm the date and time of your last iCloud backup from the same screen—it will be shown immediately below the Back Up Now button. To check the date and time of your last backup to iTunes, go into your iTunes Preferences and choose the Devices tab. A list of all iOS device backups stored by iTunes will be shown on this screen, with the date and time for each.

 

The date and time of the last backup for each method can also be viewed from the Summary screen for your device in iTunes. Simply look for the Backup section. This is also used to set the location for automatic backups; toggling between the two options will show the date and time of the last backup for each.

 

If you see a padlock icon listed beside your device name it means that particular stored backup is encrypted with a password. Be sure you know the password before proceeding further, since you may need to enter it in order to restore your backup onto your new device. If necessary, you can created an unencrypted backup simply by disabling the Encrypt local backup setting and making another manual backup.

Ensure your content is backed up

Remember that your device backups in iTunes and iCloud only include your settings and application data, not the applications themselves or any of your media content. The restore procedure assumes—and relies on—the ability to recover these items from iCloud and/or your local iTunes library.

Planning to restore from iCloud

If you are restoring from iCloud, your applications will be automatically restored over-the-air directly from the App Store. Similarly, purchased music, movies, TV shows and iBooks will be automatically re-downloaded following the restore. However, other content will need to be restored from iTunes, including movies, TV shows, audiobooks, and music content from other sources such as your own CDs or other download services.

If you only have applications on your device and are not concerned about media content such as music, movies, TV shows or audiobooks the process is much simpler: you can simply restore using iCloud and not worry about what is in your iTunes library. Your iCloud backup will include all of your settings and application data, and the apps themselves will be re-downloaded directly from the App Store.

Further, if you’re an iTunes Match subscriber, your music library is available in iCloud already. If you use the Podcasts or iTunes U iOS apps for that type of content instead of syncing it from iTunes, then that’s covered by the iCloud restore procedure as well.

If you don’t store any other type of iTunes-based content on your device—movies, TV shows, audiobooks, or photos synced from your computer—then there is likely no need to connect to your device to your iTunes library at all and you can just restore directly from iCloud and ignore the rest of this section.

If you have media content that is synced from iTunes, however, you will need to ensure that the content is in your iTunes library so that it can be copied to your new device as it will not be included as part of your backup nor available from iCloud in any other way.

Planning to restore from iTunes

If you are restoring from iTunes, the procedure will assume that everything will be restored directly from your iTunes library, including your applications. Your applications will not be restored directly from the App Store in this case, but will need to be copied back on from your own iTunes library.

For this reason it’s important in either case to ensure that everything that is on your device is also on your computer. For most users who sync with iTunes regularly this will automatically be the case unless you’ve actually been deleting content from your library. Even apps and content purchased directly on your device should automatically be transferred back to your iTunes library the next time you sync your device as long as your computer is authorized for your iTunes Store account.

If you don’t sync with iTunes regularly, however, it’s a good idea to double-check that everything is actually in your iTunes library, especially if you plan on using iTunes to restore your new device. For apps and other purchased content, you must first ensure that your computer is authorized for the account that was used to purchase that content. This should normally be the case unless you have never actually purchased anything from the iTunes Store using your computer, in which case you can authorize your computer simply by choosing Authorize This Computer from the Store menu in iTunes and entering your Apple ID and password when prompted.

 

If you’re unsure whether your computer is authorized or not, go through this process anyway. There is no harm in doing it if your computer is already authorized to begin with; iTunes will simply recognize this and let you know that your computer is already authorized.

 

If you have purchased content using more than one iTunes Store account, be sure to repeat this step for each account.

Once you’ve confirmed that your computer is authorized for the iTunes Store account(s) used to purchase your content, you can simply connect your device and select Transfer Purchases from the File menu to copy any apps and other purchased content from your device back to your iTunes library.

If you have non-purchased content on your device that is not in your iTunes library you will need to look to third-party tools to transfer this content back to your computer so that it can be synced to your new device. See our article on Copying Content from your iPod to your Computer for more information on how to go about doing this. Note that this should only normally be the situation if you’ve either deleted content from your iTunes library manually or you’ve lost your iTunes library at some point and had not previously copied the data back from your device when rebuilding your library.

Step 2: Set up your new device and restore your backup

Once you’ve confirmed that your backup is current and your content is in your iTunes library, you’re ready to set up and restore your new device. Since iOS 5, Apple has employed a new setup assistant that runs on new iOS devices to take you through the process of getting up and running. During the setup process you will be given the opportunity to connect to iTunes instead of using a Wi-Fi access point, or if you continue the on-device setup assistant, eventually asked whether you want to restore a backup from iTunes or iCloud.

 

Restoring from iTunes

During the setup assistant you can either choose the Connect to iTunes option at the Wi-Fi configuration screen, or later choose Restore from iTunes Backup; in either case, you’ll be shown a Connect to iTunes screen at which point you can plug your device into your computer to restore from iTunes.

 

In reality, however you can actually skip all of this entirely and simply plug your device into your computer right out of the box. iTunes will prompt you to either set it up as a new device or restore from one of your previous backups.

 

Simply choose the appropriate backup that you want to restore onto your new device and click the Continue button. iTunes will restore your backup, after which your device will reboot. It will reappear in iTunes after it reboots and begin synchronizing your apps and media content back onto your device from your iTunes library.

 

Note that if you did not complete the setup assistant before restoring from iTunes, you will still be required to go through a few remaining steps before you can start using your device.

 

Restoring from iCloud

To restore from iCloud, simply proceed through the iOS setup assistant and choose the Restore from iCloud Backup option when it’s presented to you.

 

You will be prompted to sign in with your iCloud Apple ID and password and then you will be shown a list of backups stored in your iCloud account, with backups most appropriate for your device listed first and the date, time and device name shown for each. Note that iCloud stores the three most recent backups for each of your devices, so you may see two older backups listed here as well.

 

Simply choose the appropriate backup and tap the Restore button in the top-right corner. Your device will begin an initial foreground restore from iCloud for your settings and data, after which it will reboot and continue restoring your content in the background. As with an iTunes restore, you may still need to complete the iOS setup assistant after the reboot as well.

Step 3: Sync your device to restore your content

As we’ve already discussed, in order to save both time and space iOS device backups only contain your settings and application data. Instead of storing the actual applications and media content, the iOS backup instead stores a list of what is supposed to be on your device, so that your apps and content can later be restored from iCloud and/or iTunes.

Note that this means that your application data actually gets restored before the applications themselves. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s simply the way that iOS works. Don’t worry if it looks like your apps are being reinstalled from scratch; the data has already been restored from your backup and will be there waiting for the app.

From iTunes

After restoring a backup from iTunes, you simply need to leave your new device connected to your computer. It will reboot and iTunes will begin syncing everything onto your new device according to the sync settings stored in your backups. This can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more depending on how much content was on your old device.

Note that there’s actually nothing special about this process—it’s just a normal iTunes sync operation. So as with any other iTunes sync you can interrupt this process if necessary simply by disconnecting your device and resume it later and it will pick up where it left off.

Once this initial sync has completed, that’s it and you’re basically up and running with your new device, although you may still need to complete some of the iOS setup assistant steps as noted above.

From iCloud

After restoring a backup from iCloud, your applications will be re-downloaded and reinstalled directly from the App Store over the Internet. During this process, you will see greyed out app icons with progress indicators. By default your apps are downloaded and reinstalled in the same order in which they appear on your home screen, but you tap on the icon for a specific app to begin downloading it immediately.

 

Any iTunes-purchased music, movies, TV shows and iBooks that were stored on your other device will also be downloaded as part of this process. If you have subscribed to iTunes Match your entire music library will be available, including matched and uploaded items.

Anything that wasn’t purchased from iTunes or isn’t available via iTunes Match will need to be retransferred from iTunes. Your iTunes sync settings are restored from the iCloud backup, so simply plugging into iTunes and running a sync will transfer this content onto your new device.

Note that you can also speed up the process of reinstalling your purchased items simply by plugging the new device into your iTunes library. The items will switch over to syncing over the much faster USB connection rather than over-the-air via iCloud.

You can actually begin using your device as soon as it finishes rebooting while you wait for your apps and media content to arrive. Just be sure to leave the USB cable plugged in if you’re restoring from iTunes or stay within Wi-Fi coverage if you’re restoring from iCloud.

Caveats, Limitations and “Gotchas”

In the majority of cases, a simple device-to-device backup and restore should go off without a hitch, but there are of course always exceptions and special cases.

Passwords

For security reasons, after restoring you will likely be prompted to re-enter your passwords for things like your iCloud account, iTunes Store account, mail accounts and Wi-Fi access points. These passwords are stored in the iOS keychain and encrypted using a device-specific key; since a new device has a different device-specific key, these items cannot be decrypted and are therefore unavailable when restoring a backup onto a new device.

iCloud Backup Settings

By default everything that can fit into your iCloud account is backed up, including photos and videos in your device’s Camera Roll, device settings, application data, home screen and app organization, messages, ringtones and visual voicemails.

Keep in mind, however, that it is possible to disable the backing up of certain items. This needs to be done specifically, so chances are that you’ll know if you’ve done so, but in case you want to check you can find the options in the Settings app under iCloud, Storage & Backup, Manage Storage. From here, you’ll be shown a list of devices that are being backed up to your iCloud account; choose your current device and you’ll see additional information about last backup time, backup size, and estimated next backup size along with a series of switches to turn off the backing up of specific applications and data.

 

When transferring to a new device, you’ll want to ensure that all of these are ON unless there’s something specific you really do not want copied over.

Podcasts and iTunes U

If you’re using the new iOS Podcasts and/or iTunes U apps rather than syncing this content from your iTunes library, then this content can also be restored over-the-air via iCloud. In principle, these are just like any other iOS applications in that regard. If you’re syncing Podcasts and/or iTunes U content from iTunes, regardless of whether you’re using the specific iOS apps, you’ll need to resync with your iTunes library to get that content back onto your device.

Restoring to a different type of device

As mentioned earlier, you can restore backups between different device types, such as from an iPhone to an iPad, or from an iPod touch to an iPhone. Restoring between the same or similar devices (e.g. iPod-to-iPhone and vice-versa) works fine, however Camera Roll photos and videos and home screen icon layouts will not be restored from an iPad backup onto an iPhone or iPod touch or from an iPhone or iPod touch backup onto an iPad.

Also, apps that are incompatible with the target device will not be restored. Most iPhone and iPod touch apps can be restored onto an iPad, however certain apps that are specifically compatible with the iPhone only will not be restored to an iPad or iPod touch. iPad-only apps will obviously not be restored to an iPhone or iPod touch either.

App Versions

The restore process will always attempt to reinstall whatever version of the app was originally installed on your device, even if a newer version is available. When restoring from iTunes, you’ll simply get whatever version is stored in your iTunes library. When restoring from iCloud, iOS will attempt to download the same version of the app that was previously installed if it’s still available on the App Store; otherwise the latest version is used.

Application Data and Caches

With the advent of iCloud backups and the inherent limitation of the free 5GB iCloud storage, many developers have been encouraged to exclude certain data from being backed up by iTunes. While the specifics are up to each developer, this generally includes data that is backed up somewhere else, such as caches and offline data in apps like Dropbox and Evernote and maps in apps like Navigon. Much like your apps and media content, the idea here is that there is no point in forcing a user to purchase more iCloud storage space to back up data that can be re-downloaded from elsewhere.

Basically, this means that after restoring your backup on a new device, some of these apps may need to go out and re-download or recache data themselves. How this is handled is basically up to each individual application, but the key point is to not be surprised if you find that some of your apps appear to be missing data that needs to be re-downloaded from their own cloud service.

iCloud Restore is Wi-Fi Only

Keep in mind that the iCloud restore procedure only works over Wi-Fi. You must be on a Wi-Fi network to start the process in the first place, and must remain on a Wi-Fi network to complete the restore, including the process of syncing your apps and content back onto your device. The restore will be paused if you move away from a Wi-Fi network and resumes when Wi-Fi access is once again available. While iOS does its best to handle these interruptions, it’s far better if you have time to simply leave your device connected to a single Wi-Fi network until the entire process completes. Alternatively, you can simply plug into iTunes and copy your apps and media content from there if you find your Wi-Fi connection is untenably slow.

Failed Restore from iCloud

There are a few reasons why the second phase of the iCloud restore process can fail. If there are items that cannot be restored because they are no longer available on the App Store or iTunes Store, for example, you will receive a message that the restore is incomplete, suggesting that you sync those items from iTunes instead.

 

If you see a message that “Some items could not be restored from the iCloud backup” this generally indicates a problem restoring core backup data such as Camera Roll photos and videos or application data. This most often happens due to a poor or unreliable Wi-Fi network connection or moving between Wi-Fi networks during the initial restore process. You will usually be required to erase your device and try again from scratch.

Also note that the iCloud background restore process that reloads your apps and media content will run for up to three days. If all of your data has not been restored at that point you will receive a notification to this effect offering you the ability to try downloading your purchased items again. At this point, however, it’s generally a better idea to simply try syncing your purchased content directly back on from iTunes.

 

 

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