The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

Jesse Hollington
By Jesse Hollington  - Senior Editor
The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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 Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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 Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch
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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


The Complete Guide to Transferring your Content to a new iPhone, iPad or iPod touch

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.


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.

By Jesse Hollington Senior Editor
Jesse Hollington was a Senior Editor at iLounge. He's written about Apple technology for nearly a decade and had been covering the industry since the early days of iLounge. In his role at iLounge, he provided daily news coverage, wrote and edited features and reviews, and was responsible for the overall quality of the site's content.