Transferring files from your old iPhone to a new iPhone 6s or iPhone 6s Plus isn’t difficult, but after a reader emailed about the many, many hours he expected to wait for the old-to-new iPhone transfer process to complete, I realized that his experience has become more common — even though it’s not necessary. Years ago, iTunes was the only (and fairly straightforward) way to transfer one iPhone’s contents to another. But now, between iCloud, larger device capacity sizes, and iTunes encryption options, there are certainly ways to turn a simple process into a day-long ordeal.
This quick How-To guide is designed to save you a wasted day by helping you select the best options in iTunes and get most of the work done ahead of time. I’ve used this process more times than I can count, and beyond working perfectly each time, it requires far fewer hours than relying on iCloud…
Step 0: Ideally, Start With A Device That’s Running iOS 9
One point to make before I go further: yes, you can conceivably start this process today. If you complete Step 1 right now, you’ll be ready to begin updating your new iPhone pretty quickly after you receive it. But ideally, you should update your old iPhone to iOS 9 before relying on the backup to work with your new iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, which will arrive with iOS 9 installed. iOS 9 officially releases on September 16.
Step 1: Double-Sync Your iPhone To iTunes, Not iCloud
There are two ways to back up your iPhone: iTunes or iCloud. Yes, iCloud is convenient: incremental backups tend to take place completely wirelessly at night when your phone is recharging, and you can restore your iPhone from any place where you have a Wi-Fi connection. But iCloud is also exceptionally slow, both for full initial backups and full device restores. It is the slowest possible way to transfer the contents of one (large) iPhone to another, and the primary reason for the reader email I mentioned above. Even if you’re an iCloud subscriber, my advice is to avoid restoring backed up content to a new iPhone from iCloud unless it’s absolutely necessary — like you absolutely can’t get access to a computer.
The fastest way to transfer your iPhone’s contents to another device is to connect your iPhone to your computer, open iTunes, and go to the iPhone’s tab alongside the other icons (as shown above). Under the left bar, you’ll see Settings tabs including Summary, Apps, Music, Movies, and other categories. Select Summary if it’s not already selected.
Under Backups, you’ll have the choice between “iCloud” and “This computer.” Pick your computer, and make sure you choose Encrypt iPhone backup. That’s a major time-saving, hassle-saving step that you’ll only truly appreciate once you’ve tried it: restoring from an encrypted backup means you don’t have to enter passwords over and over again during the restoration process.
Once the dot and the check are selected, hit the Back Up Now button. You may or may not see a prompt that asks if you want to back up all of your downloaded content to your iTunes library — if so, choose yes and back it all up. At that point, the backup process could take minutes or an hour. Once that’s done, and Latest Backup shows the current date (and a recent time), do it again. If you didn’t see the downloaded content prompt before, you’ll see it now, and should say yes. This double backup process guarantees that everything on your old iPhone is sitting on your computer, waiting for your new device to arrive.
Step 2: Keep Using Or Properly Wipe Your Old iPhone
Once your old iPhone has been backed up as discussed above, you’re ready to either wipe it clean for resale or keep using it until your new phone arrives. If you want to keep using it, be sure to do at least one last backup of your old phone before connecting your new phone to iTunes — I typically repeat the two-backup process, which takes only a few minutes since it’s incremental.
If you want to wipe your old iPhone, the easiest route is iOS 9’s Settings app under General > Reset > Erase All Content and Settings. This will give you the option to turn off Activation Lock, Apple’s security feature that links your iPhone to your iCloud account (and makes it locatable via Find My iPhone). Once you’ve disabled Activation Lock and erased your phone, it’s ready to resell, but there may still be traces of it in your iTunes and iCloud accounts. I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to completely removing the iPhone from your Apple accounts here.
Step 3: Use iTunes To Place Your Encrypted Backup On Your New iPhone
This is the easiest part of the process. Your new iPhone will arrive blank and ready for the old iPhone backup to be installed. Without even touching the iPhone’s screen, you can plug it directly into your computer, then load iTunes, and be presented with a Welcome to Your New iPhone screen. Choose “restore from this backup,” select your latest backup file, and let iTunes work its magic. After placing your personal data and settings on the iPhone, iTunes will restart it and then begin to restore all of your apps and media files one by one. No matter how long this one-time sync takes, the process will be faster than with iCloud.
Relatively few things will need to be set up directly on the iPhone if you chose an encrypted backup. You may be asked once each for your iCloud and/or iTunes passwords after the first round of restoration is taking place, solely to make sure that you’re authorizing the device to run all of your previously backed-up apps and use all of your iCloud content, but this process will be painless by comparison with the unencrypted backup. You’ll need to set up both Touch ID and Apple Pay directly on the device, as those settings do not transfer from one iPhone to another.