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How to back up your iPhone without missing these tricky steps

Backing up your iPhone isn't as simple as 1, 2, 3. Here's what you may be missing.

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Switching up to the new iPhone 11? You'll want a complete backup of your current iPhone to make sure you don't lose any data.

Scott Stein/CNET

Whether you're getting ready to update your iPhone to iOS 13, upgrade to an iPhone 11, 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max, or just in case your iPhone is ever lost or stolen or breaks unexpectedly, it's critical to always maintain a recent backup of your iPhone. Apple gives you two ways to do this: iCloud, the company's cloud storage solution, or on your home Mac or PC through Apple's desktop software. 

Read: How to backup your iPhone even if you get the 'Not enough iCloud storage' alert

iCloud backup works seamlessly behind the scenes to create automatic, scheduled backups, but the process isn't 100% straightforward and there are a couple of steps you'll want to make sure don't slip through the cracks. The upside is that this all happens on your phone and you don't need a cable or laptop to do it.  

Using the desktop method is a little more involved, and captures a complete backup in fewer steps, but you have to remember to plug your iPhone into your computer to do it, and often. Right now, you'll use Apple's iTunes software, but Apple is doing away with that starting with its next software update, MacOS Catalina, which arrives in October. After iTunes goes the way of the dodo, Finder will handle iDevice backup duties.

We'll take a look at iCloud first. If you're looking for a simpler but less automated method, instructions on how to back up via iTunes follow. Whichever way you decide works best for you, here's how to make sure every byte of important information is saved in an iPhone backup, so you can restore your data and move on with your life. 

iCloud's silver lining: It syncs your apps, too

The first and most crucial step in getting a handle on your iCloud backup is to know which apps are being backed up separately from your iPhone's primary backup file, which mostly just saves your personalized settings. To see a list of apps you can choose to back up individually to iCloud, go to Settings and tap on your name at the top.

In the second box down, tap the first item, labeled iCloud.

Beneath the bar graph is a list of Apps Using iCloud. If any of these buttons are toggled off, iCloud will not back up data for that app. Unless you're trying to conserve space, you'll want to leave all of these turned on.

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The setting that tells your phone to maintain automatic iCloud backups, as well as the buttonto Back UpNow are buried deep within the Settings app, one screen past the backup settings for individual apps.

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

If you need to shrink the amount of space you use in iCloud to fit it all into one of Apple's three price tiers -- the free 5GB, $2.99-per-month 200GB or $9.99-per-month 2TB plan -- you can toggle off any of the apps whose data you won't mind losing if you replace your iPhone, like which News stories you've favorited or Stocks you've followed, on the previous screen.

If you want to see how much space your individual apps are using to help you decide which ones to cut, tap Manage Storage. This will generate a list of all your apps and how much space they're taking up, in order from the most to the least, and will give you the option of deleting their data individually. This is also where you can change your storage plan.

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Picture-perfect backups of your camera roll

If you're like most folks, photos and videos probably take up more room on your iPhone and iCloud backup than any other content. To decide how you'd like your iPhone and iCloud to handle your camera roll, back out to the previous screen and tap on the first app in the Apps Using iCloud list: Photos.

If all you wanted to back up was your camera roll, the only setting you'd need would be the first toggle listed, labeled iCloud Photos. If you want to save a backup of every photo you take to iCloud indefinitely, flipping this switch on will do just that. 

Below Photos is a list of every other iCloud-enabled app on your iPhone, starting with Apple's own apps. If your goal is to maintain a complete backup of all the information on your entire phone, all of these toggles need to be turned on. 

Besides Photos, the two biggest data hogs using your iCloud storage tend to be Mail and Messages. If you turn off the iCloud backup settings for these two apps, you'll still get emails and messages pushed to all your devices. However, when you set up a new iPhone, iPad ($280 at Amazon), Apple Watch ($349 at Amazon) or Mac, even if you restore from a previous iCloud backup, old mail and messages will not show up.

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The Photos & Camera settings let you choose whether to backup your camera roll to iCloud as well as if you want to keep just thumbnails or originals on your iPhone.

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Then what does iCloud backup back up, exactly?

At the end of the first block of apps you'll see iCloud Backup set to either On or Off. Tapping that setting takes you to a second screen with a toggle switch and an option to Back Up Now.

With all the separate settings for your iPhone's various apps on the previous screen, you may wonder what, exactly, is getting backed up. 

This setting saves all your other settings that don't belong in any other bucket. Stuff like your default ringtone and text tone, your saved alarms, how long your screen waits before dimming and turning off, etc.

Truth is, you could turn this setting off and, even if you lost or broke your phone, when you signed into a new device with your Apple ID, virtually all your data would sync. 

Most of your iCloud backup is now handled on an app-by-app basis on the previous screen.

That said, this part of the backup takes up some of the least amount of space, so there's really no reason to skip this step.

If your goal is to keep as complete a backup in iCloud as possible, and you have enough room in your iCloud account to fit it all, just make sure all the aforementioned settings are On. If you want to dabble with shrinking your backup, go right ahead. 

Just be forewarned that by telling your iPhone not to sync specific apps to iCloud, you risk losing all the information stored locally on your iPhone.

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If you're upgrading to an iPhone 11, 11 Pro or 11 Pro Max, you'll want to be sure all the data from your current iPhone carries over.

James Martin/CNET

Backing up your iPhone from your Mac

If messing with all these toggles stresses you out too much, and you want a simple process for backing up anything and everything on your phone without worrying about or paying for additional cloud storage, there's always iTunes or Finder, when you switch to MacOS Catalina -- keep reading for more on that.

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With your iPhone connected to your computer and iTunes open, go to File > Devices > Back Up to initiate a backup.

Screenshot by Dale Smith/CNET

1. Connect your phone to your computer. Open the iTunes app if it doesn't open automatically.

2. A dialog box will pop up on your iPhone and ask if you want to Trust This Computer. Tap Trust or Allow

3. You may be asked to input your iPhone's four- or six-digit passcode. Enter it.

4. If you're not signed into iTunes, it will ask for your Apple ID and password. Enter them.

5. In iTunes, go to File > Devices > Backup

6. iTunes will ask if you want to encrypt your backup. If you wish to back up all of your device data, you must select Encrypt Backup. Otherwise the backup will leave out what Apple considers "sensitive" data, such as passwords and credit card numbers.

7. iTunes will ask you to create a password for your encrypted backup. Enter it and click Okay.

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If you've already upgraded to the beta version of MacOS Catalina, or you plan to upgrade when the full version debuts in October, the process is even simpler. 

1. Connect your phone and Trust the computer just as you would for iTunes, including entering your passcode if prompted.

2. Open a Finder window and select your device from the side bar. 

3. Click on the General tab. 

4. Click Back Up Now.

That's it -- now you can sit back and let your computer do the rest. When your backup is complete, you can disconnect your iPhone, secure in knowing there's a full backup of your phone stored safely on your computer. 

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