How to download iCloud photos, messages and backups

Updated
Cover image for: How to download iCloud photos, messages and backups

Difficulty: easy
Steps: up to 3
Time needed: 5 - 10 minutes

iCloud data recovery quickstart

Apple launched iCloud in 2011, alongside iOS 5. Since then, an increasing amount of iPhone data has made its way there, and nearly a billion users have signed up to iCloud. Whilst most people may have heard of iCloud Photo Library, and have an idea that their phone might create iCloud backups, there's a lot more to iCloud -- and to the data it stores.

This guide lays out simple steps to recover your data from iCloud, whether you've lost or deleted it, or need to pull it out so that you can store it safely elsewhere. If you read on, this guide will make you an expert on iCloud and its associated services.

It's possible to get just about every sort of data from iCloud:

Recover texts and iMessages from iCloud

iMessages

Recover videos from iCloud

Videos

Recover photos from iCloud

Photos

Recover call logs from iCloud

Call logs

Recover Contacts from iCloud

Contacts

Recover notes from iCloud

Notes

Recover calendar from iCloud

Calendar

Recover WhatsApp from iCloud

WhatsApp

Recover App Data from iCloud

App Data

Restore data from iCloud

Everything else

Working with iCloud data

Have you failed an iOS upgrade or lost your iOS device? Do you need to get your photos, documents or contacts from your iCloud backup? Unlike iTunes backups, it's not easy to directly access many of the files stored on iCloud.

That's where iPhone Backup Extractor comes in: we'll show you how to save all your data stored in your iCloud backup, directly on your computer. iPhone Backup Extractor gets back data from iCloud and iCloud backups, and can download your texts, WhatsApp messages, photos, videos, calendar data, texts, recordings, voicemails, notes, application data and more. It offers a safe, easy and comprehensive way for retrieving iCloud or iTunes data on your PC or Mac.

Recovering your data is as simple as these three steps:

  1. Connect iPhone Backup Extractor to your iCloud account
  2. Browse your iCloud data: including backups, Photo Library, Photo Stream, contacts -- and more
  3. Extract or download the data you need

We're going to go further than that, though, and have included information to help you go even deeper:

To do this, you'll need the following:

Computer

A PC or Mac

iCloud account

An iCloud account and credentials

Connect iPhone Backup Extractor to iCloud to recover videos, photos, text messages and more

When we created iPhone Backup Extractor, we wanted to make it accessible to everyone, no matter whether they had the technical know-how or not. Downloading your iCloud backup or other data is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

If you need to recover your photos, contacts, Screen Time restrictions passcode, text messages or WhatsApp messages you'll find we've got dedicated guides for them. Otherwise, please use the following steps:

  1. Download and install iPhone Backup Extractor for Mac or Windows.

  2. Sign in to iCloud. Open iPhone Backup Extractor and click "Click here to add an iCloud account", or the + icon. That'll bring up a window which will let you add your iCloud account.

    Signing in to iCloud with iPhone Backup Extractor
    Signing in to iCloud with iPhone Backup Extractor

    You’ll need your iCloud username and password. If your account is protected with two-factor authentication (2FA), you'll be prompted to enter your 2FA code. (If you tick the "Remember my password" box, your credentials will be temporarily saved on your computer. Other than that, iPhone Backup Extractor doesn't store any Apple account or personal data.)

    iPhone Backup Extractor won't alter your backups stored on iCloud, and does not risk harming them.

    Whilst the free edition of iPhone Backup Extractor includes most of its functionality for free for iTunes backups, you'll need to upgrade to unlock full iCloud functionality.

  3. Explore your iCloud data. With iPhone Backup Extractor securely connected to your iCloud account, you'll be able to browse your iCloud backups, iCloud Photo Library, Photo Stream, and other account data.

Where does Apple store your iCloud data?

Depending on how you've got your phone set up, your data could be stored in different parts of iCloud. You may need to look in different places using iPhone Backup Extractor, and we'll show you how. iCloud is actually several different services behind the scenes. Let's take a look at that next, in order to guide you to look in the right places.

Data type iCloud backups iCloud real-time
Texts (SMS, iMessage) ✅ If "Messages in iCloud" isn't enabled ✅ If "Messages in iCloud" is enabled
Call history Not since iOS 9.3 ✅ After iOS 9.3
Contacts ✅ Always ✅ If "Contacts" are synced with iCloud
Calendar ✅ Always ✅ If "Calendar" is synced with iCloud
Photos ✅ If "iCloud Photo Library" is not enabled ✅ All if "iCloud Photo Library" is enabled. Some if Photo Stream is enabled.

Depending on what you're looking to do, you may need to do the following:

How to download an iCloud backup

With iPhone Backup Extractor connected to your iCloud account, it's easy to download iCloud backup data.

  1. Select your iCloud backup. Once iPhone Backup Extractor has been connected to your iCloud account, it'll automatically show a list of your iCloud accounts and backups on the left-hand side of its window. Your iCloud backups will be listed under the heading "iCloud backups", and you can select the one you'd like to explore by clicking on it. That will load its details in the main part of the app's window.

    Don't have a backup yet? Don't worry, it's easy (and free) to make one. Check out our guide on how to create an iCloud backup.

  2. Explore your iCloud backup. Once your backup has been selected, iPhone Backup Extractor will summarise the information available in it, showing the most important apps along with a count of the amount of data available for each. iPhone Backup Extractor lets you work with iCloud backups exactly as if they were iTunes backups: there's no need to download the backup in full in order to work with it -- although you can if you want!

    Recovering data from an iCloud backup
    Recovering data from an iCloud backup

    As when working with iTunes backups, you've got the choice of four modes in iPhone Backup Extractor to recover your data:

    • Overview. Click on any of the app icons get your data back in a single click. Easy!

      For example, if you need to recover all of the photos stored in your iCloud backup, click the Photos icon and they'll be automatically downloaded to your computer.

    • Preview mode. See all of your messages and photos, and selectively choose to download them.

      iPhone Backup Extractor used in Preview mode
      iPhone Backup Extractor used in Preview mode

    • App view. Browse your iCloud backup by app-by-app, and download all files belonging to a particular app, or all photos from a particular app.

      iPhone Backup Extractor in App view mode
      iPhone Backup Extractor in App view mode

    • Expert mode. Browse individual files in your iCloud backup, and select or drag out the ones you'd like to download.

      iPhone Backup Extractor's "Expert mode" on iCloud
      iPhone Backup Extractor's "Expert mode" on iCloud

  3. Download your iCloud backup data. If you'd like to download the full iCloud backup and convert it to an iTunes backup, so that you can modify it or restore it locally, that's easy, too: there's a button labelled "Download this iCloud backup". If you click that, the entire iCloud backup will be downloaded to your PC or Mac. The downloading may take a while, depending on the size of your backup and how fast your internet connection is; clearly, it can be faster to get just the data you want to use the process above.

    iPhone Backup Extractor downloading iCloud data
    iPhone Backup Extractor downloading iCloud data

    After the iCloud download is complete, iPhone Backup Extractor will present the downloaded iCloud backup in its "Downloaded iCloud backups" section, and will automatically load it for you. You can work with that backup exactly as you'd work with an iTunes backup.

Recovering deleted data from your iCloud account

Believe it or not, it's possible to recover iCloud data that was deleted before your last backup was made.

iPhone Backup Extractor uses exactly the same approach for iCloud that it uses for recovery of deleted iTunes data. The best bit is that recovery of deleted data is automatic for all users. Just ensure that the menu item under UtilitiesShow deleted data is enabled.

We've published a benchmark showing how effective our recovery of iCloud data is. Check it out, as you can use this technique to recover deleted or lost texts from iCloud.

How to recover iCloud data

If you're looking to recover more data from iCloud, there's a good amount stored in your iCloud account outside of the iCloud backups.

  1. Select and view your iCloud account. With your iCloud account added to iPhone Backup Extractor, it'll show your iCloud accounts on the left-hand side of the app, under the "iCloud accounts" section. Click on your iCloud account, and the app will update to show summary information about your account.

    iPhone Backup Extractor showing iCloud account details
    iPhone Backup Extractor showing iCloud account details

  2. Choose the iCloud data you'd like to recover. Once your iCloud account has been selected, iPhone Backup Extractor will present you with its overview mode, allowing you to download from your iCloud Photo Library, Photo Stream, or Contacts. These are sources of data which are all additional to the data in your iCloud backup.

    You can click any of these data types whilst in overview mode to automatically download them to your computer.

    Alternately, you can select "Preview mode" to be able to browse the contacts currently stored on iCloud, and to selectively view, extract and recover them.

Other approaches for accessing iCloud data

If you log in to iCloud.com you'll notice you don't have access to all your files stored in iCloud. For example, even though you've selected to backup your pictures, they aren't visible there. The reason is that most of the files stored in an iCloud backup can be accessed only by restoring your backup to your iOS device, or by extracting them with iPhone Backup Extractor.

The iCloud.com "launchpad"
The iCloud.com "launchpad"

Only a few types of data can be easily viewed or restored from iCloud.com: iCloud Drive files, contacts, calendar & reminders and bookmarks. Nevertheless, it's a handy system, and whilst it doesn't give you a lot of control, it is free.

The restore options on iCloud.com
The restore options on iCloud.com

Thus Apple's approaches for recovering or accessing your iCloud data are twofold:

  • Restore your iCloud backup wholesale to your phone, overwriting everything on it -- and see if the data you need is there. We tend not to recommend doing this, as it's not feasible for many users who have had a device lost or stolen. It will also erase all of the data you currently have on the device, you may lose messages you've received prior to making the last backup. Ouch!

  • Use iCloud.com's restore option to restore your contacts, calendar & reminders, bookmarks or iCloud Drive files. This is an "all or nothing" option, and will overwrite the data you already have in your account. Their options look like this:

    • Restoring files from iCloud Drive

    iCloud Drive file recovery on iCloud.com
    iCloud Drive file recovery on iCloud.com

    • Restoring calendars

    iCloud calendar recovery, Apple's way
    iCloud calendar recovery, Apple's way

    • Restoring bookmarks

    Recovering bookmarks via iCloud.com
    Recovering bookmarks via iCloud.com

    • Restoring contacts

    Reverting to an earlier contacts library
    Reverting to an earlier contacts library

It's also possible to attempt photo recovery by going into the "Photos" app on iCloud.com. However, if you have a large iCloud Photo Library, it might time out on the site, saying:

⚠️ Network unavailable or slow. Photos is taking longer to load than expected.

Either way, there are better ways to recover photos. Check out our guide to iOS photo recovery.

Apple's iCloud explained: Backup, Drive, Photo Library and Music

As we described earlier in this guide, iCloud is made of many different services, each of which can store data in different places. They're each configured separately, and have different implications for the amount of storage space you can use. We've prepared a table below to give you more insight into Apple's programs and storage plans.

iCloud Backup, iCloud Drive, iCloud Photo Library, iCloud Music Library
iCloud Backup, iCloud Drive, iCloud Photo Library, iCloud Music Library

iCloud backups iCloud Drive iCloud Photo Library iCloud Music Library (w/ Apple Music)
What for Automatically create secure backups of your device in the cloud Save your personal files in the cloud, similar to Amazon Cloud, Google Drive or Dropbox Save your pictures and videos, accessible on all your iOS and macOs devices. Access to your music across devices
Useful for Recovering your data if lost or deleted, switching phones Saving and protecting your day to day files Collecting and viewing all your photos All your music, anywhere, anytime
Where (iOS) SettingsiCloudBackupOn SettingsiCloudiCloud DriveOn SettingsPhotos & CameraiCloud Photo LibraryOn SettingsMusiciCloud Music LibraryOn
Where (macOS) In iTunes > Connect your device → BackupsiCloud System PreferencesiCloudiCloud Drive PhotosPreferencesiCloudiCloud Photo Library In iTunes → PreferencesGeneraliCloud Music LibraryOn
Pros & cons Data not included in your iCloud backup:
  • Apple Pay
  • Touch ID
  • iTunes & App Store content
  • Any imported videos & audio files
  • Data already in the cloud
    Access these files devices by turning on "Show on Home Screen". If you're using Mac, access by using Finder or icloud.com. If you're using a PC, access with an iCloud Drive or on icloud.com Use the images with Optimise for iPhone Storage to save space on iOS. This way images will not be stored at full resolution and you can always download them at full resolution if you want to. Add / favourite / deleted song or playlist will reflect changes across all devices.
    Storage Uses iCloud storage space Uses iCloud storage space Uses iCloud storage space No space needed with Apple Music
    Space Shared 5GB of free space usually not enough for a single device Shared 5GB adequate for small collections of files Shared 5GB covers a year or so of photos if no other data is put in iCloud Unlimited as long as you pay for a subscription to Apple Music
    • Individual subscription $9.99/ month
    • Premium Plus Plan (up to 6 people) – $14.99/ month

    How is iCloud storage space used?

    The table above explains how each of Apple's cloud services uses your iCloud storage allowance.

    You've never even considered buying more iCloud storage because you assumed you wouldn't be able to afford it? Take a look. You might be surprised to see that 50GB of iCloud space is only $0.99 a month. Apple's iCloud storage plans are currently as follows:

    • 50GB -- $0.99 / month
    • 200GB -- $2.99 / month
    • 2TB -- $9.99 / month

    To purchase from your iOS device, navigate to Settings[your name]iCloudStorageBuy more Storage. To purchase from your Mac, navigate to System PreferencesiCloudManageBuy more Storage. Apple provide further instructions on upgrading your iCloud storage.

    About the author

    Aidan Fitzpatrick founded Reincubate in 2008 after building the world's first iPhone data recovery tool, iPhone Backup Extractor. He's spoken at Google on entrepreneurship, and is a graduate of the Entrepreneurs' Organisation's Leadership Academy.

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    Pictured above are members of Reincubate’s team meeting HM Queen Elizabeth Ⅱ at Buckingham Palace, after being awarded the UK’s highest business award for our work with Apple technology. Read our position on privacy, safety and security.

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