macOS Catalina isn’t quite the upgrade that some Mac owners were hoping for. Despite offering new features that improve the overall experience, including the ability to extend your display to a nearby iPad wirelessly, compatibility issues and bugs have left many Mac owners with a bitter taste in the mouth. 

Apple has remedied the situation with a number of patches, but if you’d prefer to downgrade to macOS Mojave - or earlier - then that’s also possible, although it’s not quite as straightforward as the update process.

We talk you through all the ways to downgrade from macOS Catalina (along with any other Mac operating system) right here. If you’re looking to roll back your PC, we cover how to downgrade from Windows 10 separately. 

Why would I downgrade from macOS Catalina?

macOS Catalina is a great update for Mac users that introduces a bunch of useful features and tweaks inspired by Apple’s iOS platform. But much like Mojave, High Sierra and most versions of macOS before it, the launch wasn’t perfect, with users encountering a number of glitches, problems and vulnerabilities within Catalina.

Security issues aside, some Mac users have found that updating to macOS Catalina has broken apps they use on a daily basis - not ideal for graphics designers and creatives that rely on third-party software, arguably Apple’s main target audience. That’s due to the lack of support for 32-bit apps on Apple’s latest operating system, and while many apps from the likes of Adobe and Microsoft now have 64-bit equivalents, many money-savvy users refuse to move to the subscription-based model and continue to use old (but just as good) software. 

You might also find that you can’t run drivers that use kernel extensions due to other changes introduced in Catalina, possibly rendering your hardware useless.

Even if you find you’re not affected by the lack of 32-bit apps, users claim that running Apple’s latest Mac-focused update on older (but still supported) software introduces serious performance issues compared to older versions of macOS.

Whatever your reason for wanting to downgrade, it’s worth noting that it’s a little more complicated than the upgrade process - once your Mac is running the latest version of macOS, it won’t allow you to simply install an older version on top. That’s not to say there isn’t a way, but it becomes even more challenging if you haven’t got an existing Time Machine backup. 

How to downgrade from macOS Catalina

You’ve got two choices when downgrading from macOS Catalina: either using Time Machine or a bootable installer. Whatever option you choose, you should back up any data/documents saved on your Mac that you wish to keep as you’ll completely wipe your hard drive during the process. You can use online options like iCloud or Google Drive to back up important documents, or if you’ve got an external hard drive (we list the best external hard drives separately), you can store large amounts of data on there.

While Time Machine is usually a handy option for backing up files and apps on your Mac, unfortunately, you can’t use it for this purpose. As we explain below, Time Machine backs up not only your documents and data but the version of macOS itself, so if you restore from a Catalina backup, you’ll be reinstalling Catalina. 

Using Time Machine

Time Machine is the easiest way to downgrade to a previous version of macOS, offering a quick and easy way to back up documents, data, apps, Settings and even the Mac software itself on any external drive, but there’s a catch: you’ll need to have been using Time Machine from before you upgraded to Catalina. 

If you haven’t got an existing Time Machine backup, skip on to the next section.

Before we take you through the steps of using Time Machine to downgrade from macOS Catalina, it’s worth pointing out that you’ll wipe everything on your startup disk. While all your documents and data from your backup are safe, you’ll lose any data you’ve saved on your Mac since the upgrade to Catalina. We recommend using one of the above cloud-based storage services or an external hard drive (separate from the Time Machine drive) to back up any documents, music or photos you’ve got saved on your Mac. 

When you’re ready, follow these steps to downgrade using Time Machine:

  1. Plug your Time Machine drive into your Mac.
  2. Turn on your Mac, and immediately hold Command + R until you see the Apple logo appear on screen.
  3. When the Recovery options appear, select ‘Restore from Time Machine backup’ and click Continue. 
  4. The Restore from Time Machine title should then appear - click Continue again.
  5. Select your Restore Source. This should be the external hard drive with your Time Machine backups. 
  6. You’ll then see a list of all Time Machine backups on the drive. Select the last backup before the upgrade to macOS Catalina (or earlier, if you want to revert to the likes of High Sierra) - the version of macOS should be displayed alongside the time and date of each backup. 
  7. Your backup should then be restored, which could take some time depending on the amount of data stored on the external drive and the way it’s connected to your Mac.

Once complete, your Mac should restart and be running the earlier version of Mac software.  

Using a bootable installer

Using Time Machine may be the easiest way to reinstall an older version of macOS, but it’s not the only way to do it. You can still install macOS Mojave - or earlier - but you’ll have to completely wipe your hard drive in the process, so be sure to back up any important documents and data before beginning the process. Remember, you can’t use Time Machine here as it’ll restore the current version of macOS that you’re running and not the older system that you desire. 

The first stage of using a bootable installer is to get your hands on the installer for the version of macOS you desire. If you want to downgrade to Mojave, the previous version of macOS, it’s a simple process, but going back to High Sierra or earlier is more difficult.

In essence, you’ll only be able to download the Mojave installer via the Mac App Store if you’re running Catalina. If you want to revert to an older operating system, you’ll have to find a friend running an old version of macOS and get them to download the installer for you. That, or risk downloading it online, but we’d be wary about downloading installers from less-than-reputable sources. 

It’s worth pointing out that this will work with macOS Catalina, Mojave and High Sierra - if you want to move back to Sierra or earlier, you’ll have to follow a slightly different process due to the different storage systems at play. We outline that a bit later.

But first, if you want to downgrade from macOS Catalina to Mojave or High Sierra using a bootable drive, follow these steps:

  1. Download the macOS installer of your choice. If this is Mojave, it can be downloaded via the Mac App Store, but High Sierra installers will have to be sourced elsewhere (as outlined above). 
  2. Once downloaded, do not click Open
  3. Next, create a bootable installer on a memory stick. Our sister site Macworld UK has a detailed tutorial about how to make a bootable macOS installer drive for those unaware of the process. 
  4. Connect the bootable installer to your Mac.
  5. Open System Preferences > Startup Disk and select the external drive with your installer as the startup disk.
  6. Click Restart. Your mac should then restart in Recovery mode.
  7. You’ll need to connect to the internet during the install process, so either plug in an Ethernet cable or connect to a local Wi-Fi network via the Wi-Fi icon in the toolbar. 
  8. Select Reinstall macOS and click Continue.

Your Mac should then install the older version of the operating system without further issue. It’ll then restart and require you to follow the first-time setup, just like when you first bought it. 

How to downgrade from APFS to HFS+

The process of downgrading from Catalina, Mojave or High Sierra to an older system like Sierra is a little more difficult due to differing file formats. Older versions of macOS and Mac OS X all use Apple’s HFS+ file format, while newer versions of macOS utilise Apple’s proprietary APFS file format. APFS can play well with HFS+ files, but the same can’t be said for the reverse, so you’ll have to completely reformat your drive before installing an older version of macOS or Mac OS X.

As when reformatting any disk, you’ll lose access to all documents and data, but it’s more difficult here as it’s likely that newer files will work on APFS won’t work once you’re running older Mac software. This can be mitigated somewhat by saving your documents and data in standard file formats, but this may not be possible depending on the software you use. 

So, if you want to move from an APFS system like Catalina to a HFS+ system like Sierra, it’s likely that you’ll lose access to most of your documents and data, so make sure it’s really worth the downgrade.

If you’re happy to start afresh and have your heart set on using an older HFS+-enabled version of macOS or Mac OS X, follow these steps:

  1. Create a bootable installer with the Mac software you’d like to install, as outlined above. 
  2. Turn on your Mac and hold Command + R until the Apple logo appears.
  3. Select the bootable installer as your startup disk. 
  4. Select Disk Utility and click Continue. 
  5. Click Show All Devices.
  6. Select the internal Mac drive (not the bootable installer) and click Erase.
  7. Change the format from APFS+ to Mac OS Extended (Journalled) and change your drive name if you want. Click Continue to reformat the drive.
  8. Quit Disk Utility.
  9. Select Reinstall macOS and click Continue.
  10. Select the newly-reformatted drive as the target drive and click Continue. 

Your Mac should then install the older version of Mac software, ready for you to use!