The moment anything is protected by a password, PIN code, or anything that needs to be remembered, there comes the time when your mind goes blank. Alternatively, the person who did know that password is no longer there to recall it when required. So how can you gain access to your Mac when you don’t know or can’t remember its password?
That rather depends on how it’s secured, which model it is, and whether its boot or data volume is encrypted.
Firmware password (Intel)
A firmware password is set and removed in Recovery, and can only normally be removed if you know the password. If your Mac still has removable memory, it’s possible to remove one stick and reset the NVRAM three times, but that’s not guaranteed. The most reliable way to achieve this is to take the Mac to an Apple store, together with proof of purchase or ownership, and ask them to remove the firmware password.
Further information is in this Apple Support note, and in Mr. Macintosh’s article.
No FileVault (Intel)
If the user account doesn’t have FileVault enabled, there are several ways you can reset that user’s password in older versions of macOS. You could do this from another admin account on that Mac, or using your Apple ID. The latter involves entering guessed passwords until you see an invitation to reset the password using Apple ID. Apple lists most of these in this article.
FileVault enabled (Intel)
If the Mac is running Mojave or earlier and has FileVault turned on, you may be able to reset the password using its special assistant. It isn’t obvious how to initiate this:
- Leave the Mac at the login screen for a minute or so, until there’s a message telling you that you can press the Power button to shut down and start up in Recovery.
- Then, press and hold the Power button until the Mac shuts down.
- Press the Power button again to start it up.
- The Reset Password window should appear, giving instructions.
Alternatively, you can use a Recovery Key, if you’ve already obtained one.
Full details are given in this Apple Support article.
The process for resetting passwords was improved and rationalised in Catalina, although there’s still some variation between different systems. You’ll need your Mac to have an internet connection, and to have booted to the login screen. At the right end of the box in which you enter your password, you should see a ? inside a circle. If that isn’t there, try entering a random password three times to see if that triggers its appearance. Then click on that button.
You should then see the password hint, which might give the password away, and brief instructions as to how you can see the options for resetting the password. This is illustrated in this Apple Support article.
These are simplest and most consistent of all. Click on the ? inside a circle at the right end of the password entry box, and you’ll see the password hint, if one was saved, and the text
If you forgot your password, you can…
Restart and show password reset options
And that’s exactly what you do.
Those methods all assume that you’re the owner/user, and have simply forgotten your login password, and can recall your Apple ID and its password. If the Mac belonged to someone who’s no longer there, and you don’t have details of their Apple ID, you won’t be able to use those options.
There are two further steps now available which you may find helpful. Provided that your Apple ID has two-factor authentication enabled, if you’re unable to sign in or reset your password, then you can ask Apple to perform account recovery. This isn’t immediate, but provided that you can satisfy Apple that your request is genuine, it should prove possible.
As of macOS 12.1 and iOS/iPadOS 15.2, Apple has added Legacy Contacts, but those need to be set up before you need to use them. The Legacy Contact is then provided with an access key which they can use in the event that you can’t because you’re dead. Apple also needs to see a copy of the death certificate before giving full access to the account for a period of three years. Full details are here.
Still no solution
If you want to access the Mac but not its contents, it’s straightforward to return M1 and T2 models to factory condition using Apple Configurator 2. That may not always be a good step, though: when you try to set that Mac up again, it checks in with Apple. If it has been registered as stolen, you could find it becomes unusable.
If all else fails, then you’ll get expert advice and help from Apple stores, authorised service providers, and from the many independent Mac technicians around the world who are often only too familiar with the problems.