Booting your Mac computer in Safe Mode is an excellent way to fix software issues. However, what if your Mac won't start in Safe Mode?
Whether your MacBook or iMac won't start in Safe Mode, you can use seven tried-and-tested methods to force it to boot in the stripped-down macOS version.
Table of Content
What Is Safe Mode on macOS, and Why Is It Valuable?
Safe Mode on macOS is a diagnostic operating system environment that loads the bare minimum of OS resources necessary for booting a computer. Those include some Apple-native programs only. Your Mac won't launch third-party or non-essential macOS apps, extensions, and other features in Safe Mode.
That lets you troubleshoot and fix system configuration problems, file system errors, or software glitches. Isn't that the same as macOS Recovery Mode? Not exactly. Here are the differences.
Differences Between Recovery Mode and Safe Mode
Mac computers have a built-in recovery system for resolving OS-related issues or recovering backed-up data. It starts from the Recovery HD partition and lets you reinstall macOS, restore data from a Time Machine backup, eliminate disk errors in Disk Utility, and access Apple Support documentation online.
These macOS Base System or macOS Recovery options are available on Intel-based computers. Those with an Apple silicon processor also have features for setting and sharing the startup disk, creating security policies, and modifying settings in the Terminal.
Safe Mode doesn't offer these features. It launches only Apple-native startup programs and kernel extensions necessary to boot the system.
Let's see why your Mac won't start in Safe Mode on Sonoma, Ventura, Mojave, Big Sur, High Sierra, or another macOS version.
Possible Reasons Your Mac Won't Start in Safe Mode
In this section, we will explore some of the potential reasons why your Mac might not start in Safe Mode, which is a diagnostic mode designed to help you troubleshoot various issues:
- Not waiting ten seconds after shutting down your Mac before restarting it to enter Safe Mode.
- Releasing the Shift key too early when attempting to boot an Intel-based Mac in Safe Mode
- Keyboard malfunctioning.
- Software bugs or glitches. Conflicts with third-party software or drivers could prevent your Mac from starting in Safe Mode. You may need to remove or update this software to resolve the issue.
- System configuration problems.
- File system errors on the startup disk. System files are essential for your Mac to operate smoothly. If these files are damaged or corrupted, your Mac may fail to start in Safe Mode.
- Security settings like FileVault and the firmware password. If FileVault or firmware password are enabled on your Mac, you may be unable to boot into Safe Mode. You will need to disable them before starting in Safe Mode.
- macOS or OS X version. Some older versions of macOS or OS X may not support Safe Mode or may have different methods for starting in Safe Mode.
- Insufficient disk space. If your Mac's hard drive is nearly full, there may not be enough space for the operating system to create the necessary temporary files for Safe Mode. Freeing up some disk space may resolve the issue.
Regardless of why your Mac refuses to enter Safe Mode, you can force it to do so without causing further issues. However, the first step is to verify your computer isn't in Safe Mode already. Here's how.
Check if You've Started Your Mac in Safe Mode Correctly
The steps for booting a Mac in Safe Mode differ slightly according to the macOS version and the computer processor. For instance, you might have tried putting an Intel-based Mac into Safe Mode following the instructions for computers with Apple silicon chips.
Go to the Apple menu > About This Mac to see whether your computer has an Intel processor or an Apple silicon chip. Then, find the corresponding steps for booting your Mac in Safe Mode.
However, your Mac might be in Safe Mode already. The subtle visual differences might have fooled you into thinking you did something wrong. Here's how Normal and Safe Modes compare:
Still, double-check by following these steps:
- Go to the Apple menu > About This Mac > System Report.
- Click Software in the left sidebar.
- Check if the Boot Mode is Normal or Safe.
Recover and Back up Your Data Before Attempting the Fixes
When you find yourself needing to boot your Mac into Safe Mode, it usually indicates that there are errors or issues with your computer. These problems may have led to the loss of important files. In such cases, it is crucial to prioritize recovering these files before attempting to fix the underlying errors. This is because any new data written to your computer could potentially overwrite the missing files, rendering them irrecoverable.
To recover your lost data, consider using a reliable data recovery software. Recoverit data recovery for Mac is among the leading tools for recovering data from internal Mac disks, external drives, and other storage media. It has reliable features and a 95% success rate in 500+ data loss scenarios, even when your Mac won't start up.
Therefore, download it from the official website, install it on your Mac, and follow these steps to recover data:
- Click Hard Drives and Locations and choose the disk where you have stored the desired files.
- The program will start scanning for lost files automatically. You can filter the results by type, size, modification time, status, or tag to retrieve specific data.
- Preview the retrieved data in full screen to ensure everything is in order. Click Select All or choose specific files and hit Recover.
- Specify the target destination and click Recover again.
Now that your data is safe, it's time to fix your Mac that won't start in Safe Mode.
How To Fix a Mac That Won't Start in Safe Mode
The following methods work like a charm when a Mac will not start in Safe Mode. Try them in descending order because a simple fix like a hard reset might resolve the problem.
Fix 1: Perform a Hard Reset
A hard reset forcibly shuts down and restarts your MacBook or iMac to clear the cache, temporary files, and memory, possibly resolving hardware or software issues. Here's what to do:
- Press Control + Command + Power and hold the keys until your Mac shuts down.
- Power your Mac back on after a few seconds.
Try putting your computer into Safe Mode now. If it still refuses to do it, try the fix below.
Fix 2: Use the Option Key
The Option key on Apple keyboards is a modifier for various commands, which you can execute when combining the Option key with other keys. Here's how to use it to boot your Mac in Safe Mode:
- Power off your Mac.
- Press and hold the Option key and hit the Power button.
- Select Macintosh HD and hit Enter.
Your Mac should start in Safe Mode now. Otherwise, check the security settings.
Fix 3: Change the Security Settings
Security settings like FileVault and a Mac firmware password (Extensible Firmware Interface or EFI lock) might prevent your Mac from starting in Safe Mode.
FileVault is a built-in encryption feature, while the firmware password prevents unauthorized disks (e.g., USB flash drives or other external devices) from booting your computer.
Here's how to turn off FileVault:
- Go to the Apple menu > System Preferences > Security & Privacy > FileVault.
- Click the lock icon to make changes.
- Click Turn Off FileVault.
- Click Restart & Turn Off Encryption to confirm the action.
Your Mac will restart automatically without the FileVault encryption.
If you've created a firmware password, turn it off with these steps:
- Restart your Mac and immediately press and hold Command + R to boot into Recovery Mode.
- Enter your firmware password, choose the preferred language, and go to Utilities > Startup Security Utility. It's Firmware Password Utility on macOS Sierra and older versions.
- Click Turn Off Firmware Password.
- Enter the current password to confirm your choice.
Safe Mode on your Mac should now be available. Otherwise, try the following fix.
Fix 4: Reset the SMC
The System Management Controller (SMC) is a chip on Mac computers with Intel-based processors and older Apple-based CPUs. Newer models with an M1 or M2 chip (Apple silicon) don't have it.
The SMC controls various hardware functions like the power supply, CPU fans, and sleep settings. Resetting it might help you boot your Mac in Safe Mode.
Related reading: What to do if the Mac Command R not working?
Here's how to reset the SMC on a MacBook with a T2 chip:
- Shut down your computer.
- Press left Option + Control + right Shift and hold the keys for about seven seconds.
- Hit the Power button without releasing the other keys.
- Hold all the keys for another seven seconds.
- Turn your Mac back on after about 20 seconds.
Follow these steps to reset the SMC on a MacBook without a T2 chip:
- Shut down your computer.
- Press left Shift + Control + left Option and hold the keys for several seconds.
- Hit the Power button without releasing the other keys and wait about ten seconds.
- Power on your MacBook.
Follow these steps to reset the SMC on iMac:
- Shut down your iMac.
- Unplug the power cable from the electrical outlet.
- Plug it back in after about 15 seconds.
- Power your iMac back on after several seconds.
If resetting the SMC doesn't resolve the problem, check if the methods below do.
Fix 5: Forcibly Shut Down Your Mac to Reboot It in Safe Mode
A forced shutdown can help if your Mac freezes when you try booting it in Safe Mode. Here's how to turn it off forcibly:
- Press and hold the Power button until your computer shuts down.
- Alternatively, press Control + Option + Command + Power and release the keys once your Mac turns off.
Power your computer back on after about 20 seconds and try putting it into Safe Mode. Try the method below if it still refuses to boot in Safe Mode.
Fix 6: Reset the NVRAM or PRAM
NVRAM (Non-Volatile Random Access Memory) and PRAM (Parameter Random Access Memory) store OS-related settings (e.g., your startup disk selection, screen resolution, and time zone) and retain data with or without a power supply. Resetting these RAM settings can resolve various issues, including your Mac refusing to start in Safe Mode.
However, you don't need to do it if your Mac has an Apple silicon processor; the computer will automatically reset NVRAM or PRAM settings during startup. In that case, restarting or forcibly shutting down your computer should do the trick.
Here's what to do if your Mac doesn't have an Apple silicon processor:
- Shut down your Mac.
- Press the Power button and immediately hit Option + Command + P + R.
- Hold the four keys until your Mac reboots twice (it takes about 20 seconds).
Try booting your Mac in Safe Mode now.
Fix 7: Boot Your Mac in Recovery Mode
If your macOS doesn't support Safe Mode as mentioned above, you can alternatively boot your Mac into Recovery Mode.
Here's how to boot an Intel-based Mac in macOS Recovery:
- Restart your computer.
- Immediately hit Command + R and hold the keys until you see the Apple logo.
- Enter your admin password if a lock appears.
- Choose a volume to recover (if there's more than one) and click Next.
- Select your admin account and hit Next.
- Retype your admin password and click Continue.
- Select the desired macOS utility and click Continue.
Restoring macOS or restoring the system from a Time Machine backup will automatically quit macOS Recovery. Otherwise, restart your computer to exit Recovery Mode.
Booting a Mac containing an Apple silicon processor (M1 or M2) requires fewer steps. Here's what to do:
- Turn off your computer.
- Press and hold the Power button until you see a screen displaying your startup disk and Options.
- Click Options > Continue and enter your admin password.
- Choose the desired macOS utility.
If the fixes above don't work, this one will because macOS reinstallation or Disk Utility repair will eliminate all problems. The same goes for restoring your system from a Time Machine backup because you'll load an error-free version.
Data loss probably pops into your mind when your MacBook or iMac won't start in Safe Mode. How can you troubleshoot software or hardware issues if your computer won't let you?
Fortunately, you can quickly fix this problem. The seven methods above are your go-to solutions, so start with a hard reset and work your way down to macOS Recovery.
However, even if you apply one of the first six fixes, use Wondershare Recovery beforehand to recover your data and back it up to another location (just to be safe). It's a no-brainer for entering Recovery Mode because it erases everything.