How to Start a Mac in Safe Mode
Mac Tips

How to Start a Mac in Safe Mode

Do you struggle with starting up your Mac or is it getting slow? Are your user-installed apps malfunctioning? You might need to get your Mac in safe mode to solve these problems.

 

Macs don't usually freeze or crash thanks to Apple's commitment to seamless interaction between man and machine. But once in a while, you might face some of the problems mentioned above and have to sort them out using safe mode. That's if you hope to continue watching that Netflix show or meet that deadline at work.

 

 

In this guide, we’ll cover the following:

Why do you need safe mode on your Mac

Safe mode can be viewed as maintenance for your Mac because startup disks get checked, temporary docs and dynamic loader shared caches get deleted too. These two activities alone can get your Mac back to its original processing speed. But the most significant advantage of safe mode and safe boot so far is the ability to sidetrack potentially troublesome software to create an environment where you can find and rectify these problems.

How to turn on safe mode

The terms “safe mode” and “safe boot” are often interchanged and misunderstood. In reality, we have two different processes that depend on each other. To start your MacBook Pro in safe mode, you need to safely boot it. It's a bit different from the normal booting of your Mac. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Start your computer and wait for the startup chime
  2. Once you hear that chime, press and hold the Shift key till a bar and an Apple logo show up on the screen
  3. Then wait for your laptop to boot into the safe mode environment

How to turn off safe mode

Once you're done with safe mode and you want to leave, just shut down and restart your Mac normally:

  1. Click the Apple logo and choose to shut down
  2. Then restart your Mac without holding the Shift key

Don't stress if your Mac takes time to shut down. It’s a known fact that staring at the screen slows time and tempts you to obstruct the shutting down process. However, if your Mac doesn’t turn off at all, check out our guide on overcoming Mac shut-down failure.

What safe mode does and doesn't do

It might take a little while to safely boot your Mac because your system automatically handles specific tasks behind the scenes. But it's okay. These activities help your system scan and clear problematic files—making safe mode possible.

 

Some of these activities include:

  • Loading essential kernel extensions since they're necessary to run your Mac
  • Avoiding specific peripheral kernel extensions
  • Inspecting startup volume and checking startup hard-drive
  • Bypassing third-party installed fonts as they don't count as essential software
  • Deleting dynamic loader, shared cache, and other temporary files slowing down your Mac
  • Disabling all but essential startup items

Safe boot bypasses drives and apps that would have automatically loaded had you conventionally booted your Mac. As a result of these activities, your computer runs on the basic macOS in the limited safe mode environment.

 

It isn't enough to safe boot your Mac to get into safe mode. You still have a problem that brought you here in the first place. Through maintenance and troubleshooting, you'll find and rectify these problems. In safe mode, there are a couple of things you can do to solve your Mac's problems. We'll look at two of them.

Restoring files from your Time Machine backup in safe mode

Assuming your Mac is hanging and crashing when you try to use an app, restoring files from your Time Machine backup becomes an option to solve the problem. The thing is, this can only be possible if you have your data backed up on an external drive. If you've got this drive, get it connected to your Mac. You should be able to see it in Finder.

external disk in locations in finder

Open the window for the particular file you want to restore. Go to the Time Machine for this window and find the timeline. Then carefully scroll through the timeline of your chosen file or app till you see the timestamp just before your app starts to misbehave. Select it and click Restore to get it back.

time machine window on recents in finder

If you don't have your files backed up, you may just have to reinstall your system and get your Mac back to its factory settings. The setback with this process is that you lose your existing files and user-installed apps.

 

But what if you're struggling to install an app that isn't yet on your system? What if your Mac can't boot? Then you might need the second troubleshooting task on this list—disk permissions repair.

Disk permissions repair using safe mode

All files on your Mac are held secure by disk permissions. It prevents prying eyes and tinkering hands from tampering with your records. Whoever wants those files will need approval. It's the case with every file and folder on your system. On a perfect day, this is an ideal system.

 

But as with real life and technology, nothing's perfect all the time. During app installs and uninstalls, things can get mixed up. Some malware may alter a file here or there, and soon enough, your disk permissions misbehave. That's why your Mac lags or crashes when you try to install an app.

 

Luckily, through safe mode, your system can prevent third-party apps meddling where they shouldn't, giving you time for disk permissions repair. Here's what you do to fix this problem.

 

1. Go to Disk Utility

find disk utility in applications folder in finder

2. Select Macintosh HD from the sidebar

find macintosh hd internal drive in disk utility

3. Click on First Aid 

run first aid on internal disk macintosh hd in disk utility

4. Click Verify Disk

5. Click Repair Disk

 

Let your system take its time to scan for problems after you've clicked Verify Disk. Once you've repaired your disk permissions, you could install your app or boot your Mac normally.

 

We've just seen a host of things safe mode can do on your Mac computer. What it can't do is solve hardware problems. You'll have to visit an Apple store close by to get it fixed by engineers and technicians.

How to reboot your Mac in safe mode

Do you wonder how to restart a Mac while in safe mode? You'll first have to leave the safe mode environment. Just shut down your Mac as you'll typically do and boot again. This time, don't do anything after that startup chime. Your Mac will start normally this time.

How to know if your Mac is in safe mode

While looking at a running laptop, you might be unsure whether it’s in the MacBook safe mode environment. So how to find it out?

 

Indeed, both normal and safe modes have similar visual environments. But they differ when it comes to what they can do. Some of the characteristics of the safe mode environment you may notice include:

  • Inconsistency with the screen display like blinking and tearing
  • A drop in the speed performance of your Mac
  • Peripheral devices like mics or mouse not working
  • The lack of transparency effects because Quartz Extreme system extension is disabled
  • Inability to connect to a Wi-Fi network
  • Your DVD player application not playing movies
  • Video apps like iMovie not working

There are some subtle visual differences too, and we'll look at them now. Your Mac is in safe mode if you see 'Safe Boot' in the menu of your login screen.

login screen in safe boot - safe boot sign in top right corner

Another way to be sure of your Mac's status is to go to the Apple Menu and check out About this Mac section. You'll find the Overview button which leads you to System Report. Go to Software: there you'll discover Boot Mode which says Normal or Safe. If you're in safe mode, it'll say Safe.

 

Safe mode can be a limited environment, but it isn't the typical user interface. It's there to help you find and rectify software problems plaguing your Mac. So let's get to the meat and potatoes, shall we?

What to do if your Mac automatically starts in safe mode

There are several reasons for this malfunction.

Fixing a stuck Shift key

Remember how we earlier discussed pressing the Shift key just after the startup chime to boot your Mac into the safe mode environment? Well, if that key is stuck, your computer will safeboot when you hit the Power button on. Dust can also cause stuck keys. And mind you, you can't always tell if the key is pressed or not. Blow compressed air to dislodge any dirt under the keys—especially the Shift key. Once you've done that, restart your Mac to check if the safe mode problem is gone.

Fixing automatic safe boot with Terminal

Check for any plugged external USB devices and remove them. Then restart your Mac computer. If you still can't access normal mode, let your Mac safeboot to the safe mode environment. Then open Terminal and insert the code below into the Terminal window. This code is the reverse of another code that forces your Mac into safe mode.

 

sudo nvram boot-args = " "

 

Now, press Return and insert your admin password when asked. Then boot your Mac again.

Problems with Mac safe mode

When your Mac is starting in safe mode, it checks system files and deletes caches. If there is a problem with your file system, your computer won't get past this stage in the process. That's when you see your system hang or crash when starting in safe mode. What you need to do is go to Terminal and force your Mac to boot in both safe and verbose mode. Below is the code you need to copy and paste in the Terminal window.

 

sudo nvram boot-args="-v -x"

 

Now you can boot your Mac and get into a text environment that'll help you find out what's going wrong. Look for the tool in charge of checking out file system structure. If you can't find it, there's a big chance that you'll have to clear whatever the issue is with the file system structure. It requires reformatting the hard drive. Before you do it, make sure you have backed up your files.

Features that are not available in safe mode

As we discussed earlier, the macOS safe mode is a limited environment used strictly for utilitarian purposes.

  • Your third-party apps won't work
  • You won't be able to use peripherals like mics and some disk drives
  • You won't be able to connect to a Wi-Fi network
  • Other non-essential apps like iMovie won't play

Wrapping up

Safe mode can be quite a restrictive operational state for your Mac, but its strength is in its limitations. Your Mac is using safeboot and safe mode to bypass shortcomings like faulty startups and software problems that start as soon as you boot your computer.

 

During this time, your Mac inspects the startup disk and deletes cache. Think of it as cleaning your messy room to find your keys. It's a maintenance and troubleshooting environment to help you find out what's wrong with your computer and fix it.

 

We hope that with the detailed description on what to do, you'll be able to get in, find and rectify your Mac's problem and get back to watching Netflix, learning stuff on the internet, or meeting the deadline on that project.

 

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