Q. What do you do if you forget your iPhone passcode and get a message on the lock screen saying the phone is disabled? What is disabling it?
A. The passcode and other security protections that Apple builds into its iOS software are designed to prevent anyone but the owner (or trusted associate) from using the device. In more recent versions of the system, a tool called Find My iPhone Activation Lock prevents thieves from erasing and selling stolen iPhones and other gear by requiring the Apple ID name and password of the rightful owner — if the Find My iPhone location-tracking service is enabled.
However, all of these measures can also lock out the gadget’s rightful owner if the passcode is forgotten or entered incorrectly too many times. If that happens, your phone displays the “disabled” message.
Even if you cannot remember the passcode, you should be able to get the iPhone working again. But to do that, you usually have to erase its contents first and then restore a backup of your personal information on the device.
The steps for erasing and restoring the phone depend on how (and if) you backed up its contents. You will also need an internet connection to download any required software updates and to reactivate the phone.
If you used Apple’s iTunes program on your Mac or Windows computer to synchronize and back up the iPhone, you can use iTunes to ditch the passcode and restore your data. Start by connecting the iPhone to the computer you used for backing it up and let iTunes sync up with it. Click the iPhone icon in the iTunes window and select the Restore iPhone button.
The iTunes software may want to download the latest version of iOS, but follow the steps on the screen to start the process. When the iPhone has been erased and you are to the point where the program sees it as a new phone to set up, select Restore from iTunes Backup and install the most recent backup to return your personal information to the device. (You can also restore your data from an iCloud backup, but you need to erase the phone first, and that requires the passcode or Apple ID credentials.)
If you never backed up the iPhone with iTunes, you can still use the program to regain control of the device, but you first need to erase the phone with its Recovery Mode tool. Use the USB cable that came with the phone and connect it to a computer with iTunes installed and open on screen. Next, reboot the iPhone by holding down a combination of buttons, which vary by model.
For the latest versions (the iPhone X, iPhone 8, or iPhone 8 Plus), quickly press and let go of the Volume Up button, and then do the same thing with the Volume Down button. Next, press and hold down the iPhone’s Side button until the Recovery Mode screen with an iTunes icon appears.
On the iPhone 7 or iPhone 7 Plus models, press and hold down the Volume Down and Side buttons simultaneously until the phone boots into the Recovery Mode screen. If you have an iPhone 6s or older model (or an iPad or iPod Touch), press and hold down the Home button and the Sleep/Wake button on the top or side until the Recovery Mode screen appears.
With the phone in recovery mode, you should see an iTunes message on the computer offering to Restore or Update the device. Click Restore and wait for iTunes to download the necessary software. (If you have a slow internet connection, you may have to restart the phone in Recovery Mode again after 15 minutes.) Once the software downloads, follow the steps on screen to restore your device. If you select a new passcode, write it down or save it in a password-manager app.
You will most likely be asked to enter your Apple ID name and password as part of the restoration process, especially if the Activation Lock setting was enabled. If you have been backing up the phone to your iCloud account, your contacts and other data should download again to the phone.
Personal Tech invites questions about computer-based technology to firstname.lastname@example.org. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually.
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