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3 Ways to Recover Data From a Mac That Won’t Boot

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When a Mac fails to boot and you haven’t backed up your important data, the situation could be disastrous. Perhaps you have irreplaceable photos, a half-written manuscript, or some other valuable data trapped in your misbehaving Mac.

If your Mac won’t power on at all, retrieving data can be very difficult. However, if your Mac powers on but simply won’t boot to the Desktop, the various methods below can help you recover your critical files.

Remove the Hard Drive From a Mac That Won’t Turn On

When a Mac won’t power on at all, the data-recovery methods we’ll get into below won’t work. If you do need to retrieve information from a device with no power, consider removing the internal drive and placing it in an external enclosure. External hard disk enclosures allow you to connect internal drives to another computer, usually through USB or similar connection type.

Removing your Mac’s hard drive requires some tools and technical expertise, so this solution is only suitable for those who know what they’re doing. Alternatively, a good computer repair technician may be able to provide data recovery services, at a price.

However, if your Mac powers on but doesn’t boot up all the way, you should be able to use one of the methods below to recover your data for free, provided you’ve got a spare Mac or external drive to hand.

Option 1. Use Share Disk or Target Disk Mode to Copy Files

Using Apple’s Share Disk—or Target Disk Mode for Intel Macs—is the simplest method for recovering data from a device that won’t boot. The feature allows you to connect two Macs with a cable and treat one like an external hard drive that you can access and copy files from.

To use Share Disk, you’ll need two Macs and an appropriate cable. If the Mac that won’t boot is an Apple Silicon device, you’ll need to use Share Disk along with a USB, USB-C, or Thunderbolt cable. And if the Mac is an Intel device, you’ll need to use Target Disk Mode and any of the previously mentioned cables. However, if either device is running macOS Big Sur or later, only a Thunderbolt connection will work with Target Disk Mode.

Using Share Disk for an M1 Mac

Here’s how to enable Share Disk on a Mac that won’t boot:

  1. Connect both devices using the appropriate cable.
  2. Shut down the Mac that won’t boot.
  3. Press and hold the Power button on it until the boot manager appears.
  4. Click Options and Continue.
  5. Enter your admin password, if required.
  6. Click Utilities > Share Disk.
  7. Select the disk you want to share and click Start Sharing.
macOS Finder connect to network source window.

You’ll need to boot the other Mac up as normal and access the shared drive as a network volume from Finder.

Network should appear in your Finder sidebar. Once you locate the other Mac, double-click it, select Connect As, choose Guest when prompted, and click Connect. If all goes well, you should be able to copy any files across from the shared drive.

Using Target Disk Mode for an Intel Mac

Here’s how to enable Target Disk Mode on a Mac that won’t boot:

  1. Connect both devices using the appropriate cable.
  2. Shut down the Mac that won’t boot.
  3. Turn the Mac on and hold the T key until a disk icon appears on-screen.

You can access the shared drive on the other Mac from the desktop or Finder sidebar, depending on how you’ve set your Finder preferences. Dragging and dropping or copying and pasting will work to transfer any important items to the working Mac.

Option 2. Use Terminal to Copy Files

If you’re comfortable with Terminal, you can use commands in macOS Recovery mode to copy files across to an external hard drive. All you’ll need is a correctly formatted external disk connected to your Mac.

Here’s how to use Terminal to copy files from a Mac that won’t boot:

  1. Connect the external drive.
  2. Boot to macOS Recovery using the method appropriate to your Mac model.
  3. Enter your admin password if prompted.
  4. Launch Disk Utility, mount your startup volume, if necessary, and close the app.
  5. Click Utilities > Terminal.
  6. Type the cp -R Terminal command below and press Enter to copy a specified file or folder. You’ll notice that any spaces also require a backslash in the command line. For example, a complete command includes the source and destination and looks like this:
    cp -R /Volumes/Macintosh\ HD/Users/Bob/Documents /Volumes/External\ Drive/
  7. To view the contents of a folder at any time, you can use the ls command below. For example, a complete command line will look like this:
    ls /Volumes/Macintosh\ HD/Users/Bob/Documents
Terminal cp command completed.

Using Terminal isn’t the prettiest way to recovery data, but it certainly is effective once you familiarize yourself with the appropriate commands.

Option 3. Install macOS on an External Drive to Copy Files

If Terminal is a little daunting and you don’t have access to another Mac, you can install the macOS onto an external hard drive, boot it up, and copy files across. The process can be time consuming, because you’ll need to wait for macOS to download and install, but it is an effective data-recovery option.

Here’s how to install macOS on an external hard drive from macOS Recovery:

  1. Connect the external drive.
  2. Boot to macOS Recovery using the method appropriate to your Mac model.
  3. Enter your admin password, if prompted.
  4. Launch Disk Utility.
  5. Erase your external drive using GUID Partition Map and choose an appropriate format, either APFS or Mac OS Extended (Journaled) for macOS 10.12 or earlier.
  6. Close Disk Utility, choose Reinstall macOS, and follow the prompts, ensuring that you select your external drive as the destination.

Related: How to Make Your Mac Boot From a USB Drive

Once the installation completes, you can complete the setup and copy files from your Mac to your new external OS. If the internal drive doesn’t appear automatically in Finder, you may need to mount and unlock it using Disk Utility.

Backup Options in macOS

The best way to avoid data loss from a Mac not booting is to always back up. Several backup methods exist for macOS, so you can choose the flavor that best suits your needs. Options include:

  • Time Machine
  • iCloud
  • Third-party backup software
Time Machine preferences window.

Whatever method you select, you should ensure that backups are consistent, complete, and easy to access when you need them.

Avoid Data Loss in macOS

A misbehaving Mac that refuses to boot doesn’t automatically result in data loss. With the right method, you can usually recover most information before you reformat or repair your device to get it functioning again.

However, performing regular backups is the best way to avoid ever losing important items. If you don’t currently back up your data, now’s a good time to start.

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