If you see a flashing question mark on your Mac's screen at startup, it means your Mac can't find its system software.
Prerequisites: An Apple machine that has been flashing a folder with a question mark upon startup
Difficulty Level: Member • Nerd • Platypus
Estimated Time: Varies based on what method is needed (5-45 minutes)
Expected Outcome: The Apple device will be able to boot properly/the issue will be found to be hardware related and may require the assistance of GTC or a 3rd party vendor to fix
Tools Required: An Apple computer, WiFi connection, and possibly an external HDD with at least the same or more storage than the computer (the HDD will be reformatted and erased)
There are many possible solutions for this issue, all depending on what exactly is wrong with the machine. Make sure to read all the possible solutions to see which one best fits the machine you are trying to fix.
The Question Mark File Appears for a few Seconds
In some cases the question mark file will only appear for a few seconds before the computer continues to boot properly. This generally is a sign that you simply need to confirm/re-select you startup disk in System Preferences.
- Go to System Preferences > Startup Disk
- Select the logo of the disk you normally use for your computer (This will normally be labeled similarly to "Macintosh HD" or something similar)
- Close the System Preferences window and restart your machine
This should fix the question mark file issue and your machine should be fine to boot properly now!
If the Question Mark File is Persisting
If the question mark file is still present but the computer does NOT boot into the operating system, it is a more complicated problem that may take more time to solve.
- First, force a full shut down of the system by holding the power button for a few seconds until the screen goes completely black
- Press the power button to turn the machine back on, but when booting, immediately press and hold command + R to start your machine from macOS Recovery
- Note that you will need to continue to hold down control + R until you see an Apple logo for this process to actually work
- Follow the prompts until you get to a MacOS utilities window
- You will be asked to select your startup disk from the menu
- Select your startup disk
- Restart your machine
This will hopefully work. But if you do not see a MacOS utilities window through this process, follow the next set of steps.
Startup Directory Repair
If you have not already, follow the steps under the section "If the Question Mark File is Persisting" as this is a second set of steps intended to append those steps.
These steps are to be followed if you cannot see an option for a startup disk on your device when rebooting through MacOS utilities.
- Open Disk Utility from the MacOS Utilities window
- In the Disk Utility window, select your startup disk (usually named "Macintosh HD") from the left side of the window
- Select the "First Aid" tab
Select the "Repair Disk" option to verify and/or repair any issues with your startup disk
- After the disk is successfully repaired quit Disk Utility
- Select "Startup Disk" from the Apple menu. Select your startup disk, then Restart.
If you have reached this point with nothing yet being fixed, this is most likely due to a hardware issue. These are much harder to fix, as it is not something the "average person" can do by themselves.
We suggest making an appointment with an Apple Technician at a Genius Bar or another authorized Apple service provider here.