A new error message that's making iPhones around the world completely unusable has caused a stir across the web and beyond. Here, you'll find out what Error 53 means, what causes Error 53 and whether you should be worried.

Updated on 12 Feb with the news that PCVA has filed a class action lawsuit against Apple for Error 53, and updated on 19 Feb after Apple apologised and released a fix for the problem - read on for more details. 

What is Error 53 on iPhone?

Error 53 occurs when a customer who has had their Touch ID fingerprint sensor/Home button replaced by a third party updates their iPhone to iOS 9 or beyond. And some customers claim that they haven't even had the button replaced, but instead have slightly damaged the button or dislodged it. Worse still, some say they've experienced the issue after getting the screen replaced (and not the Touch ID), which is a very common repair carried out by third-parties.

These customers come across the Error 53 code in iTunes after an update, and the worst part of all is that there's no going back. Error 53 completely bricks the phone, making it unusable and entirely useless, and making any photos or data unaccessible, even if you take it to Apple.

So far we know for sure that the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are affected, as are iPads with Touch ID, but the iPhone 5s isn't and we're awaiting confirmation about Apple's iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.

Users have flocked to Apple Support Communities to talk about the error and so far the thread has been viewed more than 200,000 times. It's not a new error, either. The first post in the thread was shared in September of 2014.

Why does Error 53 occur? What causes Error 53?

Apple says that the reason for Error 53 is security. Touch ID is a fingerprint sensor designed to help keep your iPhone secure and to allow you to make secure mobile payments, so when Apple detects that an iPhone has an unauthorised Touch ID sensor installed it deems the iPhone unsafe and essentially kills it.

Apple's official statement about Error 53 is:

"We take customer security very seriously and error 53 is the result of checks designed to protect our customers. iOS checks that the Touch ID sensor in your iPhone or iPad correctly matches your device's other components.

"If iOS finds a mismatch, the check fails and Touch ID, including for Apple Pay use, is disabled. This security measure is necessary to protect your device and prevent a fraudulent Touch ID sensor from being used."

This is because Apple uses Secure Enclave to keep your fingerprint data safe, and that information isn't stored anywhere on Apple's servers. Instead, it's stored within the chip on your iPhone and is only accessible by the Touch ID sensor on your device, hence Apple's concern if it deems the component unauthorised.

Apple says: "If a customer encounters Error 53, we encourage them to contact Apple Support."

How to avoid Error 53 on your iPhone

If you're concerned about Error 53, don't panic. It's unlikely to occur unless you've had your Touch ID fingerprint sensor replaced, and even then it should only happen if you update your iPhone or restore it, so as long as you don't install a system update or restore your device from a backup you shouldn't see Error 53.

Of course, this isn't a long-term solution but we expect it won't be long before we hear more from Apple on the matter.

How to fix Error 53 if you're affected

Updated, 19 Feb: Sure enough, Apple has released a fix for Error 53, and users around the world will be breathing a sigh of relief.

According to the company's latest statement to TechCrunch, Error 53 was intended to be a "factory test" (a kind of diagnostic check to ensure that Touch ID components were functional before they left the supply chain) and was never supposed to affect iPhones in the wild.

"We apologize for any inconvenience," said Apple. "This was designed to be a factory test and was not intended to affect customers. Customers who paid for an out-of-warranty replacement of their device based on this issue should contact AppleCare about a reimbursement."

Slightly confusingly, Apple has released a patched version of iOS 9.2.1, rather than a new update, to address the problem. You'll need to install the update via iTunes on your Mac or PC, rather than on your device (although you wouldn't be able to access the Settings app anyway if your device has been bricked).

The company walks you through the process of fixing Error 53 on its support site:

  1. Make sure that you have the latest version of iTunes.
  2. Force restart your device. 
  3. Try to restore your device again.
  4. If you still see error 53 when you try to restore your device, contact Apple Support. If the restore won't finish and you see a different error code, learn what to do.

The patched version of iOS 9.2.1 will prevent the diagnostic process from disabling the iPhone (or iPad) in the future if it detects a non-standard Touch ID component, and therefore solves the main problem with Error 53. But do bear in mind that it will still prevent Touch ID from working. In other words, you will be able to get the Home button replaced at a lower cost without bricking your phone, but you'll lose Touch ID.

This strikes us as a reasonable compromise, since Touch ID gives access to Apple Pay and your personal data: as TechCrunch points out, a corrupted part installed by an untrustworthy repair firm could allow unauthorised access to your data.

Why is everyone suddenly talking about Error 53?

Error 53 hit headlines in February after The Guardian published an article about the issue. Anger is mounting from 'thousands' customers who've suffered as a result of the controversial policy, according to the report. Backlash from customers has lead to a class action lawsuit in the US, and there is huge pressure being put on Apple to scrap the policy.

Apple suggests that Error 53 is in place for the safety and security of its customers, but if you dig a little deeper and look closely, it could actually be illegal under the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which makes it an offence to intentionally destroy the property of another.

There is also speculation that Error 53 is a tactic Apple has adopted to increase revenue. Right now, customers are turning to third parties to repair their iPhones, but Error 53 could force customers to turn to Apple for repairs, and they come at a hefty cost of more than £200.

Law-firm PCVA has said: "We believe that Apple may be intentionally forcing users to use their repair services, which cost much more than most third party repair shops… there is incentive for Apple to keep end users from finding alternative methods to fix their products."

PCVA goes on to say:

"Think of it this way; Let's say you bought a car, and you had your alternator replaced by a local mechanic. Under Apple's strategy, your car would no longer start because you didn't bring it to an official dealership. They intentionally disable your car because you tried to fix it yourself. That is wrong, and we hope to prove that it violates various consumer protection laws in the United States."

On 12 Feburuary, the news broke that PCVA has followed through with its class action lawsuit against Apple for Error 53. The law firm says that it's main goal is to get all affected iPhone customers a working iPhone at no additional cost.

"No materials we've seen from Apple ever show a disclosure that your phone would self-destruct if you download new software onto a phone," said lead attorney Darrell Cochran. "If Apple wants to kill your phone under any set of circumstances and for any reason, it has to make it crystal clear to its customers before the damage is done."

The law firm says that, if you've been a victim of Error 53, you should get in touch here.

We imagine it won't be long before Apple responds to the uproar, so we'll update this article with any new information as soon as it emerges.