Forgetting or losing your iPhone or iPad's passcode (or alphanumeric password) is a serious situation, but not necessarily a disastrous one. In this tutorial we explain how to bypass and change the passcode: you'll have to restore your device, wiping its contents, but at least you'll be able to use it again.
If you have a bit more confidence - and a legitimate reason to want to access an iPhone or iPad for which you haven't got the code - then there is software that can help in more sophisticated ways. We discuss your options here too.
Finally, we cover the basics of removing or resetting the passcode once you've managed to access your iOS device.
Is it legal to bypass a passcode?
Bypassing passcodes, generally speaking, is veering towards what we'd call the "black hat" (or legally questionable) side of tech support, but it's common enough for someone to simply forget their passcode. In these instances, you'll need to get around the code to use your own device. Nothing dodgy about that.
If you're reading this page because you just pinched an iPhone and then discovered it was locked, however, the police have already been notified and are on their way as we speak. Okay, they're not really, but you will find nothing to help you in this article.
Restore your device using Recovery Mode
Restoring an iPad or iPhone and starting again is the best and simplest solution if you haven't got the passcode. It removes your personal information, but if you have a backup you can restore it and it'll be as good as new... but no longer protected by the passcode.
Trying to restore the device from iTunes requires a passcode, but you can restore it from Recovery Mode without one. This wipes the device completely and installs the latest version of iOS from scratch.
Note: you will need the Apple ID and password that were used to originally set up the device.
Follow these steps to restore an iPad or iPhone from recovery mode:
- Charge up the device to at least 20 per cent.
- On your Mac or PC, close down iTunes if it's open. Connect your iPhone or iPad, and now (re-)open iTunes, assuming it doesn't do so automatically.
- Now force-restart your iDevice. If it's an iPhone X, 8 or 8 Plus, press and release Volume Up, press and release Volume Down, then press and hold the Side (power) button until you see the connect to iTunes screen shown above. If it's an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus, hold Volume Down and the Side button at the same time, until you see the iTunes screen. And if it's any other iDevice, you should hold the Home and power buttons at the same time.
- You'll now get the option to Restore or Update - the latter takes slightly longer because it downloads the latest iOS software, but either should do the trick.
- Set up your device.
Your device will now be up and running as before but without a passcode. You may be prompted to enter your Apple ID, depending on the version of iOS you're running.
If you do set a passcode and you're looking to remove it completely, after having access to your iOS device, then simply go into Settings > Touch ID & Passcode, then tap 'Turn Passcode Off'.
Use forensics software
Every so often someone discovers a technique to bypass the Apple Passcode. This is sometimes a finger-tapping trick that enables the person to access something on the locked phone: typically either Contacts or Messages. This isn't hacking the passcode, it's merely bypassing it.
Forget the finger tricks you'll see in YouTube videos. It is possible to hack the iPad passcode, but you need serious software to do so. This is known as forensics software because law enforcement agencies use them when analysing a mobile phone.
We tested Elcomsoft iOS Forensic Toolkit and found it a reliable means of cracking an iPad's passcode. The software is not available to the general public and you will need to apply for a licence (and show your credentials).
Here are three of the Mac forensic tools available on the market:
Software tools like this can enable you to extract a passcode from an iOS device. You'll need to be good with computers (at least capable of handling yourself using the Command Line in Terminal). Read this review of Elcomsoft iOS Forensic Toolkit to find out more information about how forensics software works.
How do the FBI unlock iPhones?
iPhone passcodes hit the headlines in March 2016, with the news that the FBI had obtained an iPhone 5c used by one of the shooters in the San Bernardino terrorist attack (but owned by his employer), but couldn't get past the passcode security. The Feds managed to get a court order instructing Apple to assist them and break into the phone. Apple refused.
As the case progressed, public opinion (which was initially sympathetic to them) started to turn against the law enforcement officials, and the day before the Department of Justice was due to present its arguments, it was announced that actually, they didn't need Apple's help after all, and that a third party had agreed to do the hacking for them. A week later the case was dissolved, and the FBI announced it had opened up the phone without Apple's help.
Apple has asked the FBI to tell it how this was done - on the principle that, if a security vulnerability was exploited, then this represents a danger to other iPhone owners and needs to be patched. But the FBI has so far refused. It's believed that an Israeli firm, Cellebrite, performed the hack, but this hasn't been confirmed either.
All of which is comforting for iPhone owners on the one hand - because Apple is so determined to protect their privacy that it will stare down the might of the US government - but worrying, because someone out there has evidently worked out how to bypass the security.
However, there are significant reasons to believe that the method, whatever it was, would not work on later models of the iPhone. The iPhone 5s and later have superior security features and Apple has claimed that it wouldn't be able to break into them itself, even if wanted to.
We discuss these matters in far more depth in another article: Is your iPhone private, and how to protect your data privacy.
Finally, read more about security on the iPad and iPhone here: How secure is the iPhone, iPad, and iOS?