Generally speaking, you don't need to create a recovery partition for your Mac: since the launch of Lion (when Apple stopped selling boxed copies of its operating systems, so it knew buyers wouldn't have backup install disks), macOS has offered a built-in recovery partition that is created automatically for you during installation and stored in a hidden section of the hard drive. (This is what enables you to recover a failed Mac by holding Cmd + R during startup, which will take you into Recovery Mode.)
Sometimes, however, for one reason or another, the partition is not created during the installation process. In these cases you can create your own. And we show you how to do this in the following article, for every version of macOS.
If you happen to still be running Mac OS X Mavericks or earlier, you'll be able to use a free tool that was once widely used for this purpose, and we cover this process further down the article. But this tool is not compatible with Yosemite and later versions of macOS, so we'll start by walking you through a method that works with High Sierra and other recent editions of the OS (in very slightly different ways).
(There are also occasions when a recovery partition won't help. One is when the hard drive itself - where the recovery partition is stored - fails catastrophically. In that case you'll need a recovery disk stored on a removable storage medium. We've got a separate article showing how to create a Mac recovery disk.)
Do a clean install of macOS
Generally the best and simplest method is to reinstall macOS entirely. This is a neat way of triggering for a second time the process whereby the recovery partition is created. It's quite a drastic and time-consuming approach, however.
Here's how to do a clean install of High Sierra. You'll need an 8GB or larger removable drive that hasn't got anything on it you need, and admin privileges.
2. We're going to redownload the installer file for High Sierra and store it on a removable drive: get yourself a USB flash drive with a capacity of at least 8GB. (We're going to erase it, so make sure it doesn't contain any valuable data.)
The drive you use must be formatted as a Mac OS Extended (Journaled) volume with a GUID Partition Table. To format the drive, go to Applications > Utilities and open Disk Utility. Select the drive and click Erase. (The name of the disk needs to be "Untitled", if the Terminal commands below are to work, so rename it if necessary.) Select Mac OS Extended (Journaled) as the format type. Click Erase.
3. Go to the Mac App Store and search for High Sierra (or just click here). Click Download. Since we've already got OS X 10.13, we get a warning message: 'Would you like to continue?' We'll click Continue. Enter your Apple ID and password. The installer is about 5GB, so downloading can take a while.
4. When it's finished downloading the installer will launch automatically, but we don't want to use it yet, so press Cmd + Q to quit out of the installer. Find the installer file (which should have appeared in the Applications folder) and save it to an external flash drive.
5. Next we need to create a bootable USB disk so that we can install a new copy of High Sierra on the Mac from the flash drive. We've got full instructions on how to do that here - How to make a bootable Mac OS X install drive - but we'll run through the basics again. We're going to create the bootable drive using Terminal.
Connect the removable drive to your Mac, and make sure it's called Untitled - rename it if necessary. Make sure the High Sierra installer (or at least a copy of it), called Install macOS High Sierra.app, is in its default location in your main Applications folder (/Applications).
Select the text of the following Terminal command and copy it (Cmd + C):
sudo /Applications/Install\ macOS\ High\ Sierra.app/Contents/Resources/createinstallmedia --volume /Volumes/Untitled --applicationpath /Applications/Install\ macOS\ High\ Sierra.app --nointeraction
Go to Applications > Utilities and double-click Terminal to launch it. Paste (Cmd + V) the copied command into Terminal and hit Return. Type your admin-level account password when prompted, and press Return again.
If you see the message 'To continue we need to erase the disk at /Volumes/Untitled. If you wish to continue type (Y) then press return', type Y and press Return; if not, don't worry. When the procedure is finished (it can take anywhere from a couple of minutes to half an hour), you'll see Copy Complete and Done, much like the screenshot below (which was created from an El Capitan install and comes courtesy of my colleague Dan Frakes). You're finished.
6. Now we'll install a fresh copy of High Sierra from the installer drive.
With the boot drive connected, start up - or restart - your Mac while holding down the Option key (also known as Alt). This will take you to Startup Manager. Choose to install macOS High Sierra from the drive. Select 'Disk Utility' and your hard drive, then click Erase. Go back to the main menu and choose Install OS X.
Once installation of High Sierra is complete, you can restoring apps and settings from a Time Machine backup, or download them again manually.
Do a clean install
If you're using Sierra or earlier, we can use the same method as above, but it's a bit harder to get the install file: Apple doesn't offer downloads of outdated OS versions through the normal store front, and searching for 'Sierra' won't find what you're looking for.
Make sure you're logged into the Mac App Store with the Apple ID you used to update to Sierra (or whichever version you want to clean install), then click Purchased in the menu bar along the top. Scan down the list of apps you've purchased or download for free (which is in order of when you downloaded them) and find the old version of macOS.
Click download and then follow the procedure listed above for High Sierra.
How to make a recovery partition in OS X Mavericks and earlier
The steps above apply to relatively recent versions of macOS, but there are script tools available that make the process easier if you're running something earlier. Christopher Silvertooth created a tool called Recovery Partition Creator; the most recent version of this, 3.8, is compatible with Mavericks, but sadly will not work with anything later than that.
If you're running Mavericks (or earlier), follow these steps to create a recovery partition:
1. Make a backup
Recovery Partition Creator modifies your hard drive in order to create the recovery partition, and this is potentially hazardous. We don't expect any problems, but it's wise before we begin to back up your Mac.
2. Get a copy of the installer file for your version of OS X
This works the same as step 2 above. Go to the Mac App Store, find the relevant version of OS X, and click download. The install file should appear in your Applications folder.
3. Download Recovery Partition Creator 3.8
Download Recovery Partition Creator - which is available for free here. Unzip the install file and double-click the icon.
Depending on your security settings, OS X may refuse to open the app "because it is from an unidentified developer". We've had no problems with the software but you'll have to make your own decision.
If you're willing to take the plunge and allow software from an unidentified developer, go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy, and either set 'Allow apps downloaded from' to 'Anywhere' (not recommended) or click 'Open Anyway' next to the warning message about Recovery Partition Creator, which just bypasses the security measure for this case. You'll get one more warning message and chance to change your mind: click Open.
4. Set the app to work
Clicking Open at the end of the last step immediately triggers an alarming-looking warning: "the program you are about to run will modify your hard drive… It is recommended that you backup all of your data". We backed up in step 1, so we're happy to click OK and proceed.
5. Follow the instructions as the app proceeds
From here on in the app is pretty self-explanatory. You'll need to select a drive to store the recovery files; agree to check the disk for errors (we recommend this, rather than skipping this step); locate the install file we downloaded in step 2; and select the correct option when asked if you've got either Mac OS X version "10.7 or 10.8", or "10.9".