In the event of a serious problem with your Mac, you may need to reinstall your Mac operating system. (We cover how to reinstall Mac OS here). But what do you do if the keyboard combination that triggers Recovery mode: Command +R doesn't work?

There are a few reasons why you might find that Command + R doesn't work and your Mac won't start up in Recovery Mode:

  • If your Mac is really old - as in so old it's running Mac OS X Snow Leopard or older - it will not have a Recovery partition, the only way to reinstall the OS is to use the discs that shipped with the Mac. We'll look at what to do in that case later.
  • If your Mac is running a version of macOS older than Sierra (which launched in 2016) then you won't have all the Recovery options available that you may have heard of.
  • The keyboard might be faulty - in which case, try using another.
  • Something might have corrupted your Recovery partition, or you might have deleted it while replacing your hard drive or installing Windows.

It is possible to restore a Mac without a recovery partition, but it can be tricky (especially on older Macs). You have a few approaches available:

  • Use Internet Recovery to reinstall OS X on Mac with a missing recovery partition.
  • Create a bootdrive to install a copy of macOS from.
  • Use your Time Machine backup as your start-up drive.
  • You may also be able to create a Recovery partition, we look at how to do that here: How to create a Recovery partition Mac

We're going to look at these options in this feature - but first, a quick explanation of what a recovery partition is.

What is Recovery partition?

Most people don't really think about hard drives in terms of partitions (and volumes). They just see the whole drive as one thing. A hard drive is typically a single volume, but it is then split up into multiple areas, known as "partitions". Think of your hard drive as the house, and the partitions as different rooms.

You're used to only seeing one room in the house, the one which has your Desktop, Folders and Applications. But there are actually four partitions, and one is used in extreme cases where you may want to completely reinstall the operating system macOS (or Mac OS X on older Macs). Even if you completely wipe your Mac, and start again from scratch, the Recovery partition should still be there to make it possible to reinstall macOS, restore from your Time Machine nbackup, and repair or erase your hard disk. We look at what you can do in Recovery mode in detail here.

It's a problem if you need to reinstall the operating system from scratch and the Recovery partition is missing. A problem, but luckily there are solutions available.

Back in the days before Mac OS X Lion launched in 2011 there wasn't a Recovery partition, instead you needed to have a physical disc with the software on it and an optical drive to insert it into. These days it's rare to find a Mac with a optical drive, let alone find someone who has their original discs - not that Macs have shipped with install discs in recent times. We'll look at what to do if you fit into this category later in this article.

How to check if your Recovery partition is working

Recovery Mode macOS

First you should check that your Mac definitely hasn't got a working Recovery partition. It's possbile that you have been using the wrong key combination, or that your keyboard wasn't working, for example.

Here is how to boot into Recovery Drive:

  1. Shut down your Mac. (Apple menu > Shut Down.)
  2. Hold down the Command and R keys down and press the Power button.
  3. Keep holding Command and R until the Apple logo appears on the screen. Let go of the keys and wait for the Mac to complete starting up. (Expect it to take longer than normal.)
  4. You should see a screen saying macOS Utilitiies (or if your Mac is older, OS X Utilities). This is the Recovery partition. If you have this, stop worrying. You're good to go. REad all about how to reinstall macOS from Recovery here.

However, if the Mac boots up to your normal view, or if you're faced with a completely blank screen, then you haven't got a Recovery partition.

If your Mac does boot into MacOS then you can at least check Terminal to see if you have a recovery partition, here's how to do that:

  1. Open Terminal.
  2. Enter diskutil list.

You should see a list of all the volumes and partitions on your computer. The first drive (/dev/disk0) should have a partition (typically listed as "3" with Apple_Boot Recovery HD after it). Try using the Command-R process again.

You could also these tips to see if it makes your Recovery partition miraculously appear.

  • Reset your PRAM. Shut down your Mac and hold down Command-Option-P-R during boot. Wait for the chimes and let go.
  • Check your keyboard (especially if it's a Bluetooth keyboard). Try using a wired keyboard if possible.

Okay, so either your Recovery Partition is missing, or doesn't work and you've tried everything. So it's time to look at reinstalling macOS without it. First, if it's an option here, you should take time to back up up your Mac using Time Machine. This will enable you to restore all your files, folders and apps once you've reinstalled macOS.

How to use Internet Recovery to reinstall macOS

How to restore a Mac without a recovery partition: Internet recovery

Here's what to do if you haven't got a recovery partition on your Mac and need to reinstall macOS (in fact, even if you don't need to reinstall macOS you probably should, because a missing Recovery Partition is not a good sign).

The first approach is to use a feature called Internet Recovery. Newer Macs are able to boot directly from an internet connection, even with no Recovery partition available. Here is how to use MacOS Internet Recovery:

  1. Shut down your Mac.
  2. Hold down Command-Option/Alt-R and press the Power button. (On some Mac keyboards the Option key will be named Alt).
  3. Hold down those keys until you a spinning globe and the message "Starting Internet Recovery. This may take a while".
  4. The message will be replaced with a progress bar. Wait for it to fill. Expect it to take a while...
  5. Wait for the MacOS Utilities screen to appear.
  6. Click Reinstall macOS and follow the installation process.

There are issues with Internet Recovery. It only works with networks using WEP and WPA security. This is most home Wi-Fi networks, but if you're on a proxy network or PPPoE then you will have problems. In these cases it's usually best to find another network rather than create a USB Recovery Stick (our next step). If you have Internet Recovery, then make use of it to reinstall macOS if possible.

Create a macOS bootable installer on a flash drive

Terminal createinstallmedia

If you can't access Internet Recovery, then you are left with the option to create a bootable installer from a flash drive (at least 12GB in size). Note that this completely erases the USB flash drive, so be careful to remove any files from it first. We cover how to create a bootable installer for macOS here, but we'll give an overview of the method below.

The simplest way to create a USB flash installer it to use Terminal:

Open your Applications folder and look to see if you have the Install files for the version of macOS or Mac OS X you require. In the case of Sierra or High Sierra you''ll see: something like this, for example.

Install files for macOS

If you don't have the files, you may be able to get them by opening the Mac App Store, looking under your Purchased tab, and clicking to download the installer... Although, if you are running Mojave this won't be an option, and if you are running High Sierra you won't find Sierra this way... Read about how to get older verssions of macOS or Mac OS X here.

When you have got hold of the installer for the version of macOS that you require, follow these steps:

  1. Attach your USB flash drive to your Mac.
  2. Open Disk Utility.
  3. Select the volume (under External) in the sidebar. The Volume is the top part, not the partition (which is underneath).
  4. Click Erase.
  5. Make sure it says "Untitled" in the Name field. Don't change this. Click Erase.
  6. Open Terminal.
  7. Cut and paste the correct createinstallmedia text into Terminal (the code will depend on the version of macOS, so we suggest getting it from this article: createinstallmedia commands for versions of macOS. It will look something like the below image.)
  8. You'll then need to enter your admin password. And then enter "y" and press Return. It will first wipe your flash drive, then turn it into a bootable installer.

How to restore a Mac without a recovery partition: Create installer media

Expect to wait a while for the process to finish.

Install macOS from the bootable installer

Now you can follow these steps to use the bootable installer:

  1. Make sure the bootable installer (USB flash drive) is connected to your Mac.
  2. Shut down your Mac.
  3. Hold down Option/Alt and press the Power button.
  4. The startup device list window should appear displaying a yellow drive with Install (software name) below it.
  5. Select it and press Return. Wait for the progress bar to fill.
  6. Select Disk Utility.
  7. Select the drive under Internal (your main hard drive).
  8. Click Erase.
  9. Give the drive a name; "Macintosh HD" is traditional but you can choose. Ensure that the Format is Mac OS Extended (Journaled) and the Scheme is GUID Partition Map.
  10. Click Erase.
  11. Click Done.
  12. Choose Disk Utility > Quit Disk Utility.
  13. Select Install macOS and click Continue.
  14. Follow the install macOS options.
  15. Select Macintosh HD as the installation disk, when presented, and click Install.

MacOS will now be installed on your hard drive from the bootable installer. The whole process can take around half an hour. After this has finished you will have a new installation of macOS along with a Recovery partition.

You may get the message: "This copy of the Install [macOS name] application can't be verified. It may have been corrupted or tampered with during downloading." If so you need to adjust the date and time in macOS.

How to reinstall Mac OS X on an older Mac without Recovery mode

As we mentioned above, if your Mac is running Snow Leopard or older, it won't have a Recovery partiton. So if everything goes pear shaped and you need to reinstall your operating system what can you do.

If you have the original discs that shipped with the Mac, you should be able to use them.

If you don't have those discs, then your best option is to purchase Snow Leopard from Apple. It costs £19.99 and you can order a copy here.

You can still buy a copy of Lion from the Apple Store here, but what you will receive is a download code, rather than physical discs.

Once you have Snow Leopard discs you can insert them into your Mac's optical drive - assuming it has one, and install the operating system. Once you have done so you can use the Mac App Store to get a newer version of MacOS.