What to Do When You Can’t Log Into Your User Acount on a Mac

— What to Do When You Can’t Log Into Your User Account on a Mac —

Holy cow, was I in trouble. My Mac wouldn’t start. Actually, it started part-way– it got to the sign-in screen, and it even let me enter my password. But then it spun, and spun, and spun, but never showed my desktop. I waited a long time but it just wouldn’t bring up my stuff. This wasn’t a matter of forgetting my password– the box didn’t shake, so I knew I got it right (I even tried entering an incorrect password to see what happened, and of course it shook then).

Mac Login Screen
Mac Login Screen (click for larger version)

I had a backup but restoring that much stuff is a long process, and I didn’t want to spend the time. I hoped for a “fix,” and I found one. Here’s how I did it.

Trouble-shooting this sort of problem starts with finding out whether the problem involves the Mac itself, the operating system, or the user folder. It’s almost never the Mac itself, and it’s almost never the operating system. I had another user (“temp”) which I’d previously created for just such an occasion– it’s just a plain, almost-never-used user, in pristine condition– so I turned off the Mac, turned it back on, and tried signing into the “temp” user. And it worked.

It would be VERY smart to go to System Preferences/Users & Groups and create a new Administrative user TODAY in case you have an emergency like mine. It gives you a place to stand while you fix your real user. I hope you never have to use it but if you do, you’ll be ready. Make that extra user now, before you need it. Yes, there are ways to create an administrator user even when you can’t log in, but it’s much easier to create a user if you do it when your Mac is working.

So now I knew the Mac was probably OK and the operating system was probably OK. That left me with a problem in my user folder, or maybe a problem in the operating system that wouldn’t let it log into my user. I crossed my fingers that it was the latter (because that’s an easy fix).

This is going to sound crazy but Step One was “delete my user” (in the Users & Groups preference pane). Note that I didn’t want to delete my user folder. The plan here was to tell the operating system to forget about my Christian Boyce user, but to NOT delete the Christian Boyce folder (because that’s where my stuff is). Yes, this is sort of a nervy move. Be careful to do it without changing the Home folder. You just want the operating system to let go of it. And yes, it felt better knowing I had a backup.

Deleting a user from System Preferences
Deleting a user from System Preferences

Deleting the Home Folder but keeping the contents
Deleting the Home Folder but keeping the contents
Step Two was to create a new user, again in the Users & Groups preference pane. The Plan: create a user with the same name and password as the one I just deleted, in effect getting a fresh start– but with my Desktop, Documents, Downloads, Pictures, Movies, Music, and the (invisible) Library folders already populated.

So I made the new user, being VERY careful to use the same Full Name, Account Name, and password as the account I’d just deleted. You have to get all three things exactly right or else it’s no dice. If you’re trying to rescue your own user folder, and you’re not sure what your Account Name is, open the Users folder and see what your folder is called. That’s your Account Name. In this picture, my folder is called “cboyce” and that’s what I had to enter for the account name. (Note: when you delete a user, its folder gets “(Deleted)” appended to it. Rename the folder so it doesn’t have “(Deleted)” after it and be careful not to leave a trailing space. I’ve already done that in the picture.

Users Folders
Users Folders

Also, you almost certainly want your user to be an “Administrator” account so get that right too. Wouldn’t hurt to add a “password hint” (you’ll see the hint if you enter the wrong password three times).
Creating a new user
Creating a new user

Normally, when you create a new user, it’s truly new so the operating system creates a folder with the new user’s account name, and it fills it up with a Desktop folder, a Documents folder, and so on. But, in this case, I already had a folder with the “new” user’s account name on it. That led to this dialog box:
Use Existing Folder
Use Existing Folder

Obviously, the answer is YES. I did indeed want to use the existing cboyce folder. So I clicked “Use the existing folder.” Then I logged out of the Temp user (Apple menu/Log Out…), then I clicked on my user (which had a different icon than before– which made sense, it’s a “new” user), signed in with my password, held my breath, and… voila! It worked! All of my stuff was just as I left it. A happy ending.

You might be wondering why I had this trouble in the first place, and so am I. Obviously something went wrong– a file became corrupt, or a setting got messed up. I was lucky that the problem could be corrected in this fashion but for this situation, the delete-your-user-recreate-your-user method was exactly the answer.

I hope you never need to fix a problem like this. But if you do, you’ll know how. Contact me if you need extra guidance or hand-holding.

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