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 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 an iPhone 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 stole an iPhone and then discovered it was locked, however, the police have already been notified and are on their way as we speak. Well, perhaps not, 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’ve got a backup you can restore it and it’ll be as good as new, except 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 that you will need the Apple ID and password that were used to originally set up the device. That’s the password for the Apple ID, rather than the passcode for the device – they’re two separate things.
Follow these steps to restore an iPad or iPhone from Recovery Mode:
- Charge up the device to at least 20 percent.
- 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 8 or 8 Plus, or an X-series iPhone, press and release volume up, press and release volume down, then press and hold the 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 power button at the same time, until you see the iTunes screen. For 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 (or Face 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 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, but you’ll need to be good with computers (or at least capable of handling yourself using the Command Line in Terminal).
Read this review of Elcomsoft iOS Forensic Toolkit for more information about how forensics software works.
How do law enforcement 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 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 asked how this was done – arguing that if a security vulnerability was exploited this represented a danger to other iPhone owners and needed to be patched – but the FBI refused to say, even when a Freedom of Information lawsuit was filed by a number of media organisations. A court subsequently ruled that these details were national security secrets and therefore exempt from disclosure.
It’s comforting for iPhone owners that Apple is so determined to protect their privacy that it will stare down the might of the US government, but worrying that someone has worked out how to bypass the security. And we don’t know who or how – it was initially reported that the Israeli firm Cellebrite bypassed the passcode, but the Washington Post later claimed professional hackers used a zero-day vulnerability.
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 (the Secure Enclave) and Apple has claimed it wouldn’t be able to break into these devices, even if wanted to.