How to: Recover a Locked and Disabled iPhone or iPad

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Either through fat fingers, an errant Bluetooth keyboard, or a complete brain fart, sometimes we not only get the passcode to our device wrong, but we get completely locked out. Apple gives us 6 tries before you get a time-based cooling off period, but eventually if you keep trying (and failing) your device is disabled. What then? Well, the solutions are easy, but the most important thing is planning ahead to lessen the pain. Because all the solutions have a certain degree of “ouch” factor to them.

Apple has a support article on this very topic: iOS: Device disabled after entering wrong passcode. Which if you read the scenarios, well, you might be cursing a lot more. However, after I tell you how to get back to a usable device, I’ll tell you how to lessen the pain that the solution causes.

What Apple says to do

Let’s go through what Apple suggests you do (and the ramifications) first:

If you have synced the device with iTunes…

  1. Connect with iTunes (and you’ll probably get an error)
  2. Right-click on the device name (in iTunes 11 you’ll want to show the sidebar for this from the View menu) and choose Back Up
  3. When the back up is done, Restore

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Here’s the thing that bugs me about this (and all the solutions) it’s this line: “You may be able to reset the passcode by restoring the device.” (emphasis mine). May? Yikes.

Apple also says that if when you connect your device to iTunes and you’re prompted for the passcode…try another computer you synced with (which is strange, because you can only sync with one machine), otherwise you’ll have to try the “Never synced with iTunes” option (below).

Notes on this solution: If your backup wasn’t encrypted, then you’ll have to re-enter your passwords for accounts on your device. On the plus side, the passcode lock will be off. Also, I think you might be able to skip step to backup your device if you have a recent backup already. These notes assume (safely) that you might not have synced your device for a bit and maybe have things you don’t want to lose.

If you have never synced with iTunes…

I’ll tell you right now this is a rather nuclear option. It involves putting the device into Recovery Mode and wiping it out. Yep, you’ll be starting over. Yes, you can still download all your apps and music, but you’ll have to do it manually.

Okay the KB article shows that when you connect your device you’ll see this screen:

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(Yikes!)

What you do to put your device into Recovery Mode is this.

  1. Unplug the sync cable from your device
  2. Turn off your device (hold the power button down, slide to power off)
  3. Press and hold the Home button and plug in the sync cable
  4. Don’t let go of the Home button until you see “Connect to iTunes”. When you see it, let go.
  5. Then iTunes will Restore the device (to factory). Which means you’ll have some work to do to get things back.

Notes on this solution: Yeah this is harsh. Don’t worry about your purchases. Apple knows what you’ve bought and you’ll be able to get your apps and music. If you use iTunes Match it will be pretty easy, but Apple also has a this support article on how to download your past purchases.

No computer in sight. Now what?

2013-01-12 09.22.49Couple things here. First, you better hope you turned “Find My iPhone” on when you set up your device, because you’ll need that. Not just like “kinda need”, like “Obi Wan you’re our only hope” need.

Apple suggests to get to a computer and use iCloud.com or other iOS device that has the Find My iPhone app installed and use the “Erase Phone/iPad” option. Then they offer this helpful tidbit:

“If you have been using iCloud to back up, you may be able to restore the most recent backup to reset the passcode.”

Right, another, erase and start over option. Also with another “may work” caveat. We’re at triple “yikes” if you’re keeping count.

From all these solutions, you have probably gathered the key lessening the pain of the process is having a backup of your device—and the newer the better. How do you make sure your device is being backed up? Thought you’d never ask…

Lessen the pain with backups

There is a phrase that repeats over and over in the instructions, I’m sure you noticed, it’s “restore from backup”. Yeah, another subtle nag that you need to make sure you back up your device (and computer, btw) frequently. There are two ways to backup your device: iCloud and local. I’ll show you both options as well as the pros and cons of both.

It’s important to note that you can only pick one of the options: iCloud or local.

Back up through iTunes/Local backup

This is the simplest (and fastest) way to backup your device. When you connect your device to iTunes, on the main info screen scroll to the Backups section and click the radio button to Automatically backup to This Computer. If you chose the optional encryption then the passwords you have saved on your device will be saved too. However, and why I don’t choose this option, this is another password you have to remember. If you forget your backup password, you’re even more hooped (because it’s wipe and start over time).

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Down below you’ll notice I also pointed out the WiFi sync option. If this is turned on then your device will sync (and backup) to iTunes when:

  • iTunes is running on your host machine
  • The device is plugged in and charged/charging
  • It is connected to WiFi on the same network as the host computer

Important notes about this that I’ve found through using it (and why I typically keep it off):

  • If you forget to leave iTunes open, then it doesn’t sync or backup
  • It can be really, really slow
  • With the funky WiFi issues with iOS 6 (like devices not staying connected when locked), you might find you haven’t been syncing (or backing up) nearly as often as you thought.

If you don’t have a computer you can regularly backup to, then iCloud is your only choic. It’s also a “set and forget” option because iCloud backups are supposed to be automatically run while your device is charging.

iCloud backups

Apple gives everyone with an iCloud (aka iTunes aka Apple ID) account 5 GB of storage for free. Now, this doesn’t go too far, but it’s enough for the core stuff and a few extras. I have iCloud backups turned on for my iPad (since I consider it more like a work laptop than just a tablet), but since I haven’t (yet) opted to pay for more iCloud storage it’s the only device that is backed up to iCloud. My other two devices are backed up locally.

You can turn on iCloud backups through iTunes (see above) or through the iCloud section of settings.

Tap iCloud

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then Storage & Backup

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and turn iCloud backup on.

I’d tap “Back Up Now” if I were you, to make sure you have a backup up and ready, because iCloud backups only run when your iPad is:

  • plugged in
  • locked
  • connected to WiFi

Again, with the funky WiFi issues, it isn’t a bad idea to check once and a while to make sure your device really has been backing up when you think it has.

The trick to getting the most out of your 5 free gigs of storage is to manage the storage intelligently. There are two parts to this.

  1. What apps store to iCloud on their own
  2. What data you backup

I try to keep an eye on what other apps are stashing in iCloud and make sure that I clear out Keynote decks, Pages docs, and any other data that might be hogging space. On the backup side, I know that the core stuff is saved (it must just be a teeny tiny file really), so I only back up irreplaceable things (Camera roll and iRig recordings).

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Am I considering jumping to 15 GB of storage (adding 10 GB) for $20 a year? Totally. That $20 would give me enough space to backup all my devices to iCloud.

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I know iCloud backups get a bad rap sometimes for being slow, but I’ve found them to be okay—if you don’t keep scads of data there. Over the holidays I used it to set up my mom’s new iPad 2 for her from her first generation iPad (had to sneak onto the iPad to make sure it backed up to iCloud so I could, but that was easy) and the process took a lot less time than I feared (less than an hour, probably only 30 minutes really). When I set up my fourth generation iPad from the iCloud back up of my third generation, again, not bad. Same goes for my wife migrating from her iPad 2 to my third generation iPad. So, yeah, I use iCloud backups and I’ve used them successfully.

Final thoughts

So now you know that if you get really, really locked out of your device (to the point of it being disabled) that, yep, the solutions aren’t pretty. The only thing you can do is plan ahead in case it does ever happen to you, and planning ahead is the same advice as always:

Back up your devices, early and often

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  • Loreal

    i turned the phone off and held the phone butten but the only thing that popped up was an error code on the comp that said. (the iPhone software update server could not be contacted. i bout the phone from a friend and have never had an iphone before. i downloaded the latest version of itunes. idk what to do besides take it to some one that knows how to decode it. i cant figure it out. PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN.