I think it's safe to say we've all forgotten a password at some point. For online accounts, you can just click a few links, enter your email address and then reset your password. But what happens when you forget the password to log into your Mac? After trying, then retrying the password you thought was correct, it's only natural to want to panic. Don't. Instead, take a deep breath. You're not permanently locked out. Apple knows that a forgotten password can be a personal hell, especially if you're working on a deadline. Because of that, MacOS includes a tool for this exact scenario.
There are a few different methods you can use, and the road you take to unlock your Mac without a password could depend on whether you linked your Apple ID to your user account on your Mac during setup, or if you have one of the new M1 Macs. If you didn't link your Apple ID, that's OK, there's still another option to reset your account password. Here's how to get started regaining control over your Mac computer.
Use your Apple ID to reset your Mac's password
Ideally, you'll have linked your Apple ID to your user account on your Mac during the initial setup, which will make it possible to reset your user password with just a few clicks.
After entering the wrong user password three times, you'll be asked if you want to restart your computer to view the password recovery options. Once it reboots, you'll then be asked to sign in with your Apple ID, select the user account you want to reset the password for, and then enter a new user account password.
Use another admin account to unlock your Mac
If you share your Mac with friends or family members and they forgot their password, odds are you'll be able to reset it for them. The key here is that you need access to an admin user account.
Usually, the person who first set up the Mac has an admin account by default, but you can check by logging in to your account and opening System Preferences > Users & Groups and viewing the list of user accounts on your Mac. Just below the user name will be the account type -- if it says "Admin" you can reset user passwords.
To do so, from that same Users & Groups screen, click on the lock and enter your admin name and password when prompted. Next, select the user you need to reset the password for and then click on the button labeled Reset Password and follow the instructions.
Recovery Mode is the next best bet
If neither of those methods will work, you'll need to boot your Mac into Recovery Mode in order to access the password reset tool. I've found the easiest way to do that is to start by completely powering down your Mac.
From there, the process to getting into Recovery Mode will depend on the kind of Mac you have. For Macs with an Intel processor, press and hold the Command and R keys on your keyboard, then press the power button. Hold Command+R until you see a progress bar show up below the Apple logo. You can also get into Recovery Mode by restarting your Mac and trying to time the keyboard combo of Command+R, but in my experience, starting with your Mac turned off is the most reliable method.
For the recently released Macbook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac Mini that use Apple's M1 processor, you'll need to turn off the computer and then press and hold the power button until you're presented with an options button. Click it and then select Recovery. (We have a more thorough walkthrough of Recovery Mode on the M1 Macs.)
With your Mac now in Recovery Mode, click on Utilities in the menu bar followed by Terminal. A new window will show up, waiting for you to enter a command. Type "resetpassword" as one word, without the quotes, and press Return.
Close the Terminal window, where you will then find the Reset Password tool. Follow the prompts, which include signing in with your Apple ID and then selecting the user account you need to change the password for.
If FileVault is enabled on your Mac, you're still OK
FileVault is an optional MacOS feature that encrypts your Mac's hard drive and all of the data stored on it. It's typically turned on during initial setup, or you can turn it on in System Preferences at a later time.
If you have FileVault turned on, you have two additional options to reset your user password. You can wait up to a minute on the user login screen for a prompt to show up that instructs you to press the power button to restart the Mac into Recovery mode. Follow the instructions to restart your computer, after which you should see a Reset Password window show up.
The other option is to use the Recovery Key that you should have written down when you enabled FileVault. Let's be honest, most of us don't do that, but if you did you can enter the recovery key when asked for it after three failed login attempts. Be sure to use uppercase letters and to enter the hyphens -- they're required.
Any method we outlined is an effective way of regaining access to your account, or if your child forgot their password. Of course, if you can use this to get into your Mac, so can anyone who has access to your computer. You can prevent that from happening, you'll just need to be more proactive during setup with storing recovery keys and remembering your password. Here's how to lock down your Mac.