iPhone Face ID is pretty cool. Here's how it works and how to use it

Using your face to unlock your phone or tablet or buy something at the store feels like you're living in the future.

Jason Cipriani Contributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
Jason Cipriani
4 min read

Apple's Face ID is used to unlock your iPhone or iPad. 

Óscar Gutiérrez/CNET

When it launched Face ID in September 2017, Apple turned your close-up into the key that unlocks your iPhone. Since then, Apple has continued to expand the number and type of devices with Face ID, including the iPhone models of the last two years and the current-generation iPad Pro.

By transitioning to Face ID, Apple killed off its home button and fingerprint reader. The initial shock of relying on gestures to use your display is jarring enough, but when you add in learning how to use Face ID, the rest of the nuances of using your phone can be frustrating.

My advice? After upgrading from a Touch ID-equipped iPhone, be patient. It may take a week or two to adjust to no longer using a home button, but once you get used to Face ID, you'll forget all about it.

Before we dive into the setup process, here are the Apple devices that have Face ID, followed by a quick (and not all that nerdy) look at how it works.

Watch this: iPhone Face ID myths, tricks and why it doesn't always work

Which Apple devices have Face ID?

Here are the current iPhone and iPad models that have Face ID:


Apple's TrueDepth camera system is the magic behind Face ID. 

Apple/Screenshot by CNET

A simplified version of how Face ID works

Located at the top of your iPhone or iPad, Apple's TrueDepth camera system is made up of several components. Working in tandem, the sensors and components project 30,000 infrared dots onto your face, which they then use to map your curves and wrinkles. On an iPhone you can use Face ID only when you hold the iPhone vertically. On an iPad Pro, Face ID works in any orientation.

During the initial setup of Face ID, it converts your face map to a 2D image that it uses as a master key. Every time you wake the screen on your device after that, Face ID maps your face by projecting dos, which it compares with the master key it created during setup.

If Face ID has a match, your device unlocks. If not, you're asked to try again or enter a passcode. And all of that happens in milliseconds.

When is Face ID used?


Face ID is used to unlock your phone, for Apple Pay and to make purchases in the App Store, among other things. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

The most common use case for Face ID is unlocking your device. Activate it by tapping on the display or picking your phone up to view notifications.

But that's not all. Whenever you see the Face ID logo at the bottom of the screen (like in the screenshot above), it's actively trying to scan your face. Outside of unlocking your iPhone, Face ID is used to:

  • Authorize Apple Pay
  • Approve purchases in the App Store, iTunes, iBooks
  • Auto-fill passwords in Safari
  • Sign in to third-party apps, such as banking or password manager apps

Note that when your appearance changes slightly -- say your hair is done differently or you shaved your beard -- Face ID might fail. But Face ID feature has a cool feature in store. When you enter your passcode after it failed to recognize you, it uses that scan to learn that your appearance has changed slightly. Next time, it should recognize you without issue.

Setting up Face ID feels weird, but also kind of fun? 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

How to set up Face ID

When setting up an Apple device with Face ID for the first time, you'll be asked if you want to use Face ID. If you chose not to, you can enable it through the Settings app later. Regardless of when you set up the feature, the process is the same.

First, you'll be asked to set a passcode for use as a fallback authentication method if Face ID has trouble recognizing you. You'll also need a passcode after your your phone or tablet restarts, or it hasn't been unlocked in 48 hours.

To register your face, hold your device between 10 and 20 inches away from you. With your face centered in the circle, move your head around until the scan is complete. It's easiest to slowly move in a circle. You'll be asked to complete a second scan, after which Face ID setup will be complete.


Face ID settings are how you can take control of when and where the feature works.

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

A closer look at Face ID settings

On your iPhone or iPad, open the Settings app and select Face ID & Passcode. Enter your passcode when prompted.

Face ID's settings allow you to enable or disable the feature, as well as add an alternate face (for when you give someone else access to your phone, for example). If Face ID can't recognize you when you're wearing sunglasses, you can disable Require Attention for Face ID, which makes it possible to unlock your phone even when the TrueDepth camera can't see your eyes. 

Because Face ID features controls access to your phone and the security of your personal information, take a few minutes to double-check these security settings to make sure your data stays secure. If you're new to an iPhone that lacks a home button, we have a guide to the most common iPhone gestures you'll need to master. And, off course, we also have a gestures guide for iPad Pro users

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See all photos

Originally published year before last. Updated with new information.