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You can use Face ID and unlock your iPhone while wearing a mask, but there's a catch

Ever since Apple's iOS 14.5 update, you can unlock your iPhone while wearing a face mask. But you do need an Apple Watch for it to work.

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Since the release of iOS 14.5, Apple made it a little easier to unlock your iPhone while wearing a mask. 

Patrick Holland/CNET

Unlocking the iPhone with Face ID during the pandemic has been an exercise in frustration, and for good reason. Instead of your iPhone unlocking as soon as the screen lights up, you're instantly asked to enter your PIN code. It slows the entire process down, and is incredibly annoying. 

But, Apple has since solved this problem (kind of) with the release of iOS 14.5 in April. The update came after Apple's first event of 2021, where the company announced new iPad Pro models, the Tile-like AirTag, an Apple TV with a new remote, a purple iPhone and colorful iMacs. iOS 14.5 brought a few handy features to the iPhone, including ad-tracking permissionsrevamped Siri voices and the ability to unlock your iPhone using Face ID while wearing a face mask.

Since then, we've seen a few more updates including iOS 14.6 and iOS 14.7 ahead of the general release of iOS 15 later this month. (Here's how you can download the public beta of iOS 15 now.) 

After you install iOS 14.5 or later, you'll be able to unlock your iPhone instantly, therefore avoiding having to type in your pin each time you want access, or taking off your mask and putting it on again. 

Here's the catch (because there's always a catch): You need an Apple Watch in order for this to work. Apple borrowed the Apple Watch unlock feature for Mac users and brought it to the iPhone. Below I'll walk you through how to set up the new Face ID unlock feature, and show you how it works.

Unlock with Apple Watch

Make sure your watch is nearby when you set up Unlock with Apple Watch. 

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Where to find and turn on Unlock with Apple Watch

Once your iPhone is running iOS 14.5 or later and your Apple Watch has WatchOS 7.4 installed, you can turn on Unlock with Apple Watch with a few taps. 

Open the Settings app on your iPhone and then select Face ID & Passcode, enter your PIN when asked. Next, scroll down until you find the section titled Unlock with Apple Watch. The name of your Apple Watch should be listed there. Next to it is a toggle to turn the feature on or off. Slide that switch to the On position and then back out of the Settings app. 

Raise your phone and before you know it, it's unlocked thanks to your watch. 

GIF by Jason Cipriani/CNET

How to use the new unlock feature

Going forward, whenever you're wearing a face covering, all you have to do is hold your phone up like you normally would to unlock it with Face ID. You'll feel a haptic tap on your wrist, letting you know your watch was used to unlock your phone. 

The alert on your watch is more than just an acknowledgment that your phone was unlocked, though. It includes a button to lock your phone, in case it was unlocked by someone else. It's a security feature to ensure that someone else doesn't pick up your phone and unlock it while wearing a mask. While unlikely that it will happen, it's a reassuring fallback method to keep your data safe.

Unlock with Apple Watch is one of many features introduced in iOS 14.5. Improvements include plenty of hidden features, along with new privacy features and the ability to create custom app icons. You can also check out the latest iPhone update, iOS 14.7, or learn more about the upcoming iOS 15