What to Do If You Lost Your iPhone Passcode and Don’t Have $1.3 Million to Unlock It

Apple was serious when it designed your iPhone’s security. Even the FBI struggled to unlock one it wanted to investigate, paying a private security firm a cool $1.3 million to do it for them. But that same bank-vault protection can come back to bite you if you’ve forgotten your passcode. However, a few simple tricks and preventative steps will help you avoid losing the photos, appointments and all the other data on your iPhone, and save a million dollars.

You can try to guess your passcode if you remember part of it, though iOS allows only ten attempts before locking the phone up permanently or erasing your data. After six failed guesses, the iPhone displays the message, “iPhone is disabled, try again in 1 minute,” and locks the phone for one minute. After the seventh failed attempt, the waiting time goes to five minutes. Eight wrong guesses bumps it to fifteen minutes. With nine failed attempts, the phone will lock for an hour. By limiting the number of tries, iOS gives you a chance at unlocking your phone while keeping it safe from a determined password guesser.

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All iPhone models beginning with the 5S have a fingerprint reader built into the Home Button, which gets you into the phone via Touch ID without a passcode. If your iPhone has Touch ID, make sure this feature is set up with your fingerprint. Note, however, that you still need a passcode to restart the phone even if Touch ID is turned on. You can’t set up Touch ID without also enabling a passcode.

A password manager app can safely store your iPhone passcode to the Cloud. If you have a momentary “brain freeze” and can’t remember the code, a password manager might just save your bacon. Some managers offer access via fingerprint or facial recognition; others, however, use a master password you must commit to memory. Popular password manager apps include True Key and LastPass. Some have a free “lite” or trial version so you can try the software with no risk. Or go for the old-school method: write your passwords down on paper and stash them in a safe place.

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You can recover an iPhone with a lost passcode by erasing the phone completely, then restoring its data from iTunes. However, this works only if iTunes has a recent backup of the phone. Backups copy all the iPhone’s data to your macOS or Windows PC, keeping the information safe if anything happens to the phone. You can even back up to iCloud if your account can hold all the phone’s contents. If you’ve never backed up your iPhone or haven’t in over a month, do it now. Backups also protect you if your phone’s ever broken or lost; you can restore all your data into a new replacement phone, in effect “cloning” the old one.

Your passcode is lost and you’re without backups. What to do? You can regain the use of your iPhone by erasing it. Apple offers three basic techniques: iTunes, Recovery, and iCloud. The first two methods require a separate Mac or Windows computer running iTunes. The last, iCloud, can be done from any browser, though the phone must already have an iCloud account. Apple provides detailed instructions on its support site.

Although erasing your iPhone appears to wipe out the old data, it’s actually still there, just no longer “mapped” in iOS. The iPhone re-uses its memory, so any new data writes over what was there before. However, if you’re careful, you can reclaim much of the old data. Various third-party utility programs, including FoneLab, Dr. Fone, and iRefone scan the phone’s data storage and can restore contacts, messages, photos and other data provided they haven’t been overwritten with new information. These apps have a shot at recovering your old data provided you act quickly.

You’re pretty much sunk if you’ve forgotten your iPhone’s passcode and have no backups or Touch ID. By resetting/erasing the phone, you can reclaim the use of the phone, but it’ll be a “blank slate,” reset to its original factory settings and all of your data gone. Although third-party recovery programs might reclaim lost files, your best bet is to restore the iPhone from an iTunes or iCloud backup, provided you have one. Or, a password manager program can help you remember your passcode.

Image credit: Setting up an iPhone from backup

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