Laptop passwords do not work - what have I done?
September 19, 2018 4:33 PM   Subscribe

I have a Macbook Air. This morning, I could log into my account using a password at start-up. Now I can't - it gives me an error message. This is the administrator account; the other account's password doesn't work either. What to do?

So when you start your laptop, you get a password request. I type in my password and it gives me an error. I am confident that I have not updated my computer or changed my password.

What gives? Is this a hardware problem? Can I fix it? Is it some fiendishly clever bit of remote hacking? (I assume not?) It's been months since I've used my laptop anywhere but on my home wireless which is password-protected.
posted by Frowner to Computers & Internet (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is the capslock key on, perhaps? All I can think of, assuming you've been typing everything in proper case. What happens when you power off the machine and reboot?

A final thought, do you use Filevault? If so, you might be able to decrypt/log in with your iCloud password.
posted by Alensin at 4:42 PM on September 19, 2018

When capslock is on, the login screen will show an icon in the password field.

Another possibility is that a key is broken and doesn't register, or that one of the modifier keys is stuck in a down position and is changing what you're typing.
posted by meowzilla at 4:47 PM on September 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I suppose one way to get around those possibilities is to plug in an external keyboard.
posted by meowzilla at 4:47 PM on September 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

An error message or an incorrect password message?
posted by praemunire at 4:55 PM on September 19, 2018

Capslock is not on. I do not use FileVault. When you type an incorrect password, the little icon just shakes angrily - there is no text.

I have restarted. I have not been able to get into Terminal from the Disk Utility - there just isn't anywhere to open it. It's not like a desktop where you get a dropdown.

posted by Frowner at 4:58 PM on September 19, 2018

Long shot, but can you do Safe Mode, or log in as a guest?

You might also try this workaround to create a new admin account and see if that lets you get in.
posted by halation at 5:02 PM on September 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do you ever use a different keyboard layout and could it have switched accidentally? Can you check the menubar to see that the correct US keyboard layout is selected?
posted by lettersoflead at 5:09 PM on September 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you may have already tried this, but just in case:

If you turn off the computer and then turn it on while holding Command-R (you can let go after the progress bar appears) it should go into recovery mode.

There, you should see a window in the center of the screen that says "macOS Utilities". Just ignore that window, don't open Disk Utility. At the top of the screen should be a menu bar, with dropdown "Utilities" that will let you open the Terminal.

Typing the command "resetpassword" in the terminal and pressing return should hopefully open up a tool to reset your password. I am not sure this will work if FileVault is turned off (I can only test on my own computer where FileVault is turned on).

Whether this works or not, the Terminal app at least gives you someplace where you can type and see the text. So try mashing on the keyboard and a problem might become apparent (if a key is broken, stuck, or if the layout has switched).
posted by vogon_poet at 5:13 PM on September 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would certainly test the keyboard from Terminal in Recovery Mode as vogon_poet suggests.

I am not sure this will work if FileVault is turned off

This password reset tip absolutely works with FileVault off, BUT it should really only be done as a last resort as it make using the user account a pain if one doesn’t know how to fix the issues it leads to (notably that the Keychain doesn’t get unlocked so a lot of things go a bit wonky).
posted by bcwinters at 5:22 PM on September 19, 2018

You may be able to use your icloud account to reset the laptop password. If not (depends on how you have it set up), go with vogon_poet's single-user mode reset. Has worked for me in the past.
posted by pompomtom at 5:23 PM on September 19, 2018

Oh also just to be clear: when you open the terminal you should see something like


Type "resetpassword", except without the quotes, so that you see

-bash-3.2# resetpassword

Then press return.

If you are already familiar with the command line or if this seemed obvious, then I apologize. I have just spent the last couple weeks teaching people how to use the command line, and ambiguous things like those quotation marks often tripped people up, so I wanted to be as explicit as possible.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:37 PM on September 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

Count the characters entered as dots on your password to see if it lines up with what you type, in combo with an external keyboard if possible to check for stuck/non registering keys as mentioned by others
posted by TheAdamist at 5:41 PM on September 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

For testing the keyboard, you can type the password on the userid line.
posted by theora55 at 5:58 PM on September 19, 2018 [12 favorites]

Another thing to check is the keyboard layout in use. There is a dropdown on the top right corner of the login screen you can use to check.
posted by doomsey at 8:05 PM on September 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

ambiguous things like those quotation marks often tripped people up

That happens a lot, which is why I've settled on using boldface instead of quotes when telling people what to type or paste into Terminal, like this:

Open a Terminal window, type resetpassword and press Enter.

I find that boldface is usually more likely to be noticed and taken as implicitly quoted in this kind of context than the monospace text more often employed for the same purpose. But I'll use a block of monospace with blank lines above and below if I'm presenting more than a single line for people to paste in, because boldface is just too shouty for that.

As to the original problem, I agree that when I've seen this kind of thing happening it's generally some kind of keyboard failure causing it, and I second the suggestion to try using an external keyboard if there's one handy. Note that the external keyboard won't help if the original keyboard failure mode involves a stuck-down modifier key, but it certainly will for the far more common crumb-in-a-keyswitch syndrome (which theora55's excellent suggestion will easily detect).
posted by flabdablet at 5:04 AM on September 20, 2018

Also, the fact that a keyboard layout dropdown exists at all on the login screen gives rise to the distinct possibility that it's been exercised either accidentally or maliciously to select a layout that breaks your password; swapping AZ for QW, for example, or " for @.
posted by flabdablet at 5:10 AM on September 20, 2018

First: I borrowed a keyboard at work and this is a keyboard problem. I suspect "crumb in a key switch" since when I opened up my laptop under the bright light of work, it looked....greasy. And I'd be lying if I said I never had dinner while reading the internet.

Second: Most of the things that you all describe don't work for my laptop. It's a macbook air, and there is no dropdown in the log-in screen. Also, there is no dropdown to open the terminal in recovery mode. I don't know if this is some super-sophisticated idiot-proofing by Apple or what, but I'll ask when I go in to get it repaired.

I mean, if for some reason the repair costs more than a couple of hundred dollars I'll probably replace the computer, since I bought it more than five years ago, but hopefully it's just that the keyboard underworld is full of crumbs because I am gross.

Anyway. I will be confined to running metafilter, wikipedia and other text-based sites on an old, old laptop until next week, since there aren't a lot of repair slots available at shops on the busline.
posted by Frowner at 6:23 AM on September 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

Most crumb-in-a-keyswitch problems readily succumb to a goodly blast from the compressed air handpiece that just about any auto repair workshop will let you borrow the use of for two minutes. Just don't go in hard on full blast until you have a good sense of how badly the handpiece you're using wants to tear off your keytops and fling them to the greasiest and least accessible corner of the workshop. Or you could wimp out and try a can of compressed air. Personally I've had more luck with the compressor handpieces.
posted by flabdablet at 7:08 AM on September 20, 2018

Apple laptop keyboards are notoriously unreceptive to compressed air solutions. The keys are flush and tightly set. Prying them up breaks them entirely as often as it helps remove offending debris. A repair is your best bet. Good luck!
posted by invincible summer at 8:22 AM on September 20, 2018

First: I borrowed a keyboard at work and this is a keyboard problem.

I assume this means you can log in with a separate keyboard?

A thing that can work for some crumb situations is putting the MBA on its side when it's open and gently knocking it against a table/desk. Also if you know which key it is you can try to crunch the little crumb or whatever it is up by repeatedly mashing the key down and sort of moving your finger around the key (you can do this while the laptop is off)

If you or someone you know are handy, replacement keys are fairly inexpensive. If you decide to replace the laptop, this will make it continue to have value to someone else even if it's useless to you.
posted by jessamyn at 6:21 PM on September 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

My Air's keyboard crapped out a few months back (some electronics problem, I think) and I looked into repairing it myself. It turns out, the replacement keyboard, backlight and screw kit costs around $30 on EBay and I was able to figure out how to do it from Youtube and iFixit. It's a difficult repair, though--you need to disassemble the entire computer, rip the old keyboard out, breaking the rivets and then screw the new one in place with screws in the rivet holes.

I ended up just paying a local shop CDN$200 to do it (I didn't shop around, though--I may have been able to get it done for less) because I didn't want my main laptop unavailable for so long, but it's definitely fixable, even if pulling off the keycaps and cleaning it doesn't work. And even if you decide to replace it, someone can make use of the old one.
posted by suetanvil at 8:18 AM on September 21, 2018

If you're curious, and for anyone who may later find this page via search, it seems like there is a macOS bug in Recovery Mode that people sometimes run into. I couldn't find any certain information about causes or fixes, just lots of confused people getting told to click on a Utilities menu that isn't there.
posted by vogon_poet at 3:48 PM on September 22, 2018

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