How to Fix Mac Folder with Question Mark at Startup?

By Vivian | Posted to Home > Mac Data Recovery Tips on March 25th, 2021 |

Summary: Follow this fix guide when your Mac shows folder with a question mark. You'll know what does this flashing question mark folder mean and how to get rid of it to boot up your Mac again.

Occasionally, you'll see certain error screens when starting up your Mac. That flashing folder with a question mark on Mac is one of those Mac boot errors.

It just appears, with no warning or pop-up in advance. You can't ignore and go past the question folder icon. Many users hope to fix this issue by a restart. However, it won't work in most cases.

Fix Mac Flashing Folder with Question Mark at Startup

Then how could you get rid of the question mark folder and boot up your Mac again?

Here is a quick overview of what you can do before you know the meaning of this flashing folder.

What does a folder with a question mark mean on Mac?

The folder with a question mark icon means that your startup disk is detected or the Mac hard drive doesn't contain a usable Mac operating system.

Mac can't find the startup disk or the system folder because of software or hardware errors, which brings out the blinking file folder at startup on your Mac.

Situations you may see the flashing question mark folder on Mac

The reasons for Mac flashing a question mark folder can be varied from cases to cases.

1. The flashing folder shows just at a normal startup

Mac Flashing Folder with question mark

It could happen if you have recently boot from an external system drive. What's more, you would see the icon if you install both Windows and Mac operating systems on your Mac machine.

In these cases, you see the flashing folder with question mark simply because of wrong setups. That's to say, your Mac is confused when selecting the startup volume.

2. The folder with question mark shows after new HD or SSD replacement

Mac Flashing Folder after new HD or SSD repalce

You could have replaced the Mac internal hard drive recently for better performance. If you're sure that you have a macOS on the new drive, then, the flashing folder might result from faulty connections.

During the disk replacement (or if you have mildly dropped the Mac), the SATA connection could get loose or damaged. So, your Mac has no startup disk to select if the Macintosh HD is not mounted.

3. The flashing folder shows after a recent macOS software update

Sometimes, this Mac has boot problems after or during the macOS update. The system files or the macOS directory could be corrupted. As a result, your Mac has trouble loading the operating system.

4. The Mac shows the question mark folder with clicking or beeping noise

In some cases, your MacBook won't turn on past the error screen due to hard drive corruption. Or what's worse, the Mac hard drive is severely damaged or even dead.

There could be some other situations. For example, the Mac boots into a black screen. But no matter how this issue happens, you are going to fix it for sure.

Troubleshooting Mac folder with a question mark issue

You could see the flashing folder on MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, or Mac mini. But anyway, you can try these methods one by one.

1. Manually select the startup drive for Mac

If your Mac displays a flashing question mark at startup, you can wait for a moment and see if it can boot past the icon. If fortunately, it continues booting up, congratulations! But just in case, you can reselect a startup disk in System Preferences > Startup disk.

If you Mac can't boot past the flashing question mark, you can manually select the startup drive. You can do this by restarting your Mac while holding down the Option key.

If you boot from an external drive, you can check these factors.

  • Make sure the hard drive is powered on, especially for some desktop drive that needs an external power source.
  • Make sure the USB port and cable is working.

Select startup drive to get rid of flashing folder

Tips: In the case of some older Mac OS X machines, you can boot from the install DVD or CD that comes along with your Mac in the optical drive.

2. Reselect the startup disk in macOS Recovery Mode

When the first methods won't work, you can boot into macOS Recovery Mode. It is part of the built-in recovery system of your Mac, which allows you to reselect the boot volume to get rid of the question mark folder icon.

To do this, you can follow these steps.

  • 1. Force your Mac to shut down by pressing the power button for seconds.
  • 2. Identify if you are using an Apple Silicon M1 Mac or not, restart your Mac and immediately press one of these key combinations to boot into macOS Recovery Mode.
  • The way to boot into macOS Recovery Mode on M1 Mac is different from old Macs.
  • macOS Recovery mode
  • 3. When you see the Apple logo or it's loading recovery options, you can let the keys go.
  • Once you see the macOS Utilities window, it means you have booted into macOS Recovery Mode. Some older Macs would show Mac OS X Utilities.
  • boot into macOS Recovery mode
  • 4. Then, you can click on the Apple logo at the upper left, choose the Startup Disk option.
  • 5. Reselect the correct Mac startup hard drive that holds a macOS.
  • select the boot volume for Mac with flashing folder

After you click on the Restart button, your Mac should then start up without the flashing question mark.

Tips: If you can't boot into macOS Recovery Mode from the local recovery system, try Internet Recovery mode by replacing the keys in Step 2 with Option + Command + R (or Shift+ Option + Command + R).

3. Repair the startup drive with Disk Utility

If you can't see any startup option in the Startup Disk window, probably, the startup drive is corrupted and that is the cause for the flashing folder with a question mark on your Mac.

Then, you need to check and repair the hard drive with First Aid to boot your Mac from this drive.

The worst situation is that you don't see your built-in startup disk even in the Disk Utility. It indicates that there's a hardware issue. You need to check the connections of your hard drive or contact the Apple authorized service for Mac repair.

Some other times, the startup drive is showing up in Disk Utility. However, Disk Utility finds issues with your startup disk that it can't repair. In this case, you need to move forward to the next part.

4. Reformat the startup drive and reinstall macOS

Disk Utility can't repair serious corruption inside your startup drive, which means you need to reformat it and assign a new file system.

However, reformatting will wipe your files off the hard drive. If you don't have a backup of your Mac, you would lose important files after reformatting.

So, to prevent data loss, here is your safe guide:

  • 1. Recover data from Mac that won't turn on. (Of course, you can ignore this step if you have a backup, or if you don't have anything important on the Mac.)
  • 1. Boot your Mac into macOS Recovery Mode and select Disk Utility from macOS Utilities.
  • 2. Select the startup drive in Disk Utility and click on the Erase button at the top menu.
  • 3. Name it as Macintosh HD, choose GUID scheme, and APFS format if you want to use macOS 10.13 and later.

Now, you'll have a fresh new Mac hard drive but it contains no Mac operating system. To boot your Mac up without the flashing folder with question mark, continue with reinstalling macOS.

external hard drive

How to Reinstall macOS to start up the Mac?

Here is a guide to reinstall macOS to start up your MacMacBook Pro, Mac mini, MacBook Air, and iMac. Read more >>

5. Check and replace the startup HDD SATA connections

You internal Mac hard dirve is working on the basis of HDD cable transmitting the electronic signals between the logic board and the hard disk drive. Therefore, once it's loose, damaged, broken, or deformed, you might get the Mac folder with quesiton mark at startup.

Here is how can you check the connector of the startup HDD.

  • Check and remove any foreign object on the connector
  • Make sure the connector is clean and corrosion-free
  • Check if the flex HDD cables are broken or damaged due to overstress and bent.

The SATA hard drive is connected to the logic board in your Mac in the way of bending 90 degrees twice. This particularly can be seen in 13” MacBook Pro 2012 model (on the edge of the super drive).

Check and repalce the Mac startup HDD cable

So, it's likely that the copper wire inside the flexible plastic cable is broken or damaged at the bent section.

Then you'll need to replace it with a good HDD cable.

If your Mac mini, MacBook Air, or MacBook Air shows folder with a question mark, you can check the SATA connection like this.

  1. 1. Open up the cover of the Mac.
  2. 2. Find the SATA connection of your hard drive. You can remove the connection and then clipped it back firmly.
  3. Check connections when Mac shows the flashing folder with a question mark

This works well if your Mac doesn't recognize the internal hard drive for booting up. But if it doesn't help, either the hard drive or the SATA connection is damaged. You'll ask for a repair or replacement service from Apple.

6. Update firmware of your Mac Computer

If you see the Mac folder with flashing question mark after a recent macOS update, it may be a result of incompatible firmware that should be automatically upgraded by the installer.

Possibly, the firmware fails to complete the update during the whole system update. Then, the new system can't be recognized by the old firmware, causing boot issues.

Then, you can manually erase the disk and reinstall the macOS with stable network connection and enough free disk space.

7. Check the lifeboat connector on the logic board

Inside MacBook Pro in 2016 and 2017 with Tochbar, a critical bridge connector called lifeboat is used to connect the SSD circuit to the CPU so the CPU can read and write data to the SSD chips.

However, if you have send it for repair and forget to put it on, or if the lifeboat connector cap is not functional, you will get the flashing folder when turning on Mac.

Check the lifeboat connector when see flashing folder on Mac

Here are some basic checks you can perform to make it work again:

  • Make sure there is a lifeboat cap and it's on.
  • Remove the lifeboat connector cap and check if it's corroded or dusty.

8. Check the faulty SSD socket or hard drive on Mac logic board

Sometimes, Mac can't find the startup drive just because the drive itself is in trouble.

Your removable SSD drives on the Mac logical board is connected using SSD sockets. Once these components are corroded, damaged, or dusty, you'll receive the "Mac folder with question mark" error on Mac booting up.

So, think if you have spilt any liquid on your Macbook Air or Pro. If you see the SSD socket is corroded, you can cut off the corrosion and map the pins with 99% alcohol. If it doesn't help, you need to replace the socket.

For most Apple iMac, pre-2013 MacBook and MacBook pro that use mechanical hard drives, the Mac flashing folder with question mark appear when there is a mechanical disk failure, and you might hear beeping or clicking noise. Or if you can't feel the vibration of the hard drive spin motor, the hard drive is dead.

Go ahead to replace or upgrade it with SSD, and reinstall Mac operating system.

Conclusion

Most of the time, errors like the circle with line through it and the folder with a question mark on the Mac screen means a system software issue. You can simply fix this by reinstalling macOS. But it could also result from the hard drive corruption.

In this case, you should get your important files off the Mac as soon as possible. Then you need to replace or repair the disk, in case it crashes your Mac again.

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