How to Fix Mac Folder with Question Mark at Startup?

By Vivian | Posted to Home > Mac Data Recovery Tips on April 20th, 2021 |

With no warning in advance, a flashing folder with a question mark appears when your Mac startup.

What does it mean? A folder with a question mark icon means that your startup disk is not detected or doesn't have a usable Mac operating system.

Commonly, the folder with a question mark happens after you've booted from an external system drive recently, replaced a new HD or SSD, or updated a recent macOS. It could see that both software and hardware errors are the possible causes.

Fix Mac Folder with Question Mark at Startup

For the worst situation, you can't go past the question folder icon, even with a restart. So, to avoid data loss, recover files from your Mac first. Then, follow the solutions below to get rid of the blinking folder with question mark and boot up your Mac as usual.

Here are the solutions to fix the folder with question mark on Mac in this post:

Recover data from Mac showing a folder with a question mark

You can watch this video to learn how to recover data from Mac that won't turn on due to the folder with a question mark.

Data recovery is the first thing once your Mac won't boot, which can prevent forever data loss caused by some fixes. As the Mac is unbootable, you can only recover data with data recovery software like iBoysoft Mac data recovery.

Go to run iBoysoft Mac data recovery in macOS Recovery mode to get the lost files back. If you don't want to check the details, watch the above video instead.

How to fix the folder with question mark on Mac

You could see the folder with question mark on MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, iMac, or Mac mini. But anyway, you can try to reset NVRAM on your Mac first. If it doesn't work, try the following solutiuons one by one.

1. Check Startup Disk preferences

If your Mac displays a flashing folder 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 Apple menu > 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 method won't work, you can boot into macOS Recovery mode. The built-in recovery system of your Mac allows you to reselect the boot volume to fix the flashing folder with a question mark on Mac without CD.

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.
  • Note that 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 four macOS Utilities as below or similar, it means you have booted into macOS Recovery mode.
  • 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 blinking folder with 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). Make sure your Mac connected to the Internet at the same time.

3. Use Disk Utility to repair the startup disk

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 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

After trying First Aid, you still see a folder with question mark during Mac rebooting, which means your startup disk has serious corruption. 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.

However, you can follow this safe guide to reformat the startup disk without data loss:

  • 1. Recover data from Mac that won't turn on. (Of course, you can ignore this step if you have a backup.)
  • 1. Boot your Mac into macOS Recovery Mode and select Disk Utility from the 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 in macOS Recovery mode.

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. Note that ask someone prefessional to help you do this job is necessary.

  • 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 download and 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.

To re-update the firmware, 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 (Do these checks with someone professional):

  • 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/MacBook screen means a system software issue. You can simply fix this by reinstalling macOS (Remember to recover data first).

If macOS reinstallation can't fix the Mac flashing folder issue, it could also result from the hardware issues. In this case, you'd better send your Mac to a trusted repair store.

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