Technology May 11, 2020 Last updated May 11th, 2020 3,857 Reads share

Solved – Mac Shows a Folder with Question Mark at Startup

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Most of us believe that our digital devices such as Macs, PCs, and smartphones should be working whenever we need them, so when we are stuck in a situation where those devices suddenly stop being ready it could be very stunning and frustrating.

Especially when our Mac for work stopped starting up without a warning. One of the non-booting Mac errors is that the Mac ends up with a question mark on the screen.

We have even much bigger question marks in our heads. Why would this happen? How to fix it without losing our important files?

Apple store is always there to help if you can put up with the long waiting time. But most times we can solve the issue on our own by following the solutions below in sequence.

Why Does a Flashing Folder With Question Mark Appear?

We need to understand its meaning first. The question mark at a startup means the Mac computer fails to find the startup hard drive or the folder which contains the operating system. The possible reasons why the error occurs are listed below.

Poor Connectivity

Some people demand better performance and bigger storage capacity, so they will upgrade the internal disk with another HD or SSD. When replacing the hard drive, the SATA connection may be loose or damaged. As a result, the Mac can’t find an attached hard drive for booting up.

Dual System Confusion

Mac computers support dual operating systems. It has a software called Boot Camp Assistant to help users install Windows on its hard drive. Typically, when starting up, the Mac will show us the two systems for our choice. However, the Mac would be confused when selecting the startup partition sometimes.

Corrupted Startup Disk

The damaged system files or corrupted file system of the hard drive will make the Mac unable to read, recognize or mount the startup disk. This happens more often after a software update or a major OS upgrade.

Even though the error looks concerning, we are capable of repairing it and, most importantly, rebooting the Mac and keeping our files safe.

How to Save the Files on the Unbootable Mac?

Why do we need to get the files off the Mac’s hard drive before fixing the error? In fact, our important working documents are still safe on Mac’s hard drive, but it takes a little bit effort to restore them. If we proceed directly to the fixes, those fixes may check or format the hard drive, which could cause permanent data loss.

There are two effective ways to restore Mac files.

Use the Target Disk Mode

This method will need us to connect this trouble-maker Mac to another compatible healthy Mac using FireWire or Thunderbolt cable. Next you need to reboot the failed Mac by pressing down T key before the computer chimes. After the host Mac recognizes the disk, the disk icon will appear on the desktop. Then the healthy Mac will take the unbootable Mac’s hard drive as an external hard drive. You can transfer files out from it as you do from other disks.

Purchase Data Recovery Software

There are few free programs that support salvaging files from an unbootable Mac. If the target disk mode doesn’t work because we can’t find the cable, another good Mac or the startup disk is corrupted, using a professional data recovery application will be a great choice. Among them, iBoysoft Data Recovery for Mac is the better one because it is able to retrieve Mac files from an unbootable Mac directly from Recovery Mode, instead of creating a bootable disk or installing the software.

After securing the data, we can operate the Mac to make it boot again without the fear of data loss.

How to Repair a Mac That Boots Into a Folder With Question Mark at Startup?

The solutions are discussed here including:

  • Select the startup disk manually
  • Repair the errors on the startup disk
  • Reformat the hard drive and reinstall macOS

Those solutions are not as complicated as they sound if you follow the detailed instructions carefully and patiently.

Solution 1: Select the Startup Disk Manually

Since the Mac fails to choose a startup disk, we can help the Mac to choose one by manually selecting it.

One way to do it is to reboot the Mac and press down the Option key before the Mac starts up. Then we will see the startup volumes which contain an operating system on the screen. By selecting one and click Continue.

The other way is to reboot the Mac to Recovery Mode and select the startup disk from there. Reboot the Mac and press down Command + R keys before the Mac starts up. Then release the keys until you see the Apple logo. Select Startup Disk through clicking Apple logo and System Preferences. Choose the disk or the volume which has the macOS and restart the Mac.

Solution 2: Repair the Errors on Startup Disk

As a Mac user, we might all know that First Aid in Disk Utility can help us check and repair errors on external drives. But some may not know how to use it to repair the startup disk.

We need to reboot the Mac to Recovery Mode. Then select Disk Utility in the list. Select the startup disk and run First Aid. If First Aid successfully fixes the errors, you can restart the Mac again to see it boots up correctly.

Solution 3: Reformat the Hard Drive and Reinstall macOS

If First Aid can’t repair the startup disk, it means the corruption is beyond First Aid’s repairing capability. Reformatting the hard drive and reinstall macOS will be the last solution we can try on our own.

Reboot the Mac into Recovery Mode again and choose Disk Utility again too. Select the startup disk and use Erase to reformat it. The Mac will show up the most appropriate file system in the Format section. After that, go back to macOS Utilities (or OS X Utilities for older OS versions) window and choose Reinstall macOS (or Reinstall OS X). Follow the onscreen wizard to finish the reinstallation.


When the Mac is stuck on a flashing folder with a question mark, don’t panic and try to turn on and off your Mac multiple times in case severe damages could be done to the hard drive. If the Mac is not booting up with another error, here is an overall article covering all possible errors and solutions about Mac not turning on issue.

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Jessica I.

Jessica I.

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