How to Fix the Mac question mark folder on startup


What is the Mac question mark folder?

If you’ve never seen anything like this before, it’s easy to think that your computer is probably on its way out, but let’s not jump to conclusions yet. “Macintosh HD” with a big white question mark where files and folders should be can mean only one thing: like everything in IT, it can be fixed 🙂

Why do I get the mac question mark folder?

A variety of things can cause a Mac to throw up this folder with an ominous question-mark icon including:

  1. A corrupt system file
  2. Interference from third-party software such as backup utilities or encryption tools
  3. Firmware issues.
  4. Startup issues with the Mac
  5. Issues with your hard drive

The Mac’s EFI partition is responsible for starting up your computer. If there’s a problem with this partition, you’ll see the “macOS could not be installed/started on your computer” error message when you try to boot into Recovery Mode (while holding down Command+R). A usable, corrupted hard drive that sometimes shows up as a white or gray screen at startup or while rebooting. Any files stored on it will not appear to be available once booted back up to the normal desktop either, including invisible files.DS_Store and Thumbs.DB (these are hidden by default). If the Macintosh HD was moved to an external volume using macOS Recovery, the files on it will still not be visible.

How to Fix Mac Startup with Question Mark Folder?

  1. Reset the default startup disk 

Step 1: Reset the default startup disk

Restarting your Mac is one of the basic steps for solving problems, especially when it doesn’t load normally, so you should start with this step first.

Let’s move on..

The first step in resolving an issue where macOS doesn’t show up at startup is to reset the default startup disk. You can do this by restarting your Mac and holding down Command+R when you hear the startup chime (or see the Apple logo). This brings up macOS Utilities. From here, select Disk Utility then clicks Continue in the lower right corner of the window that opens. From there, select Macintosh HD from the left-hand column of disks and then click the Restore button. You’ll be asked to create a name for the disk and select a destination, which should be your Mac’s internal drive if possible. Select Restore and let Disk Utility do its work. macOS deletes the hidden Recovery HD partition as part of this process, so it could take as long as 45 minutes before you can start your Mac again.

Disadvantages of repairing the startup drive: Repairing the drive from within Recovery Mode will replace any files that are missing or damaged. If you have a Time Machine backup, you can restore your data after the repair is finished. A bootable backup volume or another external volume can also be used as a temporary home for your most important files if you’re concerned about recovering everything before reinstalling macOS, which would overwrite anything still stored on “Macintosh HD”.

Step 2: Repair the startup disk with macOS Utilities

If step one does not help please try these options:

Repair missing or damaged system files

  1. Open Terminal from Utilities in menu bar > type “terminal” without quotes and press Enter key Follow command lines below, don’t forget to put a space between each line. Type Command+C to copy and Command+V to paste (or alternative, click on uri bar and use the dropdown menu)
  2. Type “diskutil list” without quotes Press Enter key. It should return a list of drives. Ensure that the hard drive entry highlighted in red is your Mac’s boot disk (This will be something like /dev/disk0 or /dev/rdisk0 – if you’re not certain which one it is, don’t worry about it)
  3. Enter_ “sudo /Applications/Utilities/Disk\ –volume /Volumes/” Type Disk Utility > Select your Mac’s internal drive > Click First Aid tab > Run Full Check plugin at the top left corner > Repair Disk button > If you get an error, then just click on Repair Disk again and it will most likely fix itself. Boot from the external hard drive by restarting your Mac and immediately holding down the Option/Alt key
  4. Enter “sudo diskutil resetUserPermissions /” Type sudo diskutil resetUserPermissions Press Enter key Look for a message in the Terminal output which says: You have now enabled the Root user. Please use “diskutil enableUserPlugin <plugin name>” to make a plugin enabled as root per each launch of OS X.
  5. Type diskutil disableUserPlugin
  6. Press Enter key Restart your Mac
  7. When you’re asked to choose a startup disk, select the hard drive in question.
  8. When macOS Utilities launches, choose Disk Utility
  9. Select your startup volume and click Verify Disk Permissions The output should show that you have good permissions on all files. If it shows errors, Fix Disk Permissions by selecting “Repair Disk Permissions” in the menu.
  10. Open terminal and type sudo /usr/sbin/installer -pkg “MacOSXUpdCombo10.13.6.19G20180809” -target /
  11. Press Enter key Allow the installation to complete before rebooting when prompted! When OS X restarts, it should boot correctly without the error symbol appearing when you hold down Cmd + R during startup to load Recovery mode again This time around, Disk Utility will include a “First Aid” option. Click on Verify Disk and allow it to complete before clicking disk repair.
  12. When the “Disk Repair Completed!” window appears, select Quit from its menu and restart the Mac.

Step 3. Verify if it’s hardware related

If you have just updated or changed any hardware components in your machine, use Apple Hardware Test (AHT) to check if there are problems with the CPU, memory, etc… Download AHT from Apple’s support site. When running AHT (, choose Test > Run Full Tests Follow the prompts until completion.

If you see an issue with your storage (HDD / SSD), your next step is to replace the faulty HDD or SSD cable onboard. Contact our trained Mac technicians to replace your storage device.

Step 4. If there are no hardware problems

If you are sure that there are no hardware problems with your Mac, use macOS Recovery Disk Assistant to create a new bootable macOS installer on an external USB drive. Recover macOS from an external disk by holding down Command-R at startup Once it’s complete, choose Reinstall macOS to erase your hard disk and reinstall a fresh copy of macOS.

You can also use automatic Mac system recovery software to recover lost data from the Mac question mark folder after you have fixed it.

Step 5. Remove files from the Library folder

If nothing works, remove all third-party files in ~/Library/ folder. After that, reinstall macOS to a new drive or a flash drive. This method is applicable in case you have not created an installation image when you installed the OS for the first time.

Step 6. Restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup.

Restore your Mac from a Time Machine backup or another external drive by clicking on Reinstall macOS and following the prompts.

In case of failure, backup data then format/reinstall macOS


To avoid getting stuck with a Mac question mark folder on startup in the future, back up your files regularly using Time Machine – Apple’s built-in file backup app, so that if anything goes wrong, you’re always able to restore previous versions of your data.

I am a computer engineer holding a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, complemented by a Master's in Business Administration from University of Strathclyde, Scotland. I currently work as a Senior IT Consultant in Melbourne, Australia. With over 15 years of...