What to do when keyboard commands don’t work at startup on your Mac

Holding down certain keys when your Mac boots can allow access to certain features. But sometimes your keyboard prevents these keyboard commands from working.

imac mac keyboard mouse

A minor puzzle arrived from a reader who was trying to choose his boot drive by holding down the Option key at startup. OS X has a variety of keyboard combinations you can press to invoke different modes on startup, like Command-R for OS X Recovery, which boots from a special partition and lets you run Disk Utility and Terminal. (Apple has a list of all commands; it’s surprisingly long.)

But it wasn’t working for said reader. He wondered if some IT person in his firm had managed to install a bypass, but I had another idea. OS X doesn’t always recognize keyboards at boot that it does when you reach the login screen. So you can pointlessly hold down a key or a combination of keys, and nothing happens at startup, but then you have full keyboard access when it’s time to enter a password or use arrow keys or the Tab key to move around the login screen.

In his case, he was using a recent Apple Wireless Keyboard. Plugging it in via the USB-to-Lightning charging cable solved the problem, and allowed it to be recognized and used during the startup process. This can also happen with other Bluetooth keyboards, or even non-standard keyboards. OS X supports a narrower range of standard keyboards during startup than it does when all the drivers load for OS X later in the process.

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We’ve compiled a list of the most commonly asked questions we get, and the answers to them: read our super FAQ to see if you’re covered. If not, we’re always looking for new problems to solve! Email yours to mac911@macworld.com including screen captures as appropriate. Mac 911 cannot reply to email with troubleshooting advice nor can we publish answers to every question.

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