How to recover iPhone and iPad data from a backup without the device’s passcode

Apple strongly protects data stored on an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple Watch, and macOS (with FileVault enabled or a T2 Security Chip, or both). However, there’s an exception for mobile devices that can be useful in extremis, such as if you’ve forgotten your passcode (say, for an older device), you’re helping someone who has forgotten it (possibly due to dementia or an accident), or you need to recover data that you’ve inherited or are working on on behalf of a family.

iOS and iPadOS backups aren’t nearly as secure as the data stored on devices. This means you may be able to retrieve a backup with all the data—even including stored passwords and other personal information—to another device under your control.

Backups made on a Mac via iTunes (Mojave and before) and the Finder’s device window (Catalina and later) can have a password set for them, and that password is distinct from the passcode. Some people also choose not to encrypt

For iCloud backups, only the iCloud account password is required, and various methods exist to recover Apple ID access even if the password is lost so long as devices remain accessible.

If you’re in any of the situations above, here’s how to proceed. Make sure you’ve first backed up the iOS or iPadOS device you’re going to restore onto separately, or you are comfortable losing all its unique data.

iTunes or Finder iOS/iPadOS backup

To restore a Mac-based backup, follow these steps:

  1. Connect the device via USB to the Mac that has the backup stored on it.
  2. You will likely be prompted to enter the device’s passcode to “trust” the computer. Enter the passcode and tap Trust.
  3. Either launch iTunes and click the device icon (Mojave and earlier) or, in the Finder, select the device in the sidebar.
  4. Under the Backups section, you can click Restore Backup and choose a timestamped backup from a list. If the backup has a lock icon next to the device’s name in the list, it’s encrypted.
  5. If prompted for a password, try any that you have available. There’s no penalty or lockout period as with a mobile device if you guess incorrectly. You can also check the person’s password vaults if you have access, including the system Keychain in Applications > Utilities > Keychain, although the macOS account password is required.

When the restore operation is complete, you should have access to any data on the original phone or tablet on the substitute device. If a Mac-based backup was encrypted, you may also have access to any stored accounts, although it’s likely that you’ll be prompted in some cases to re-enter those passwords.

Shifting the phone number from the original iPhone to this one can help with two-factor authentication and password resets. Contact the carrier to find out about moving the phone number. You may need a PIN for the carrier, power of attorney for someone incapacitated, or a death certificate and proof of executorship or other power.

iCloud backup

iCloud backups remain vulnerable to crackers and government subpoenas, because while they are encrypted at rest on Apple’s servers, their data isn’t locked with an irretrievable hardware key as it is when it’s on your iPhone or iPad. Instead, the iCloud password is the only bar.

You’ll need the iCloud password from the person whose phone or tablet it is, or use the Apple ID recovery process to try to reset the password.

Beware, though: If the owner is dead, Apple doesn’t include “survivorship” for its accounts. If you inform Apple that the person is gone and provide proof, Apple will delete the account and all its data.

On a device you want to restore, follow these steps:

  1. In Settings > account name > Find My, disable Find My iPhone/iPad.
  2. In Settings > General > Reset, tap Erase All Content and Settings and agree to all the prompts.
  3. The phone or tablet restarts as a device ready to be set up from scratch. Follow the steps to set it up, and on the Apps & Data screen, tap Restore from an iCloud Backup and sign in with the original device’s iCloud account name and password.
  4. You can now select among backups if there are multiple ones; they’re identified by date and time.
  5. You may be prompted to enter an App Store/iTunes Store password if purchased items used a separate Apple ID; be sure you have that, too, or can obtain it after restoring.
  6. Wait (sometimes a long while) for the device to finish restoring.

Ask Mac 911

We’ve compiled a list of the questions we get asked most frequently along with answers and links to columns: read our super FAQ to see if your question is covered. If not, we’re always looking for new problems to solve! Email yours to mac911@macworld.com including screen captures as appropriate, and whether you want your full name used. Not every question will be answered, we don’t reply to email, and we cannot provide direct troubleshooting advice.

Clair J. Wright
Clair J. Wright is an experienced B2B marketing/tech content writer, who is diligently committed for growing your online presence. Her writing doesn’t merely direct the audience to take action, rather it explains how to take action for promising outcomes.

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