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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Quicky erase your MacBook’s user folder

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

A friend of mine emailed me the other day to ask how he could wipe the data off of his MacBook before sending it back to his employer. The company was shipping him a new MacBook, and he didn’t want to send the old one back with email and other personal data intact.

This is a challenge I face a lot, too, as a frequent reviewer of Apple hardware. After a week or two with most of those products, they go back in the box and are sent back to Apple… ideally without any of my personal data still residing on them.

There are plenty of ways to wipe your drive. If you’re running OS X Lion or later, your Mac almost certainly has a special disk partition called OS X Recovery. The quick and dirty way to wipe your entire hard drive is to reboot your Mac (after transferring all of your data elsewhere and logging out of iTunes, iMessage, and iCloud, of course!) and hold down Command-R until the Apple logo appears. At this point, your Mac is booting into the recovery partition.

Once you’ve booted into Recovery, you can open Disk Utility and erase your drive. (If you’re worried about someone reading your files, set it to erase securely.) This is kind of the atomic bomb of Mac formatting, because the next person to use the device will need to install OS X from scratch.

My preferred method is simpler, doesn’t require a reboot, and leaves OS X intact:

  • Open the Users & Groups pane in the System Preferences app
  • Click the lock in the bottom left corner to unlock your system preferences

  • Click the plus icon in the bottom left corner of the list of users on the system and make a new Administrator account with a simple name like “apple” or “user” or “macbook” and the same name as the password. For the password hint, consider a phrase like “the name of this user is also the password.” We’re not looking for security here.

  • Once the new user is created, log out of your MacBook. (Again, be sure you’ve already transferred your data elsewhere.)

  • Log back into the MacBook as the new user you just created.

  • Go back to the Users & Groups pane in the System Preferences app, and click the lock to unlock again.

  • Select your personal account (the one you just logged out of) and click the minus button in the bottom left corner of the list of users.

  • Choose “Delete the home folder” and “Erase home folder securely”.

You may need to wait a while for the secure deletion to succeed, or it may be nigh-instantaneous. But once it’s done and you can quit out of the System Preferences app, your most important stuff has been wiped out. (Apps you installed may remain on the drive, but unless you were storing important files outside of your personal user folder—which isn’t usually the case—things should be fine.)

Then you can shut down the computer and hand it off to whomever wants it next.

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