What does it mean when your Mac starts up to an exclamation point in a circle?

Seeing an exclamation point icon when starting up your Mac can be worrisome, but it simply indicates that there is a potential issue that needs your attention. The exclamation point appears within a circle and is typically displayed for just a few seconds before your Mac continues to start up. There are a few common causes behind this exclamation point that are good to be aware of.

It Could Indicate an Issue with Startup Disk Selection

One of the most common reasons an exclamation point shows up at startup is because your Mac is having issues selecting the proper startup disk. Your startup disk contains the operating system files that are needed to boot up your computer.

If your Mac cannot locate the designated startup disk or is having trouble accessing files on that disk, the exclamation point appears as a warning sign. Issues with the startup disk being unresponsive, unconnected, corrupted, or otherwise problematic can trigger the exclamation point warning.

For example, if you have an external hard drive designated as the startup disk and it’s not connected when you turn on your Mac, this would lead to the exclamation point icon appearing momentarily.

How to Fix Issues with Startup Disk Selection

If the exclamation point at startup is caused by the Mac being unable to locate or access the intended startup disk, here are some steps to try fixing it:

  • Shut down your Mac completely, wait a few moments, and then turn it back on to see if the issue resolves itself.
  • Make sure all external drives and partitions are properly connected if they contain your startup disk.
  • Open System Preferences > Startup Disk and select your intended startup disk, then restart.
  • Run Disk Utility’s First Aid on the startup drive to check for errors and attempt repairs.
  • If the startup disk cannot be repaired, it may need to be erased, reformatted, and OS X reinstalled.

As long as the Mac can eventually locate and boot from the correct startup disk, the exclamation point should disappear on future boot ups.

It May Signal an Issue with System File Permissions

Another potential culprit behind the exclamation point at startup is an issue with system file permissions on your Mac. The Mac operating system relies on having proper permissions assigned to system files and folders to function correctly.

If some core system components have become corrupted or had their permissions changed incorrectly, the Mac may not be able to successfully complete the startup process. The exclamation point serves as an early warning that a permissions issue is blocking startup.

How to Verify and Fix System File Permissions

To check whether improper system file permissions are causing the exclamation point icon at startup, you can verify and repair permissions using Disk Utility:

  1. Open Disk Utility
  2. Select your Mac’s main system drive in the sidebar
  3. Click the First Aid button and then click Run
  4. This will check the drive for errors and fix any core permission issues

You can also try using the Terminal to run deeper system file checks and repairs using commands like diskutil and chown.

If any system files or folders did have incorrect permissions, this should reset them back to their proper state and allow your Mac to boot up without issue.

Problems with Login Items May Be the Cause

Login items set to automatically launch upon system startup could also be behind that alarming exclamation point icon. If you have certain apps, services, or other processes configured as login items, problems with them could halt startup.

For example, if a login item app is corrupted, incompatible with the macOS version, or triggering some kind of conflict, the Mac may not be able to fully load it at boot. The exclamation point signifies something is wrong with a login item.

How to Troubleshoot Login Items

Try these steps to determine if a login item is the culprit:

  • Boot to safe mode by holding Shift on startup, which disables login items.
  • If the exclamation icon does not appear in safe mode, a login item is likely the issue.
  • Open Users & Groups in System Preferences to view and manage your login items.
  • Try removing suspicious login items one by one and restarting to isolate the problematic app.

By selectively removing login items, you should be able to narrow down which one is causing the exclamation point and boot normally again.

Hardware Problems Could Be Preventing Startup

Failing or malfunctioning hardware components can also prevent your Mac from being able to complete the startup process. Hardware issues like bad RAM, a faulty hard drive, or problems with the logic board may be at fault.

As the Mac attempts to power on, damaged or failing hardware can cause errors that interrupt the boot process. The exclamation point is the Mac indicating a hardware component is not allowing startup to proceed.

How to Test and Fix Hardware Issues

To test for and resolve any underlying hardware problems, try the following:

  • Listen for any abnormal sounds, fans spinning loudly, or smells that may indicate hardware failure.
  • Run Apple Hardware Test or Apple Diagnostics by holding D on startup.
  • Try testing by booting to safe mode or from an external drive.
  • Check login items and permissions as well to rule out software issues.
  • IfTesting determines a faulty component, it may need replacement by an Apple technician.

Proper hardware troubleshooting can identify what exactly has failed or is causing conflicts so that the malfunctioning part can be repaired or replaced.

An Incompatible OS Update Could Be Rolling Back

If you recently attempted to install a macOS update, issues with incompatible or damaged software could also be triggering the exclamation point on startup.

For example, if a macOS update failed to install properly and left system files corrupted or core components damaged, the Mac may get stuck in a startup error loop. Or if you installed an OS update not designed for your Mac model, it would fail to work and roll back.

The exclamation point appears in these cases to indicate the Mac had to revert an OS update and go back to the previous working version of macOS.

How to Address Failed or Incompatible OS Updates

To resolve problems with botched operating system updates causing the exclamation point on your Mac startup screen, try these fixes:

  • Boot to safe mode first to see if bypassing certain components helps.
  • Try reinstalling the latest macOS installer in Recovery mode to repair damaged files.
  • Back up data and then erase the startup drive and do a clean install of macOS.
  • Check that the macOS version you installed is indeed compatible with your Mac model.
  • Contact Apple support if the issue persists after reinstalling the OS.

Getting macOS cleanly updated and installed again should resolve any corruption or incompatibilities causing the startup error.


While that flashing exclamation point icon may look concerning when powering up your Mac, it is simply indicating a minor issue that is blocking a complete startup process. In most cases, it’s easily fixable with basic troubleshooting steps.

Check your startup disk, system file permissions, login items, hardware components, and macOS version to isolate the cause. Address any underlying problems you discover to get your Mac booting up smoothly again. With a little targeted troubleshooting, you should be able to eliminate that ominous exclamation point alert at startup.