Why is my Mac screen white with a folder?

If you turn on your Mac and are greeted with nothing but a white screen with a folder icon, it likely means your Mac is experiencing an issue starting up. A white screen with a folder, often referred to as a flashing question mark folder or prohibitory symbol, generally indicates that your Mac cannot find a valid system software to start up from.

While this can be concerning, there are a number of potential causes behind a white screen with a folder on Mac. With the right troubleshooting, you can often resolve the issue and get your Mac working again.

What Does a White Screen with Folder Icon Mean?

On Mac computers, the white screen with a folder icon specifically contains a question mark inside the folder. This is the prohibitory symbol, and it indicates that your Mac cannot find a valid operating system to boot up from.

There are a few common reasons why this folder might appear:

  • Your Mac cannot locate the system folder on the startup drive
  • The system folder or boot files are damaged
  • The startup drive is unrecognized, corrupt, or physically damaged
  • The Mac firmware or SMC has become corrupted

Essentially, this error means that your Mac cannot complete the boot process to start up your operating system and applications. The folder icon is the Mac equivalent of the Windows Blue Screen of Death.

How to Fix White Screen with Folder on Mac

If your Mac is showing a prohibitory symbol on startup, try the following troubleshooting steps:

1. Restart Your Mac

First, attempt to restart your Mac. Press and hold the power button until the Mac shuts down. Wait a few moments, then power it back on. There is a chance this will resolve a temporary software glitch or boot issue.


Resetting the NVRAM (Non-Volatile RAM) often helps fix boot issues. To do this on an Intel-based Mac:

  1. Shut down your Mac
  2. Turn it back on and immediately press and hold Command + Option + P + R
  3. Continue holding until you hear the startup chime a second time

For Apple silicon Macs, the steps are:

  1. Shut down your Mac
  2. Turn it on and immediately press and hold Power + Command + Option for 20 seconds
  3. Let go and let your Mac restart

This will reset the NVRAM, which stores important boot settings and should clear out any corrupt files.

3. Try Safe Mode

Booting into Safe Mode starts your Mac with only the essential system files and software needed to run. This allows you to troubleshoot issues with other programs and configurations.

To boot into Safe Mode, restart your Mac and immediately press and hold the Shift key after you hear the startup chime. Continue holding Shift until you see the login screen, then let go.

If your Mac starts up successfully in Safe Mode, it indicates that a login item or other software is likely causing the issue. You can troubleshoot from there.

4. Run Disk Utility

Using Disk Utility allows you check the startup drive for errors and resolve issues with disk permissions.

To do this:

  1. Boot into Recovery Mode by restarting and holding Command + R
  2. Select Disk Utility from the macOS Utilities window
  3. Select your startup drive in the sidebar
  4. Click First Aid and Run to check for errors. If any are found, click Repair.
  5. After checking/repairing, try restarting your Mac normally.

This will check the integrity of your startup disk and fix any directory issues that could be preventing your system from starting up properly.

5. Reinstall macOS

If the system files themselves are damaged, you may need to reinstall macOS on your startup drive.

To do this:

  1. Boot to Recovery Mode again
  2. Instead of Disk Utility, select Reinstall macOS
  3. Follow the prompts to reinstall the operating system on your startup drive

This will replace any damaged system files with a fresh copy of macOS. Make sure to back up any important data first.

6. Try an External Boot

If your Mac still will not boot, try starting it from an external bootable device like a USB drive.

To do this:

  1. Make a macOS bootable installer on an external drive
  2. Plug the drive into your Mac
  3. Restart and hold Option until you see the boot menu
  4. Select the external drive to boot from it

If your Mac starts up normally from the external drive, it indicates your original startup drive is likely damaged or corrupted. You may need to erase and reformat it before restoring from a backup.

Causes of White Screen with Folder on Mac

There are a few common culprits that can lead to the flashing question mark folder appearing on your Mac:

Corrupt System Files

If system files like the bootloader become damaged, your Mac cannot start up properly. This can happen from a bad macOS update or other software fault.

Drive Errors

Issues with the physical hard drive or solid state startup drive can prevent your Mac from locating the correct boot files. This includes bad sectors, directory damage, failed drive, or unplugged/disconnected drive.

Incompatible OS

Trying to run an incompatible version of macOS on your Mac can lead to the flashing question mark. This may happen after attempting to downgrade or upgrade macOS without checking compatibility.

Third-Party Components

Non-Apple system additions like RAM, hard drives, or boot software can sometimes conflict with Mac startup. Recently installed components should be suspected.

Firmware Corruption

The Mac firmware or SMC controls fundamental hardware functions. If these become corrupted or damaged, the prohibitory symbol may be displayed.

How to Prevent White Screen with Folder

To help prevent seeing the flashing question mark folder on your Mac in the future:

  • Keep your Mac and drives physically secure
  • Install macOS updates promptly
  • Use anti-malware/anti-virus software
  • Only install apps from trusted sources
  • Back up your data regularly
  • Keep recovery partitions intact
  • Ensure proper shutdown procedures

Following best practices for Mac security, data backup, and technical health will go a long way towards avoiding the prohibitory symbol at startup.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you continue to see the flashing question mark folder after trying the above steps, it’s a good idea to seek professional support. An Apple technician or authorized service provider can diagnose what is causing the boot issue on your specific Mac.

It’s recommended to get professional assistance if:

  • Disk Utility cannot repair the startup disk
  • Reinstalling macOS does not resolve the issue
  • External boot devices do not work
  • You cannot backup data before troubleshooting
  • Hardware issues are suspected

Certified Mac experts have additional tools and resources available to fully determine the cause of your Mac showing a white prohibitory symbol. They can then provide a precise solution to get you booted up again.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is my Mac stuck on a white screen?

If your Mac boots to a plain white screen with no icons or folders, most likely macOS has failed to load. This is often caused by corrupt system files or drive errors. Startup troubleshooting steps like safe mode and reinstalling macOS can help resolve a stuck white screen.

Can the prohibitory symbol appear on Windows?

No, the specific white flashing question mark folder only appears on Macs. The equivalent on Windows is the Blue Screen of Death, indicating a critical error has prevented startup.

How do I fix the flashing file folder sign?

To fix the flashing question mark folder, first try restarting your Mac and resetting NVRAM. If that does not work, boot to Recovery Mode to run Disk Utility and reinstall macOS. An external boot or professional help may be required for hardware issues.

Is my hard drive broken if I see the flashing question mark folder?

Not necessarily. While drive failure can cause the prohibitory symbol, this screen can appear for software issues as well. Try to diagnose the specific cause. If drive repairs or replacement are needed, then assume hardware failure.

Can I start up my Mac from an external drive if my main drive failed?

Yes, you can boot from an external drive or bootable installer if your main startup drive has failed or has a corrupted operating system. Connect the external drive, restart and hold Option to select that drive from the boot menu.


A flashing question mark folder on a Mac generally indicates an issue locating the correct startup files or bootable operating system. By booting to Recovery Mode and running Disk Utility, reinstalling macOS, or using external devices, the problem can often be resolved and return your Mac to a working state.

Following best practices for Mac maintenance and data backup can reduce the chances of corruption occurring. Professional assistance may be required if drive repair or replacement is needed. Overall, the prohibitory symbol is not a death sentence for your Mac, and with the right troubleshooting steps you have a good chance of getting it running again.