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Some versions of Mac OS support the ability to log in to any user account directly from the traditional command line login screen, bypassing the familiar Mac user interface. Instead, you’re basically signing a user directly into the Terminal (kind of like using the ssh client to connect to an SSH server), without having to go through the desktop, Finder, WindowServer, or other GUI frills need to load. This can be useful for advanced users who need quick access to the entire command line from a particular user account, but want to skip the full login and loading of the Mac OS graphical environment. Note that not all versions of system software support this feature however, it will take some discovery to determine which is and which is not.
Before you dive in, realize that this is really only for advanced Mac users who are completely familiar with the command line environment. It is also important to point out that hidden login console / terminal is completely different from single user mode or recovery mode terminal, which are supported on all Macs and Mac OS versions. First, with the console login trick you can log in directly as any user on the Mac with user-level privileges, while the Single User Mode always uses a root login with many system services and processes disabled, and is for more administrative purposes. Two common uses of single user mode are repairing a disk with fsck and changing an administrator password or other troubleshooting tasks. The single user mode and recovery terminal are really the best for troubleshooting and are not a suitable environment for more general command line interactions, but the direct console login can be used just like the Terminal app.
Does my MacOS version support Login Terminal / Console?
Console login is not supported on all versions of Mac OS or Mac OS X. The console login feature appears to be supported in Mac OS X 10.9.x (Mavericks), 10.8.x (Mountain lion), 10.7.x (Lion), 10.6.x (Snow Leopard), Leopard, Tiger, etc. but supported or not in MacoS Mojave (10.14) macOS 10.13.x (High Sierra), macOS 10.12.6 (Sierra), OS X 10.11.6 (El Capitan), or 10.10 Yosemite. Feel free to report in the comments below whether you are successful with this or not, and your version of system software.
You can try to enable the login console in Mac OS / Mac OS X with the following standard command, then restart the Mac to follow the instructions below to see if you can access the terminal from the login screen:
sudo defaults write /Library/Preferences/com.apple.loginwindow.plist “DisableConsoleAccess” NO
If you try to load the console from the login screen on an unsupported Mac, you will either see a blank black screen that appears to be inescapable, forcing you to restart the Mac, or you will see a brief flash of white text on the black screen and then a blank black screen that also needs to be rebooted to escape. If you know a way to get around this, share it with us in the comments.
How to Access to a terminal from the login screen in Mac OS
Note that automatic login on the Mac must be disabled or you will not be able to access the login screen at startup to access the console. Keep in mind that not all versions of Mac OS support this feature.
- Restart the Mac as usual
- Choose ‘Other’ on the login screen
- For username, type the following and press return – no password is required yet
- Hit the Return key
- If successful, you will see a command line login prompt as if you were just booted up a unix environment without windows environment, now enter a username and password to log in as that user directly at the command line
- NOTE: If this fails, the screen will go black and you will have to force restart the Mac by pressing and holding the power key to shut down
Assuming you have successfully logged into the login console, you have full access to everything you would do in a normal Terminal environment, but without the Mac OS graphical interface. You can exit this environment by rebooting from the command line with the shutdown or restart commands.
Note that you can access the “Other” field when you hide the login username list or if the user list on the login screen is enabled, but it will not work if Auto Login is enabled.
This is somewhat familiar trick, and that it’s supported in some versions of Mac OS, but not others, further clouds the waters of when and where it will work, and whether support has been pulled from modern versions (it seems to be missing from the latest macOS releases ). MacWorld referred to the secret login terminal some time ago and discovered a discussion about it trick from way back in 2002, suggesting that console login may work in all previous versions of Mac OS X, but not the most recent ones. To know definitively which versions support the capability would require user exploration across a wide variety of more recent Mac OS releases. I successfully accessed Terminal from the login console on a Mac with Mavericks, but not on a Mac with, say, High Sierra or Sierra. This is quite possible feature has disappeared for good in modern macOS releases, in which case this only applies to older Mac OS X system software.
Did you access the Login Console on your Mac or with your version of Mac OS? Share your experience in the comments below, and if you know of another tips or tricks regarding the little-known login terminal screen, share those too.
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