Recover an Email Account Password With macOS Keychain Access

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Unless you're completely off the grid (in which case, you probably wouldn't be reading this), you know that passwords are a ubiquitous part of modern life. We use them for a host of everyday activities and services on electronic devices and online. Among the most important and frequently accessed password-based services is email. Many services, in turn, use your email address as your username. That's why losing your email password can seem like a very big deal. That password is easily recoverable, however.

If you're on a Mac device, you can access your email password without using your email service's typically cumbersome, inconvenient "lost your password" procedure. Your password is very likely stored in what Apple calls a keychain, as part of macOS' built-in password storage function.

What's a Keychain?

Despite the rather awkward name, keychains have a simple purpose: They contain login information such as account names and passwords (in encrypted form for security) for apps on your device, websites, services, and other virtual places you visit on your computer.

When you set up Apple Mail or other email services, you're typically prompted to authorize the program to save your login name and password. This information is stored securely in a keychain on your Apple device, as well as in iCloud if you've enabled it. So, if you've forgotten your email password—and if you've followed guidelines for creating secure passwords, the chances are good—rest assured that it's there on your device or in the cloud, and you can recover it easily.

How to Find Your Email Keychain

In macOS (formerly known as Mac OS X, Apple's operating system), you can find keychains—and therefore, your forgotten email password—by using Keychain Access. You'll find it in Applications > Utilities > Keychain Access. The app will prompt you to type in your macOS user credentials; then click Allow. (Note that each user account on a Mac has a separate login.)

Keychain Access also syncs with iCloud, so you also can open it on iOS devices such as iPads, iPhones, and iPods by tapping Settings > [your name] > iCloud > Keychain. (For iOS 10.2 or earlier, select Settings > iCloud > Keychain.)

From there, you can find your email password in a few different ways: 

  1. Make it easier to find by sorting your keychains by Name or Kind by tapping on the appropriate column header.

  2. Enter the name of your email provider or any other detail you remember about your email account (username, server name, etc.) in the Search box at the upper right of the screen.

  3. Select Categories > Passwords and scroll through until you find your email account info.

Once you've found the relevant email account, double-click on it. By default, your password will not be visible. Just select the Show password box to see it. (Consider unchecking it when you've seen the password to keep it secure.)

Alternative Methods 

If you access your email online through a browser, your browser likely "asked" to save your login information the first time you visited the email service's site. Assuming you allowed this, you also can find your email password from within your browser.

  • In Chrome: Click on the three dots in the upper right corner of your screen and then Settings. Scroll to the bottom of the screen and hit Advanced. Select Passwords and forms > Manage passwords and look for your login info.
  • In Safari: Choose Preferences > Passwords. Click the Password column heading to bring all your saved passwords to the top, then look for your email account.
  • In Firefox: From the three-bar menu in the upper right corner, choose Settings > Security and privacy > Saved passwords

Setting Up iCloud Keychain Access

As mentioned above, iCloud allows you to use Keychain Access on multiple Apple devices. This is not an automatically enabled feature, however; you must turn it on, but it's an easy process.

To set up iCloud Keychain Access:

  1. Click on the Apple menu. You'll find this in your screen's upper left corner.

  2. Choose System Preferences.

  3. Click iCloud.

  4. Click on the box next to Keychain.

Now, you'll be able to view all your saved passwords across all your Apple devices—including that pesky one you'd forgotten for your email.