Safe Mode: What It Is and How to Use It

A guide to Safe Mode in Windows

Safe Mode is a diagnostic startup mode in Windows operating systems that's used as a way to gain limited access to Windows when the operating system won't start normally.

Normal Mode, then, is the opposite of Safe Mode in that it starts Windows in its typical manner.

Safe Mode is called Safe Boot on macOS. The term Safe Mode also refers to a limited startup mode for software programs like email clients, web browsers, and others. There's more on that at the bottom of this page.

Safe Mode Availability

Safe Mode is available in Windows 11, Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, and most older versions of Windows as well.

How to Tell If You're in Safe Mode

While in Safe Mode, the Desktop background is replaced with a solid black color with the words Safe Mode at all four corners. The top of the screen also shows the current Windows build and service pack level.

Windows 10 in Safe Mode.
What Safe Mode looks like in Windows 10.

How to Access Safe Mode

Safe Mode is accessed from Startup Settings in Windows 11, Windows 10, and Windows 8, and from Advanced Boot Options in previous versions of Windows.

If you are able to start Windows normally but would like to start in Safe Mode for some reason, a really easy way is to make changes in System Configuration.

If neither of the Safe Mode access methods mentioned above work, you can force Windows to restart in Safe Mode.

How to Use Safe Mode

For the most part, Safe Mode is used just like you use Windows normally. The only exception to using Windows in Safe Mode as you would otherwise is that certain parts of the OS may not function or may not work as quickly as you're used to.

For example, if you start Windows in Safe Mode and want to roll back a driver or update a driver, you'd do that just as you would do when using Windows normally. It's also possible to scan for malware, uninstall programs, use System Restore, etc.

Safe Mode Options

There are actually three different Safe Mode options available. Deciding which Safe Mode option to use depends on the problem you're having.

Here are descriptions of all three and when to use which:

Safe Mode

Safe Mode starts Windows with the absolute minimum drivers and services that are possible to start the operating system.

Choose Safe Mode if you can't access Windows normally and you do not expect to need access to the internet or your local network.

Safe Mode with Networking

Safe Mode with Networking starts Windows with the same set of drivers and services as Safe Mode but also includes those necessary for the networking services to function.

Choose Safe Mode with Networking for the same reasons you'd chose Safe Mode but when you do expect to need access to your network or the internet.

This Safe Mode option is often used when Windows won't start and you suspect you'll need access to the internet to download drivers, follow a troubleshooting guide, etc.

Safe Mode with Command Prompt

Safe Mode with Command Prompt is identical to Safe Mode except that Command Prompt is loaded as the default user interface instead of Explorer.

Choose Safe Mode with Command Prompt if you've tried Safe Mode but the taskbar, Start screen, Start menu, or Desktop doesn't load properly.

Other Types of Safe Mode

As mentioned above, Safe Mode is usually the term for starting any program in a mode that uses default settings, for the purpose of diagnosing what could be causing problems. It functions much like Safe Mode in Windows.

The idea is that when the program starts with its default settings only, it's more likely to start without issues and let you further troubleshoot the problem.

What typically happens is that once the program begins without loading custom settings, modifications, add-ons, extensions, etc., you can enable things one-by-one and then keep starting the application like that to find the culprit.

Some smartphones, like Android, can be started in Safe Mode, too. You should check your specific phone's manual, since it's typically not obvious how to do it. Some might have you press and hold the menu button while the phone starts, or maybe both the volume up and volume down keys. Some phones make you hold down the power off option to reveal the Safe Mode switch.

macOS uses Safe Boot for the same purpose as Windows, Android, and Linux operating systems. It's activated by holding down the Shift key while powering on the computer.

You can also use Microsoft Outlook in safe mode. Doing that disables Reading Pane, extensions, and some custom settings so that you can troubleshoot what's preventing Outlook from starting normally. The Thunderbird email client has a similar function.

The Firefox web browser is another example of a program that can be started in safe mode for troubleshooting purposes. The same is true for Chrome with its Incognito Mode.

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