Unlock your desktop with Apple Watch

Update: I just discovered that when enabling this you loose the ability to use Find Friends in the notifications area.


I was excited for the release of Mac OS Sierra. One of the main features I couldn’t wait to try out was unlocking my desktop using my Apple Watch. Apple calls this feature Auto Unlock and I was anxious to see if it would work for me, and how well.

First of all some basic requirements. As it turned out, I met all of the hardware and software requirements:

  • An Apple Watch running watchOS 3, any Apple watch will work, including the first generation that I have
  • An Apple iPhone running iOS 10. I have an iPhone 6, but I read it will work with iPhone 5 and later (any iPhone compatible with Apple Watch). I believe the physical requirement here is low power bluetooth support to talk to the watch.
  • A Mac running macOS Sierra. I have a mid 2014 mac book pro, slightly older macs will work too. I believe the hardware requirement for the mac is that it has particular wifi protocol support.
  • Two factor authentication enabled on your Apple ID
  • Passcode enabled on your watch (I already had this for Apple Pay)

After a bunch of fuss, I was able to get it working. If you are stuck, check the requirements above, then read on to see the steps I used to ultimately get it going.

First my iPhone and watch were already up to date. I updated those when the public releases of iOS and watchOS were available. The watch took over an hour to update. The only remaining OS update I needed was macOS. After updating macOS, I found the checkbox to enable Auto Unlock, but it said I needed two factor authentication to be enabled. I had the older two step authentication enabled on my Apple ID, and that needed to be turned off first. Turning it off required setting up security questions, and all my devices prompted me to sign into iCloud again, and gave me more notifications as my account was added to each device. A little annoying but not too bad.

After turning off two step authentication, I was able to turn on two factor authentication. Turning on two factor authentication is done on a device, not on icloud.com. When I enabled it on the mac, it prompted me that I needed to create a new local account password. I had been signing into my mac with my iCloud account password, which was cool. It is a little disappointing that you need to switch back to a local password in order to use two factor authentication on mac – one more password to remember! On the plus side, you won’t need to use it as much, on the negative side not using it as often makes it that much harder to remember. You still need to use it when using something with admin rights, and when your computer restarts. Another negative of not using your iCloud account is that the Find Friends widget requires it, and will no longer be available if you had been using it before.

After turning on two factor authentication, I was able to enable the watch unlock setting. Testing, however failed. It said it was unlocking, then I got a spinner for a few seconds, then I was prompted for my password (the failsafe when Auto Unlock has a problem). Since I had just changed authentication settings on my account and mac, I figured a reboot was in order. But after the reboot, still failure. Now after all this work I was getting a bit disheartened. Was it buggy? was it ever going to work. Was I missing some hidden requirement?

Another Google search lead me to the final step I needed, which was to reboot my watch and/or phone as well. I rebooted both; my phone first. I couldn’t remember well how to reboot the watch. Holding the button below the crown gives you the power off option. Holding the same button again will bring it back up, but it is slow to boot. It is possible the reboots were only needed due to my switching from two step to two factor authentication.

After all this it works very well. It takes about two to three seconds to unlock, which is a bit faster and far easier than typing my old password. Success!

One other thing you might check if you are having issues is that your watch and phone are not “disconnected”. It happened to me a few times with watchOS 2. The symptom I had was notification sounds/vibrations on my phone when it was locked. Normally notifications sounds are not played on the phone when it is locked. I was getting ringing and vibrations on both my phone and watch together. Rebooting the watch, or at the extreme, re-pairing with the phone will fix this issue. I re-paired my watch once, and it was painful, as I needed to re-enroll all my credit cards for watch Apple pay, and some of them didn’t want to activate.

Here is the short checklist:

  • Verify you have the required hardware
  • Update everything to the latest OS
  • Setup your iCloud account for two factor authentication
  • Setup a passcode on your watch
  • Configure your mac for watch unlock and reboot all your devices

Finally here is a detailed reference of hardware and software requirements for all continuity features (including auto unlock) https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT204689.

Good luck and let me know if you found any other tricks to getting Auto Unlock working with your devices.