Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Apple > Operating Systems

Apple Pro Training Series: OS X Support Essentials 10.10: Supporting and Troubleshooting OS X Yosemite: User Account Essentials

Every single file and folder on a Mac computer’s hard disk, every item and process, belongs to some type of user account. Consequently, a thorough understanding of user accounts is necessary to effectively administer and troubleshoot OS X. This chapter from Apple Pro Training Series: OS X Support Essentials 10.10: Supporting and Troubleshooting OS X Yosemite covers user account essentials.
From the book

Reference 5.1 User Account Essentials

With the exception of the rarely used OS X Recovery system or single-user modes, you must log in with a user account to perform any task on a Mac. Even when the computer has just been started up and is showing the login window, and you haven’t yet authenticated, the system is still using a handful of system user accounts to maintain background services. Every single file and folder on a Mac computer’s hard disk, every item and process, belongs to some type of user account. Consequently, you need a thorough understanding of user accounts to effectively administer and troubleshoot OS X.

User Account Types

The majority of home Mac users are only aware of, and therefore only use, the account created when their computer was initially set up with Setup Assistant. OS X is engineered to mimic a single-user operating system by default. However, OS X supports multiple simultaneous user accounts. The system also supports several types of user accounts to facilitate different levels of access. Essentially, you choose a specific account type to grant the defined level of access that best meets the user’s requirements.

User accounts are categorized into five types: standard accounts, administrative accounts, the guest account, sharing-only accounts, and the root account. Apple has made these different account types available to provide greater flexibility for managing user access. Because each account type is designed to allow different levels of access, you should also be aware of each account type’s potential security risk.

Standard Accounts

Standard accounts strike the best balance between usability and security; they are also commonly used when multiple people share a computer. This account type is very secure, assuming an appropriate password is set. Standard accounts have read access to most items, preferences, and applications.

Standard user accounts are allowed to use nearly all the resources and features of the Mac, but they generally can’t change anything that might affect other users on the system. The lone exception to this rule is that standard account users can install application and system updates from the Mac App Store. This ability includes applying system updates, which obviously have systemwide effects. If your organization restricts this type of activity for standard account users, then an administrator can disable automatic software updates from App Store preferences in the System Preferences application.

Even though standard accounts are allowed full access to the Mac App Store, they are not allowed to manually modify the /Applications folder or use other traditional installation methods. This means that standard account users are not allowed to install most software distributed outside the Mac App Store. This may seem unfair for developers that don’t distribute via the Mac App Store. However, Apple has instituted tight controls over Mac App Store distribution that provide assurance that the content remains safe for standard account users to install.

Administrative Accounts

Administrative accounts aren’t much different from standard accounts, with one important distinction: Administrative accounts are part of the admin group and are allowed full access to almost all applications and preferences, and most system files. By default, administrative account users do not have access to protected system files or other users’ items outside of shared items like the Public folders. Despite this, administrative account users can bypass these restrictions both in the graphical environment and using Terminal, if needed. For example, administrative account users are allowed to install and run any software as long as they successfully authenticate when the installer application asks for authorization.

Because an administrative account is the initial account type created when the Mac is configured for the first time using Setup Assistant, many use this as their primary account type. This is advantageous because it lets the user change literally anything on the computer, as is required for system management. The downside is that this user is allowed to make changes or install software that can render the system insecure or unstable.

Additional administrative accounts can be used for daily tasks, but this isn’t always the best idea, because, again, all administrative accounts are created equal. In other words, all administrative accounts have the ability to make changes to anything on the system, including deleting or changing the passwords to other administrative user accounts. Administrative users can also change the administrative rights for any other user account, either disabling current administrators or changing standard users into administrators. Further, opening poorly written or intentionally malicious software as an administrative user could seriously harm the system software.

Most significantly, though, any administrative user can enable the root account or change an existing root account password using the Directory Utility application located in the /System/Library/CoreServices/Applications folder. For these reasons, you should seriously consider limiting the number of administrative user accounts on your Mac systems. Additional standard accounts can be created for more secure daily use, but managing OS X requires access to at least one administrative account.

Guest Account

Because enabling the guest account may be considered a security risk, it is disabled by default on OS X. Once enabled, the default guest account is similar to a nonadministrative user, but without a password. Anyone with physical access to the computer can use it to log in.

However, when the guest user logs out, the guest account’s home folder is deleted, including any home folder items that would be normally saved, like preference files or web browser history. The next time someone logs in as a guest, a brand-new home folder is created for that user.

Even though the guest home folder is deleted every time a guest logs out, the obvious security risk here is that literally anyone has access equivalent to that of a standard user account, including access to the /Users/Shared folder and users’ Public folders. Unlike the guest user’s home folder, the contents of these other folders remain after the guest logs out. This means a guest user could execute some potentially nasty applications or fill your disk with unwanted files. Guest users can also restart or shut down your Mac, potentially allowing them to compromise the system during startup.

Fortunately, parental controls enable you to restrict the guest account from running unapproved applications or restarting the Mac. Giving the guest account only limited access, as covered in “Reference 5.3 Parental Controls”, can provide a safe mechanism for temporary user access. Additionally, you can change the access permissions on shared folders so the guest account is not allowed to copy any items to your disk. Changing file and folder permissions is covered in Lesson 11 “Permissions and Sharing”.

Sharing-Only Accounts

OS X allows special user accounts to be created that have access only to shared files and folders. Sharing-only accounts have no home folder and cannot log in to the Mac computer’s user interface or Terminal. Sharing-only user accounts are, by default, allowed file sharing access to users’ Public and Drop Box folders, so, like the guest user, these users could potentially fill the disk with unwanted files.

On the other hand, sharing-only user accounts cannot log in to the Mac otherwise, and can be required to use a password, so designating sharing accounts is generally much safer than using the guest account for file sharing. You can further control sharing-only account users’ access to your files by adjusting file and folder permissions

Root Account

The root account, also known as the System Administrator, is turned off by default on OS X clients, and for good reason: The root account has unlimited access to everything on the Mac, and a user logged in as root could do anything at all with the system. The root account can read, write, and delete any file; modify any setting; and install any software. Since many system processes run as the root account, it needs to exist on the system; otherwise, OS X wouldn’t be able to start up.

The potential for nefarious activity is literally unlimited with root account access. To help prevent abuse of this account, the default OS X configuration does not have a password set for the root account, therefore you cannot log in with the account.

However, as covered previously, any administrative user can choose to enable the root account or change an existing root account password using the Directory Utility application. Again, because it only takes an administrative account to initially access the root account, strictly limiting administrative usage is the key to safeguarding the root account.

Local Group Accounts

Essentially, a group account is nothing more than a list of user accounts. Groups are primarily used to allow greater control over file and folder access. OS X uses several dozen built-in groups to facilitate secure system processes and sharing. For instance, all user accounts are members of the staff group; administrative user accounts are also members of the admin group; and the root account has its own group, known as wheel. Using groups to manage sharing is discussed in Lesson 11 “Permissions and Sharing”.

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive:

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020