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Mac 101: Using Keychain Access to remember the password you forgot

One of the unsung joys of being a Mac consultant is getting emails from clients with problems that aren't critical enough warrant a billable office visit but still need attention. This morning, I heard from client who needed to add two Macs onto the office AirPort network but couldn't remember the password. Here's how she (and you) can retrieve that password.

Most of the time when Mac users are asked to create a password on the Mac, there's a small check box just below asking if you want to "store the password on the keychain." If you're like many Mac users, you're not really sure what that means but you check the box anyway. What it does mean is that the password is then stored in the Mac's keychain, which is Apple's password management system that has been around since the days of Mac OS 8.6.

Fortunately, Apple provides an application that you can use to find out what password you used three years ago and have since forgotten. It's called Keychain Access, and it is tucked away in the Utilities folder that resides in your Applications folder. Hint -- if you're not familiar with the Utilities folder, there's a quick way to get to it from the Finder menu bar. Just select Go > Utilities to open a Finder window filled with all sorts of fun apps, from the handy (and dangerous) Disk Utility to the under-appreciated X11.

I told my client to launch Keychain Access and then click on the "login keychain" in the list of keychains on the left side of the app window. A list of passwords appears, one of which has a "kind" of "AirPort network password." Double-clicking that entry brings up a dialog similar to the one shown below:

See where it says "show password"? A click on the checkbox next to that brings up a dialog that asks for the keychain password, which is generally the administrator password on your Mac. Enter that password and click OK, and you may be asked to enter the password once again. Once that's done, the password should auto-magically appear in the field next to "show password."

This trick has worked many times for me when my clients have forgotten a password or misplaced the Post-It Note that they wrote it on. Hopefully it will help out some TUAW readers as well.

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