How to update iOS on iPhones that are being difficult

With iOS 5, Apple added “over-the-air” update which made updating your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch easier than ever. No more plugging into the computer, syncing with iTunes, etc. Now you just have to find the appropriate menu in your device and you’ll get the freshest update fast. Normally. Sometimes it fails. Or sometimes you don’t have enough space. Those are the perfect times to go back to the “old-fashioned” method using a USB cable. In case you are unfamiliar with this process, I’ll outline it in detail below.

I’ll cover two methods here. The first, in-place updating, will preserve everything on your phone and just replace the OS. This is the faster and easier method. The second, wipe and restore, will erase your phone, install a fresh copy of iOS, and (optionally) restore your content from a backup. This method is helpful if you don’t have enough space to do an in-place upgrade or if your device is experiencing weird sluggishness problems or strange errors.

Before you begin

Backup. Please, please be sure you backup your phone. Even though Apple doesn’t allow you to downgrade to an earlier version of the OS software, this is important because occasionally an update will erase the contents of your phone and having a backup is the easiest way (or sometimes the only way) to get it all restored. I’ve seen this happen far more often on an upgrade through the computer than on over-the-air updates so it’s particularly important here. Normally I recommend using an iCloud backup rather than an iTunes backup, since it makes restoring your apps much easier and your backups will happen more frequently without any intervention from you.

  1. IMG_0510Make sure you are on WiFi. The faster your internet connection the less painful this will be. DSL is terrible. Cable or fiber is preferable. Even if you have a good cellular connection, you will not be allowed to backup unless you are on WiFi.
  2. Plug your phone into your charger or your computer if your battery is getting low.
  3. On your iOS device, open your Settings app.
  4. Scroll down about two screens and tap “iCloud”.
  5. Scroll to the bottom of the page and tap “Storage & Backup”.
  6. Make sure that the “iCloud Backup” slider switch is set to on, as shown in the screenshot to the right.
  7. Scroll to the look for your last backup date and time, at the very very bottom of this page. You may have to scroll.
  8. If this date and time is unacceptably outdated, tap “Back Up Now” and wait for it to complete. You may switch to another app and go about your business and it will continue to run in the background.

Turn on iCloud Keychain (recommended). As a security precaution, your backup in iCloud or iTunes does not contain your passwords. iCloud Keychain is a separate area of iCloud that has extra layers of security and many of your passwords such as WiFi passwords are stored here. Setting this up before you potentially delete everything from your device makes it much faster to get up and running as quickly as possible. Be sure to enable iCloud Keychain on all of your devices to help it go smoothly. Note that only OS X 10.9 Mavericks and iOS 7.0.3 and higher have this capability, so if you haven’t updated yet you can’t turn this on.

For more information on the details of iCloud Keychain including setup instructions, visit Apple’s FAQ on the subject. I recommend getting started with your iOS devices first.

Update your computer software. Syncing the latest version of iOS requires that you use iTunes 11 on your Mac or Windows computer. iTunes 11 requires that you are running at least OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard or Windows Vista.


  1. Click the Apple menu
  2. Click Software Update
  3. Install all pending updates

NOTE: This will not update major versions of your operating system software, so if you are unsure of what version of OS X you are using click the Apple Menu > About this Mac. Right under “OS X” it should tell you the version number. Anything that says 10.6.8 or higher (e.g., 10.8.5, 10.9.2) can perform the upgrade. Anything older and you will need to upgrade your computer to Snow Leopard using a DVD (assuming your computer meets minimum system requirements) or do this from a newer computer. Major versions are designated by the number after the 10. 6 is Snow Leopard, 7 is Lion, 8 is Mountain Lion, and 9 is Mavericks. Anything 5 or lower is obsolete and can’t run the new iTunes.

Windows. Open Apple Software Update, somewhere in your Start Menu or (Start Screen if using Windows 8) and install all of the available updates for iTunes. You may skip new software installs such as iCloud if you don’t need iCloud sync on your Windows computer. If you are running Windows XP or older you won’t be able to install the latest iTunes update. If your start button is labeled “Start” then your Windows software is too old. If it is simply a Windows logo then your computer is sufficiently up-to-date for the latest iTunes software.

Connect your device to your computer.

  1. Using your USB charge cable, connect your iOS device to your computer.
  2. If prompted to unlock or “trust” go ahead and do that.
  3. If prompted to transfer purchases, you can probably ignore this if you are unsure as any purchases except for ringtones are available for a free re-download if needed.
  4. If iTunes prompts you to install an update for your device, you can accept that if your are intending to do an in-place upgrade. If you are doing a wipe and restore upgrade, you can click “Download Only” or you can decline the invitation.

Locate your device in iTunes. Depending on your configuration of iTunes, your device may be listed in the top right side of iTunes or on the left sidebar. Wherever it is, go ahead and click on it.

iOS device on the left sidebar
iOS device on the left sidebar
iOS device on the top right of iTunes
iOS device on the top right of iTunes

You should now see a screen that looks like this, except it may or may not be playing 99 Luftballons:

iPhone screenIn-Place Upgrade Method

This is the fastest and easiest, but won’t work in all cases.

  1. Simply click the big “Check For Update” button in iTunes on your computer as shown above.
  2. Wait. The installer is probably well over a gigabyte, so depending on your speed this could take some time. Hours if you’re on DSL. When it’s done it will reboot your phone and after a few simple questions and password entries you’re good to go!

Wipe and Restore Method

This will work in nearly every case, but it can take much much longer. I said it earlier but I must reiterate: unless your intention is to start with a clean device, you must make sure you’re backed up before you do this. If you don’t have a backup of your content, you will need to reconfigure all of your apps and you will lose anything such as photos that aren’t stored elsewhere.

  1. Be sure that you will have WiFi available for some time. It’s good to be prepared to do this overnight just in case it takes hours.
  2. Click the “Restore iPhone…” button (or Restore iPad, etc.) in iTunes on your computer as shown in the screen capture a few paragraphs back.
  3. If you get a message about deactivating Find My iPhone, go to Settings on your device, tap iCloud, and slide the switch for Find My iPhone off. When prompted enter your iCloud password. Try the Restore button again.
  4. Wait for the software to download to your computer. The installer is probably well over a gigabyte, so depending on your speed this could take some time. Hours if you’re on DSL. After the download is finished, your computer will wipe the contents of your iPhone and install the fresh software.
  5. IMG_0001After installation, you will be prompted to set up your device. There is one part of the setup process of interest that you need to pay particular attention to. On the screenshot shown to the right you will either get to restore from your iCloud backup or set up as a new phone. If you set up as a new phone, you will not restore customizations, wallpaper, your photos and videos, etc. However, if you are using any cloud services such as iCloud or Google, your contacts, calendars, emails, and some documents may be restored. If you restore from your iCloud backup and follow the prompts, everything from your old phone should be restored, though it may take a few hours depending on your internet speed. Try to remain connected to WiFi until all of your apps are re-downloaded. When finished, your iOS device should be identical, or nearly identical to your previous setup, except you’ll have the new iOS software installed.