Set Up the Guest User Account in Mac OS X

Mar 6, 2013 - 8 Comments

Guest User Account in Mac OS X

The Mac includes an optional Guest User account which is perfect for temporary usage situations like letting your friend or family quickly check their Facebook account and email from your computer. This is great because the Guest Login can be active while your normal user account is too, meaning you can quickly hand off your Mac to let someone check their email in Guest mode, then return to your work without any of it changing or being accessed by the other person.

Though you can disable it, it’s best to leave enabled on all Macs, not only for the aforementioned temporary use scenarios, but also to be able to track the Mac if it’s lost or stolen by using Find My Mac. We’ll focus on setting up the Guest User account for short usage by your friends and family, the most likely scenario.

Understand Guest Account Restrictions

Before continuing, it’s important to understand the standard OS X Guest Account is limited in a few very specific ways:

  • No files, caches, or passwords are stored longterm – everything is deleted after the guest user has logged out
  • Using the Guest account does not require a password
  • Application usage and web access can be controlled through Parental Controls

These are all positive limitations. The lack of storage means temporary usage files and caches won’t take up unnecessary space on the Mac. Not requiring the guest password means it’ll always be easy to login to, plus Find My Mac will track the computer if it becomes lost or stolen. Finally, application and web restrictions are great if you want to keep the Guest account to something like web mail use, because it’s easy to block everything else.

If this is too limited and you’re hoping to setup a more full featured guest login that doesn’t have those restrictions or doesn’t toss out files and caches, you may want to consider just adding a complete new user account to the Mac instead.

Let’s assume all is good, so we’ll configure the guest login, make it available quickly through a menu item, and then implement some basic usage restrictions.

1: Enable Guest Login

  • From the  Apple menu, go to System Preferences then choose “Users & Groups”
  • Select “Guest User” from the sidebar listing
  • Be sure the checkbox next to “Allow guests to log in to this computer” is checked

Enable the Guest Account for the Mac

Now that Guest is enabled, let’s make it easy to get to and from with Fast User Switching.

2: Enable Fast User Switching Menu

You’ll want to enable the Fast User Switching menu so you can quickly go back and forth to (your) normal account and the guest account. Fast User Switching is super easy to use:

  • Still in System Preferences, go to “Users & Groups”
  • Click “Login Options”, then click the lock icon to be able to make changes
  • Check the box next to “Show fast user switching menu as” and pick either “Icon” or “Short Name”
  • Set “Automatic Login” to OFF

Enable Fast User Switching

You can choose “Full Name” too but unless your full name is pretty short, taking up so much space in the menubar with a name has never made much sense.

The reason Automatic Login goes off is so that if the computer was stolen or misplaced, a reboot will not automatically login to any user account. This then lets someone choose the “Guest” account that doesn’t require a password, which then opens the Mac up to be found and tracked on a map with Find My Mac, the desktop version of Find My iPhone, and yes, either iOS or Macs can be tracked and discovered from one another.

With the Fast User Switching menu enabled, you’ll now see something like this in the corner. Pull that down and you can now instantly access the Guest account.

Access Guest Account quickly with Fast User Switching

But before testing out the Guest Account, set a few simple configuration options…

3: Configurations for a Family & Friends Guest Account

Generally speaking, you trust friends and family enough, so you probably don’t need to limit their application usage and website access too much, but there are a few things you should take the time to check out

Enable Guest Restrictions

  • Back in the Users & Groups control panel, choose the Guest User account and check the box next to “Enable Parental Controls”, then click that button to launch into the restrictions panels

Enable restrictions for the Guest Account

Configure Restrictions

  • First go to the “Apps” tab and determine if you want to limit app usage or not, if yes, then check the box next to “Limit Applications” and then only check the apps you want people to be able to use, like Safari, Pages, Google Chrome, etc. The options for Simple Finder and Dock Modification are largely necessary because this Guest account does not save files or changes anyway
  • Limit App Usage for the guest account

  • Next go to the “Web” tab – without getting overly restrictive you can choose something reasonable like “Try to limit access to adult websites” option to prevent people from doing anything too weird on your Mac… do note these web restrictions only apply to Safari so you may want to have that be included in the app limit list
  • website limitations for guest accounts

  • For most uses, skipping “People” and “Time Limits” is fine, but poke around in there to see if there’s something that sounds beneficial
  • Now go to “Other” to see if there’s anything else worth limiting. If you have a finicky printer (and who doesn’t) that is working at the moment , it is highly recommended to choose “Limit printer administration” to prevent the printer settings from changing at all
  • Guest restrictions

  • With configuration set up as desired, close out of System Preferences

You might want to try out the Guest account yourself, pull down the User menu you enabled and switch over to “Guest” and you can test out the experience. Remember, don’t bother to make any changes or adjustments once in the Guest account, because the whole account is ephemeral and nothing is saved.

The Mac is Now Ready for Guest Use

With everything configured, now you just need to remember to use the guest account when someone asks to use your computer. Someone asks to use your Mac to check their email or use facebook? No problem, pull down that Fast User Switching menu item and choose “Guest”:

Access Guest account quickly

This is why the Fast User Switching menu is great, fast access, plus it will keep your current account logged in, with all of your apps, windows, documents, everything still active, while simultaneously allowing the guest user to login into a separate area. Don’t worry about doing this, the Guest User has no access to your session, your documents, or your private data.

Now, if only iOS had the same feature… but until then the only option on the mobile side is to use Kid Mode for iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches, which locks a single specific app onto screen instead.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks

8 Comments

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  1. Carbon says:

    Never really thought about it until now but usually I just open a new web browser window for someone… this is a much better idea!

  2. Adam says:

    It’s too bad that it doesn’t work with FileVault though. I love the convenience of the gust account, but refuse to give up the security of FileVault.

  3. Javier says:

    You can enable auto login for the guest account only. This way, if a stolen mac is rebooted it will automatically go to the guest account. This means that you have a better chance of find my mac to work. Booting to the login screen means that they have to try the guest account to get in, help people’s lazy side!
    If you want to be a little paranoid you can set your admin account to have an ID below 500 which will prevent it from being listed in the fast user switch menu or log in screen. Then in system preferences select “Display login window as: Name and Password” this will allow you to log in as the admin from the log in screen.

  4. Blue says:

    ? If you want the laptop to be trackable in the event of it being stolen, surely automatically logging into the guest account is a good thing, no?

  5. Dan says:

    There is one other security consideration; Guests still have access to the rest of the Mac whilst they are logged in.

    This means they can:
    Access all read only parts of the system, like the apps folder. So they could copy your apps. Also if a regular user has created additional folders inside their Home folder, these will be available.
    Save files in open areas like the Shared folder or other users Public folders. So they CAN put unwanted or possibly malicious files in your storage.
    Access any mounted USB or firewire (but not network) devices and have FULL access to them.

    Personally, I’ve used Guest access a few times, but I don’t leave it turned on constantly. WRT Find My Mac, once you send a lock command, it will automatically reboot and allow guest access the next time it goes on the internet.

  6. John says:

    Good tip but I’d only set up the Guest account when you need it. Once a Guest account has been activated it uses up system resources. I viewed Activity Monitor after I activated a Guest account on my iMac and “Guest” was using the needed resources (like any would of course). So I logged out of and deactivated the Guest account.

    • Paul says:

      You can have the Guest Account active and usable without having it be logged in, but you do raise a good point. Always log out of the Guest Account when someone is finished with it.

  7. Sam Crowley says:

    This is great!

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