What should I do if I find a used machine without the original CDs?

Note: Starting with July 20, 2011 Macs, Apple no longer included original CDs or Flash drives to restore the system.    Those Macs can have their system restored with the command-R boot process.    Sometimes the command-R boot process may load a newer operating system than you originally had.  In that event, if you need an operating system and it was supported by your Mac, please contact AppleCare.   This is all the more reason to consider backing up your data as a clone in event the internal hard drive fails.   These are the Macs that did not come with restore discs:

  • iMac of an EMC of 2496; 13,x and later.
  • Mac Mini 5,x and later.
  • Macbook Air 4,x and later.
  • MacBook 8,x and later (no Pro no Air in the name)
  • Mac Pro 5,1 with EMC 2629; 6,x and later.
  • MacBook Pro with EMC 2555, 2563; 9,x and later

MacBook with no Pro, Air nomenclature was not a release model between July 20, 2011 and April 10, 2015.

The link to Intel Macs and their firmware should assist in determining what firmware adds the system restore functionality to pre-Lion release Macs.

Macs released between March 15, 2010 and their prebundled release with Mac OS X 10.7, need their original 10.6 installer discs, as they will not be able to use the retail version of 10.6.3 available in the Apple Store, and that original disc may be obtained from AppleCare if lost.

On the gray market where you can buy used machines you will often find machines that don't have the original CDs. Don't buy these. Encourage the seller to call AppleCare to get those CDs, and if they aren't available, to buy those CDs. You have no idea if the machine itself might have been stolen, or if the CDs might have been stolen. I've noted several instances where people "borrowed" installation CDs from others to solve such issues.

Since the original installation CDs that come with the Mac in question are only licensed for the machines they have software installed on, using someone else's CDs may be illegal in your jurisdiction to do that. As terms of use forbid us from doing an illegal act, borrowing CDs will make it difficult for people to help you if you had to do that. Best to find out from AppleCare if you can get the original CDs, and if the serial number is registered to the individual selling the machine.

I've also noted numerous instances where people try and bypass such issues by buying newer retail discs. Unfortunately you will miss out on a hardware test that frequently comes with the original installation CD, as well as bundled software, and iLife software if any came with those. Those CDs are also the indication of what what is the minimum operating system you can install on the machine. Only newer retail installer CDs than those original installer CDs may be installed.

Buyer beware!

And future sellers, please make every effort to keep your original CDs in a safe place.

Some notes from other user tip authors:

Licensing is different for OS X 10.4.x and earlier. OS X 10.4.x and earlier original install discs may be installed and used on a different Mac as long as the rest of the terms of the EULA are followed. Check section 3 of the EULA. I upgraded two eMacs to later OSes, and then used their original install CDs (OS X 10.1 and 10.3) on a G3 iBook and G3 iMac respectively. All okay under the EULA terms.

The part of the EULA that says "Restore CDs or DVDs that may accompany an Apple hardware bundle ... may only be resold or transferred as part of the Apple hardware bundle" is new with OS X 10.5.

Users should beware, though, that even when permissible under the EULA, using an OS X install disc on a model different than the one with which it shipped may not work.