How to fix an Apple Watch that’s not working

Apple Watches tend to be reliable little things, but like all tech devices they are prone to malfunctions – occasionally they just stop working. But don’t worry! Whether your Apple Watch has frozen, is refusing to charge (or running out of battery quicker than you’d like), is suffering from water damage or even has a broken screen, we’ve got handy solutions and advice to fix it.

Apple Watch is bricked/unresponsive

If your Apple Watch isn’t responding in any meaningful way, or at all, it’s natural to be worried. There are lots of potential causes of this problem, so we’ll begin by ruling out (or better still, ruling in) some of the simpler ones.

Simple recovery steps to try

If your Apple Watch has frozen up or is just unresponsive, there are a few basic steps to try first. Try these in the following order, because we’ve put the easier methods first. Apologies if some of the early steps sound a bit patronising, but it’s best to rule out all the obvious stuff first.

Has your Apple Watch run out of battery power? If there’s a red lightning bolt icon on the screen (either all the time, or when you press the side button) then you need to charge it up. Pop it on the charging pad, give it half an hour or so and see if things have improved.

(A green lightning bolt icon should appear to indicate that the watch is charging. If it isn’t, or the watch hasn’t improved after 30 minutes, check out the ‘charging isn’t working’ section below.)

Apple Watch not working: Battery power

Is your Apple Watch in power-saving mode? You can turn on Power Reserve mode at any time to save battery power (swipe up to bring up the options palette, tap the battery percentage figure at the top left, then tap Power Reserve and confirm) but it drastically limits both your Apple Watch’s functionality and its responsiveness.

When in Power Reserve an Apple Watch will generally display only the time, in an ultraminimalist font – and it will do this only when prompted to, rather than whenever you rotate your wrist. Press the side button and Digital Crown at the same time and – assuming you’re in Power Reserve – the time will be displayed.

To exit Power Reserve, press and hold the side button for about 10 seconds – until you see the Apple logo. This may take a while. You’ll have to enter your passcode again once it restarts.

Apple Watch not working: Power Reserve mode

Restart your Apple Watch. Like many tech devices, an Apple Watch can often be cured of minor problems by turning it off and on again. To turn off your Apple Watch, press and hold its side button until you see the Power Off slider, then swipe across this as directed. Wait for the watch to finish turning off. To restart it again, press and hold the side button again until you see the Apple logo.

Force-restart your Apple Watch. This is a fairly drastic measure, and Apple warns that you should not attempt this while updating watchOS. If you’re set on force-restarting, press and hold the Apple Watch’s side button and Digital Crown until you see the Apple logo, then let go of them both. It should take about 10 seconds.

If none of these methods solve the problem, there may be a more specific problem. Here are a couple to consider.

watchOS 3.1.1

Is your Apple Watch still running watchOS 3.1.1? Because that may be the issue.

The watchOS 3.1.1 update was reported to have ‘bricked’ a number of Apple Watch Series 2 models, and the problem was sufficiently widespread that Apple withdrew the update; we expect a patched version to be pushed out soon.

If all this applies to you, check the Watch app on your companion iPhone to see if a newer update has been released… although it may be too late for your watch. The good news is that, if the update caused the problem then it’s definitely not your fault, and we can’t think of any good reason why Apple wouldn’t be willing to step in and fix or replace the device. See ‘Get Apple’s help’, below.

watchOS 4

If you’re using an original Apple Watch and it seems to have slowed down since you bought it, the OS may be the problem. In our experience watchOS 4 and its (pretty cool) new features are a little too demanding for the first-gen model and tend to make it noticeably less responsive.

That’s not much help to you now, of course, since it’s very hard to go back to an older version of watchOS; although you could always try complaining to Apple Support, and pointing out that officially the original watch is compatible with watchOS 4.

Interrupted watchOS update

Just to show that this stuff happens to the ‘experts’ too, here’s an embarrassing tale. The writer of this article was updating his first-gen Apple Watch to watchOS 3.0 one morning before work, having mistakenly believed it would take only half an hour or so. When it took longer, and it was time to go, and despite an onscreen warning specifically saying not to take the watch off its charger before the update was complete, he did exactly that.

The Apple Watch promptly stopped working, able to offer only an error screen with the URL of Apple’s support page. Restarting didn’t work, and nothing could be done from the connected iPhone either. In the end I had to contact Apple, who were very understanding and agreed to replace the device.

So if you’re getting the error screen and you just interrupted a watchOS update, there’s your answer. Go through the usual recovery steps by all means, but our experience suggests that you may be on to a loser. Give Apple support a call.

Apple Watch not working: Red exclamation mark

Get Apple’s help

If your Apple Watch is displaying the red exclamation mark of doom, the official advice – and almost certainly the best thing to do – is get in touch with Apple and see what advice they can offer. Here is Apple’s instructions for getting in touch.

Apple Watch is not charging

If you connect your Apple Watch to its charging pad (or third-party charger) and nothing seems to happen, there may be an issue related to the plug or charger, or with the way you’ve set it all up. Here are some simple problems to look out for – again, apologies if some of them sound patronising.

1. Is the plug fully plugged into the wall socket?

2. Is the cable fully plugged into the plug?

3. Is the Apple Watch properly connected to the charger? (A corollary: is the charging pad the right way up? Come on, we’ve all done it. The slightly concave curved surface should be on top, and it should attach magnetically.)

4. Check for any debris or obstructions on the various components. Have you left any plastic packaging on the charger? Are the components reasonably clean? Is there anything that could be blocking the connection?

5. Right: it’s time to isolate the problem component. Swap out one component at a time. Try plugging into a different wall socket but keep everything else the same. Then use a spare USB plug (borrow if you haven’t got a spare). Then borrow another charging pad. Finally, borrow someone else’s Apple Watch and see if that will charge on your setup.

This should tell you which part of the system has failed. Now you can decide whether to pay for that part to be repaired or replaced – contact Apple or a third-party repairer to see what it’ll cost.

Apple Watch not working: Charging

Apple Watch battery problems

When the first-gen Apple Watch came out, a lot of new owners struggled with battery life, finding that their watches were giving up the ghost before the end of a single day’s use. But many of these users found things improved markedly once the novelty wore off a little and they didn’t use the device quite so relentlessly, and learned which settings and features are the biggest battery killers and should be deactivated except in dire need.

Of course, your watch may indeed be faulty; if you’ve tried everything unsuccessfully it’s worth getting in touch with Apple to see if they’ll replace it. The partner of a Macworld editor did precisely this, after putting up with a lot of patronising advice that didn’t help at all, and Apple did the decent thing. (Without knowing about the journalistic connection, before you jump to conclusions!)

In our experience the Series 2 is much better on battery life, generally managing two days away from the mains without too many problems. (The Series 3 tends to do slightly less well, depending on how much – if at all – you use the power-draining new cellular feature.) If this device is failing to get through a day’s use then you should definitely speak to Apple.

For related advice, take a look at 22 tips to get better Apple Watch battery life.

Broken screen

This appears to be a mercifully rare occurrence (perhaps because of the sturdy sapphire screens on the more expensive models, and the still-apparently-pretty-tough Ion-X glass on the others) but Apple Watch screens do occasionally break or scratch. What’s the best way to get it repaired?

Should you smash your Apple Watch screen, it’s reasonably easy to replace the screen. (iFixit gives the Apple Watch a repairability score of only 5 out of 10, but this is because most of the other components are very hard to remove.)

Numerous repair firms offer to replace the screen on an Apple Watch, but bear in mind that commissioning third-party work on your watch will invalidate the warranty, so check with Apple to see if they’ll sort it out first. Their repairs will almost always be more expensive than those by other companies, but it’s worth checking, and many people feel more confident if Apple itself handles things.

If the screen isn’t working, rather than being physically broken, try How to fix an unresponsive Apple Watch screen.

Water damage

The Apple Watch Series 2 and Series 3 are both water-resistant and should be fine in most sensible aquatic settings: a shower, a bath, even underwater swimming to a depth of less than 50m. (Apple warns that water resistance may fade with time or be reduced by drops or knocks, however, and advises against exposing the watches to soaps and shampoos or using them in fast-moving water – such as when water skiing.)

The Apple Watch Series 1 and the first-gen Apple Watch should be fine for showering but they aren’t supposed to be fully submerged. To be honest, a lot of people have worn them while swimming without any issues, but whether you want to risk it or not is up to you.

Apple Watch not working: Water damage

If your watch gets wet – even if it’s just sweat from a workout – then it’s wise to wipe off any excess liquid with a soft cloth. Hopefully you don’t need to be told not to use a hairdryer or any other form of heat to dry the device.

If water has got inside the speaker cavity it may affect audio quality. A Series 2 model can spit the water out – turn on the water lock feature if it’s not activated already (swipe up and tap the water droplet icon), then turn it off again by rotating the Digital Crown dial. It will buzz repeatedly to vibrate the speaker membrane and clear out any water.

The Series 1 and first-gen Apple Watches cannot do this, so Apple recommends placing them speaker side down on a cloth and letting excess liquid drip out, then leaving them to dry out naturally. Leave the watch hooked up to its charging pad and the water is likely to evaporate more quickly.

Here are some more tips on How to repair a water-damaged Apple Watch.