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Using the Guest Account in OS X

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Sometimes you need to let a friend or family member use the computer, but hesitate because you don't want them to screw anything up. Fortunately, OS X has your back. Today we're going to take a look at the Guest Account and walk you the features that will help you limit the access and privileges of occasional users.


Enabling the Account

Disabling the FileVault service to use file sharing.
Disabling the FileVault service to use file sharing.

The first step in this exploration is enabling the guest account itself. Before you do this, however, you must disable FileVault if you plan to share files with the guest account. Head to System Preferences, click Security & Privacy, select the FileVault tab, and make sure you have the feature turned off. For the account’s sharing feature to work properly, it must be disabled.

Other optional preparations include disabling automatic login so your account isn’t automatically loaded when your guest turns on the computer. It’s also a good idea to turn on file sharing in the Sharing pane of System Preferences so your guests can access important files. (One time you’ll find this useful is when a coworker needs to access project files that are on your user. He won’t have them on a flash drive, so it’s best to share them with the guest user instead.)

Enabling the guest account.
Enabling the guest account.

Now, to actually enable the account. Head back to the main System Preferences window and click the Users & Groups button. If it’s locked, use your password to unlock it. Click the Guest User tab and check the box beside “Allow guests to log in to this computer”. You can also check the box beside “Allow guests to connect to shared folders” so your friends can look at some of your photos or files when they’re on your computer.


Understanding The Guest Account

Now, why would you even want to use the guest account in the first place? Maybe you’re the administrator of the college library; you might manage computers at a public place; or the family just likes to drop in every once in a while and use your computer while around the house.

Whatever the reason, it’s a free alternative to purchasing another computer, and the nice thing is that all traces of the person being there are erased after they log off. (At least that’s what Apple claims — there could be some caches left over if you look deep.) It’s a quick solution to such problems and it’s very easy to turn on.

Waiting for the guest account to load.
Waiting for the guest account to load.

Before your friends or coworkers start using OS X’s guest account, it’s important that you know a few things about its functionality. The most important piece of information about the account is that it deletes all information every time the user logs off. So, if your friend left some Web pages or documents on the screen and you want to use the computer with your user, it’s best to turn on fast user switching in the Login Options tab of Users & Groups. If you don’t, you’ll end up logging off and deleting everything that person has done during the session.

Another precaution you should take for protecting the guest user’s information is to disable automatic log-off. Some people have this turned on so people can’t access their computers when they’re away from the desk, but if you want a guest user to keep his or her data, then you had better disable it. To do this, go to the Security & Privacy pane of System Preferences, unlock it, click the General tab, click Advanced, and uncheck the box beside “Log out after xx minutes of activity”.


Parental Controls and Sharing Only

The guest account has some additional options to help you fine tune it for your situation. For instance, if your coworker just needs to access some files that you’ve shared, you can check the “Allow guests to connect to shared folders” button instead of enabling the account’s full functionality. Likewise, there is an option to enable parental controls. Since the latter is going to be used more often than the former, let’s go over how it works.

Tip: Some of these options are meant for full users so they may seem strange for a guest.

Apps

Don't let the guest user play your games.
Don't let the guest user play your games.

First, you can limit what applications the user is allowed to access in the Apps tab of Parental Controls. Just check which ones you want and uncheck the ones you don’t — it’s that simple. You can also take away the user’s privileges to modify the Dock, which really doesn’t matter since all settings will be erased after the user logs off anyway.

Web

Website Restrictions
Website Restrictions

The Web tab offers restrictions for certain websitres if you, say, want to keep the user off of Reddit. It’s set to the “Try to limit access to adult websites automatically” option by default and the filters are pretty good, though you can add more if you’d like. There’s even a setting to let the user access only specific websites. If you want to know what’s been going on with the account, click the Logs button to find out.

People

Sorry, the mailbox is closed.
Sorry, the mailbox is closed.

The People tab has options to limit the user’s access to Game Center (which would require them to log in with an account to use). You can also limit their communications with the outside world using the Mail app by adding people to a list and not allowing them to contact anyone other than what you’ve specified. Alternatively, you can allow them to send you a permission request via email.

Time Limits

Doctor Who might be able to help you with this one.
Doctor Who might be able to help you with this one.

The Time Limits tab isn’t exactly applicable to a guest, but you may want to use it to ensure the user doesn’t spend too much time on the computer daily. There are weekday and weekend limits along with bedtimes, so have fun putting locks on things.

Other

'Son, what have I said about talking to the computer?'
"Son, what have I said about talking to the computer?"

Last up is the Other tab, which includes options to disable Dictation, hide profanity in Dictionary, limit access to the printer, limit CD or DVD burning, and disable changing the password, though the last one doesn’t apply to the guest account since it is free of one in the first place.


Advanced Guest Options

The secret advanced user options.
The secret advanced user options.

If you venture back to the Users & Groups tab and right-click the Guest User button in the left pane, you’ll find that there’s an option you didn’t see before titled Advanced Options. Click it to open complex options only meant for the advanced administrator. If you manage a few computers, this pane might be useful. There are options for the user’s group, account name, home directory, user ID, and even aliases. Feel free to tweak these options, but don’t change a setting if you don’t know what it does.


Have Fun!

That’s all there is to using the guest account, from the basics to the most advanced things you can do. Now tell us, what are you planning to do with your guest user?

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