How to Manage and Troubleshoot Touch ID on iPhone 5s

As of this writing, the iPhone 5s is the first iOS device that supports Apple’s new fingerprint identity sensor called Touch ID. With this novel approach to data access via biometrics, getting into your phone couldn't be faster and easier.

Now that iPhone has been on the market for over six years, it comes as no surprise that the majority of users find that much of their digital lives are stored on their devices.

Also by now, most users who keep up with current affairs, are well aware that any kind of password (a.k.a. "passcode") entry system helps protect their vital information as well as their privacy. Alas, not everyone heeds the recommendations. In fact, Apple estimates that more than 50 percent of smartphone users do not use a passcode.

You might be asking, "Why is this?"

When it comes right down to it,  it's inconvenient to enter a four-digit passcode, much less a more complex password. And so we can see how security measures - such as the use of passcodes - presents a delicate balance between data security and user convenience. One suffers at the expense of the other.

An iPhone 5s with a fingerprint in red on the screen

Touch ID is capable of scanning and storing up to five fingerprints

So, Apple developed Touch ID. It's important to realize that they never intended it to be an all-in-one security solution, but one of convenience in order to get more people into the habit of securing their data.

The fact is, a fingerprint is one of the best passcodes in the world. It's something that's always with you, and no two are exactly alike. Touch ID is a seamless method built-in to the new iPhone 5s – ostensibly to be seen in future iOS devices as well – that allows you to use your fingerprint as a passcode. With literally a light touch of the Home button of your iPhone 5s, the Touch ID sensor quickly scans your fingerprint and automatically unlocks your device. Optionally, you can also use it to authorize purchases from the iTunes Store, App Store, and iBooks Store.

Touch ID is capable of reading multiple fingerprints, and it can read them in 360-degrees of orientation. This means that no matter what its orientation, your iPhone 5s reads your fingerprint to verify your identity. Touch ID also incrementally adds new sections of your fingerprint to the stored fingerprint data to improve matching accuracy over time.

There's more than meets the eye to this aspect of data security. For example, in order to use Touch ID, you must configure a passcode. And because of this, most of your data security measures are place. You see, Touch ID provides a substitute method of unlocking your device. In other words, instead of having to type in four or more alphanumeric characters in the lock screen, if the Touch ID sensor verifies your fingerprint, it's as if it were typing in those characters for you. Therefore, since it's infinitely easier to simply touch the home button, users will not hesitate to adopt the habit of securing their data.

An iPhone 5s lock screen with password prompt

Touch ID actually inputs your passcode when it verifies your fingerprint

Incidentally, Touch ID only allows five unsuccessful fingerprint match attempts before you must enter your passcode, and you cannot proceed until doing so.

While Touch ID is designed to minimize the input of your passcode, it will still be needed for additional security validation, such as when restarting your iPhone 5s, when more than 48 hours have elapsed from the last time you unlocked your device, and when entering the Touch ID & Passcode Settings panel. Additionally, there are situations where you are also asked to authenticate via your Apple ID password for extra measures of security.

Since all this "security" is only as secure as its weakest point, you can choose to increase the security of a 4-digit passcode by using a complex alphanumeric passcode – a feature that has been available for several years. To do this, go to Settings > General > Touch ID & Passcode and turn Simple Passcode off. This will allow you to create a longer, more complex passcode that is inherently more secure. See my earlier article here on TMO for more details: "How to Secure Your iOS Device with a Longer Passcode."

If you are interested in learning more about Touch ID advanced technology and security benefits read Apple's knowledge base article number HT5949: "iPhone 5s: About Touch ID Security."

There are tons of other how-to articles on how to initially set up Touch ID on the iPhone 5s, so I won't rehash that here. One such article is by TMO’s own Melissa Holt as she talks about Touch ID in “iPhone 5s: Adding Additional Fingerprints.” 

In this article, I do want to give you some details on how to manage and troubleshoot your Touch ID fingerprints.

There are a few things to understand so that your overall Touch ID experience is a positive one:

  • As you keep using Touch ID, it will continue to learn and improve recognition of your fingerprint.
  • Using Touch ID sets your Require Passcode setting to Immediately. This cannot be changed.
  • You still have the option of entering your passcode simply by sliding to unlock.
  • If you unintentionally engage the "slide to unlock" and reach the passcode entry screen, you can still use Touch ID to unlock your iPhone. However, in a situation where you've had five unsuccessful Touch ID attempts, you will be required to manually enter your passcode.
  • Touch ID works only for fingerprints that you have configured ("enrolled" in techno-speak). If you've gone ahead and enabled Touch ID on your device, you may have noticed that you can enroll more than one fingerprint up to five, in fact.  Obviously, they don't all have to be your fingerprints. You can just as easily enroll those of family members... up to the total limit of five fingerprints.
  • Keep in mind that with each additional finger that you enroll, it may take slightly longer for Touch ID to recognize your finger when you use it. So, if you find you don't use a particular enrolled finger much, or at all, consider deleting it  hat would be the fingerprint record, not your finger, silly!

Managing Fingerprints and Settings

To manage the individual records of your enrolled fingerprints go to Settings > General > Touch ID & Passcode > Touch ID. Here you can:

  • Enable or disable Touch ID for either unlocking the device via Passcode or iTunes & App Store purchases;
  • Enroll new fingerprints;

The Touch ID settings panel

By tapping Edit in the Touch ID settings panel, you can  make changes to the fingerprint entries

  • Edit, rename or delete your existing fingerprints. One way to delete an enrolled fingerprint you see listed is via the typical swipe-left-to-delete method. Enter the edit mode by tapping Edit on the top-right corner of the screen;
  • Verify which fingers are associated with the enrolled fingerprints listed in the Touch ID settings panel. This is particularly handy when you don't name your fingerprints accordingly (Right-Thumb, Left-Index, etc.). All you need to do is touch a finger to the Home button. If your fingerprint matches, that entry in the list will be briefly highlighted.

The Fingerprints section of the Touch ID preferences panel

When touching the Home button with an enrolled finger, it’s description is highlighted in the Touch ID preferences panel

Troubleshooting Touch ID

If you feel things are a bit wonky with your implementation of Touch ID, there are a few things you can check:

  • Verify that you are running the latest version of iOS. You can do this via Settings > General > Software Update.
  • See that your fingers and the Home button are clean and dry. Moisture, lotions, marinara sauce, sweat, oils, cuts, or dry skin may affect fingerprint recognition. Certain activities can also temporarily affect fingerprint recognition, including exercising, showering, swimming, cooking, or other conditions or changes that affect your fingerprint.
  • Finally, if one of the enrolled fingerprints isn't working, go to Settings > General > Touch ID & Passcode > Touch ID, tap Edit, delete and then re-enroll the finger. If that finger still isn't working, try enrolling a different finger.

Beyond these DIY troubleshooting steps, you'll need to take your iPhone 5s to an Apple Retail Store, Apple Authorized Service Provider, or contact AppleCare for further assistance.

In conclusion, now that Apple has provisioned your iPhone 5s with Touch ID, as long as you have scannable fingerprints, there really is no excuse for not keeping your device locked and your precious data secure and privacy protected.