How to create a macOS virtual machine easily — and for free

25 March 2017, 13:58

Feature head image

Recently the folks behind the useful but expensive Parallels Desktop virtualization app released Parallels Desktop Lite, which is available in the Mac App Store. Although it requires an in-app purchase if you want to install Windows as a virtual machine, Parallels Desktop Lite is entirely free of charge if you just want to install Linux or macOS as a virtual machine. It’s also quick and easy to use – a far cry from other methods up until now that have been complicated, time-consuming and of dubious legality.

Here are the steps required to create a macOS virtual machine using Parallels Desktop Lite.

  1. Open the Mac App Store on your Mac and search for Parallels Desktop Lite. Click to “buy” it and install it (it’s free).
  2. Remaining in the Mac App Store, search for the version of macOS that is installed on your Mac. For example, if this is Sierra then search for that. Click to Download it, if it isn’t already downloaded. Note that once the download finishes the macOS installer will automatically start, but you don’t need this and can simply click the Quit menu option.
  3. Open Parallels Desktop Lite and choose the free use option. Its label tells you that this merely lets you install Linux. For some reason this doesn’t mention macOS, but using Parallels Desktop Lite to install macOS is possible – and if you read the App Store description you’ll see it’s mentioned there.
  4. Next, click the right-hand option in the New Virtual Machine window – “Install Windows or Another OS from a DVD or Image File” – and click Continue.
  5. macOS will appear in the list, so simply click Continue to carry on. Main feature illustration
  6. You’ll be told a bootable disk image file will need to be created, which is fine – this will happen automatically. Just click the Continue button. The default save location for the image file is OK, so just click Select in the File Open/Save dialog box that appears.
  7. Once creation of the disk image has finished, you’ll be prompted to give the new virtual machine a name, and choose a location to save it. Once done, click Continue.
  8. Your new virtual machine will boot, and installation will begin as if you’re booting a new Mac. Select to install macOS from the recovery menu when it appears, and ensure the power is attached if you’re using a portable Mac, otherwise installation cannot continue. Note that there was a weird bug on my MacBook Pro that meant the screen was stretched in an odd way, but resizing it slightly by clicking and dragging the edge fixed this.
Main feature illustration

Once installation has finished, you can simply click the red close button at the top left of the virtual machine window to suspend your virtualized macOS. Each time you start Parallels Desktop Lite you’ll be able to click the large play button to unsuspend the macOS virtual machine.

For what it’s worth, creating a macOS/OS X virtual machine in this way is entirely legal. The macOS/OS X End-User License Agreement (EULA) provides explicit permission: “… you are granted a limited, non-transferable, non-exclusive license… (iii) to install, use and run up to two (2) additional copies or instances of the Apple Software within virtual operating system environments on each Mac Computer you own or control that is already running the Apple Software, for purposes of: (a) software development; (b) testing during software development; (c) using macOS Server; or (d) personal, non-commercial use.”

Leave a comment...

Why would you call Parallels Desktop “expensive”? With Parallels (OR VM Ware), you get fast and reliable windows machines on your Mac for less than $100.-
Get rid of the idea that everything should be for free today!

— EfficientBizz · Mar 26, 12:21 AM · #

How far back can you go with Mac OS versions with this method? Can you do 10.4 for example?

— Scott Siegling · Mar 26, 04:51 AM · #

Scott you can theoretically install many older versions of macOS/OS X but the problem is that the Mac App Store won’t let you download older versions. The way around this is to create a macOS/OS X virtual machine as described above, and then USE THAT to open Mac App Store and download the older versions of OS X. For some reason Apple doesn’t bother checking if you’re using a virtual machine to download them. Then you can copy them off the virtual machine and use them to create virtual machines on your Mac.

Keir Thomas · Mar 26, 08:33 AM · #

How about installing a more recent version of MacOS than the one you are using? I have Yosemite on my Early 2011 macBook Pro and I would llike to see if Sierra is not too slow to use before upgrading.

— YvesD · Mar 26, 09:46 AM · #

YvesD, yes that would work fine. But you don’t get anywhere near native performance in a virtual machine, so your test wouldn’t be conclusive.

Keir Thomas · Mar 26, 10:08 AM · #

I think Parallels is expensive, too. I like how they often have 80 percent off sales on it. The idea is to get you to buy it and then upgrade when the expensive new edition comes out.
we don’t experct it to be free — just affordable and reasonable in price. It isn’t.

— Steve · Mar 26, 10:44 AM · #

Once you create a mac vm, is there a way to run that vm in windows via a different virtual machine manager?

— Sirpingalot · Mar 26, 04:05 PM · #

Is it possible to install Sierra in a Virtual Machine on a mid-2007 iMac?

Roger WORROD · Mar 27, 03:34 PM · #

Is there a decent resource for downloading older disk images of macOS, to be used in this fashion?

For instance, I’d like to be able to test older versions of Safari in VMs.

Brad Bice · Apr 4, 07:03 AM · #

Hi Brad, there’s nowhere online that I know about, or at least nowhere legal (you might find them on BitTorrent websites, for example).

However even old OS X downloads are available under the Purchased tab of the Mac App Store. For example, I have most versions of OS X doing back to Lion listed there. As mentioned you can download them and then just cancel the download.

If you can’t download them because the App Store won’t let you then, again as mentioned above, you can download them within a virtual machine.

Keir Thomas · Apr 4, 08:19 AM · #

@Roger Worrod. I am running macOS sierra 10.12.4 on a MBP late 2008 with a little help (no, a lot of help) from dosdude1. the laptop runs fine, but I installed parallels desktop lite (PDL) to run W10, because I had used the trial version of parallel desktop to run W10, with no problem. PDL refused to start because my hardware did not meet with its specifications. Apparently, it checks the hardware type and year (mine is MBP4,1; 2008) and decides whether to run or not.

— Ola · Apr 12, 01:08 AM · #

Hi Ola

Yes, that’s correct – unlike the desktop version of Parallels, which I believe has its own virtualisation engine as well as the option to use Intel’s built-in virtualisation technology, the version of Parallels discussed above – Parallels Desktop Lite – can only use the built-in Intel virtualisation. Although this has been around since 2005 in selected Intel chips I’m not sure when support arrived in Intel Macs. Obviously your model from 2008 isn’t one of those supported.

Keir Thomas · Apr 12, 01:36 AM · #

I can’t believe you’d go to all the trouble of writing so detailed an article on using an app (Parallels Lite) that won’t do Windows, which is probably the most likely need for virtualization, when there is a mature, stable product that will do everything all the other apps do, is written by a highly reputable company (Oracle) and is absolutely free?

I am referring, of course, to Virtualbox, which I have used for many years to provide me with a copy of Windows so I can run the one or two apps that simply don’t exist on the OS X platform, such as the outdated program that our condo’s gate uses to manage our owners (via a 1200 baud dialup modem no less!). Even with something as exotic (?) as a USB dialup modem, Virtualbox worked flawlessly.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

— Michael · Apr 15, 02:47 PM · #

I see all my other OS installers in the purchased section of the mac app store going all the way back to mountain lion. The only one not available is sierra but you can download this way

— Greg · Jan 18, 12:51 PM · #