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Fixing a non-booting linux install

Because of the length and variety of troubleshooting methods, the following article will be segmented by each step of the boot process.

Table of Contents

First Stage: UEFI/BIOS

When the system is first powered on, the UEFI/BIOS preforms basic integrity checks of your disk, then checks the MBR for a valid bootloader, and if it’s a GPT system, it will check the ESP (EFI System Partition) for a valid bootloader. If it is not found, you may get an error stating boot failure, the system may load into the UEFI/BIOS, or it may reboot.

  1. If the system fails to boot into your OS, try a live environment.
  2. If the live environment boots successfully it indicates the bootloader is not functioning correctly. You can attempt to fix the bootloader by chrooting in:

Chrooting on non Arch based distributions:

Mount the root filesystem, where sdXY is your root partition, or /. You can find it by running lsblk, and looking at the size, or using sudo fdisk -l, and looking at the partition size and type.

mount /dev/sdXY /mnt

Mount the API filesystems:

cd /mnt
mount -t proc /proc proc/
mount /t sysfs /sys sys/
mount --rbind /dev dev/
mount --rbind /sys/firmware/efi/efivars sys/firmware/efi/efivars/

Mount the efi partition if the system is UEFI/GPT:

Use sudo fdisk -l to list disks, look for a partition of ~200-500M, labeled EFI System, again, where /dev/sdXY is the EFI system partition

mount /dev/sdXY /mnt/boot/efi

If you require an internet connection:

cp /etc/resolv.conf etc/resolv.conf

Chroot into /mnt using a bash shell:

chroot /mnt /bin/bash

Chrooting on Arch based distributions:

Chroot into the system using arch’s arch-chroot script:

arch-chroot /dev/sdXY

Mount the EFI system partition if the system is UEFI/GPT:

Use sudo fdisk -l to list disks, look for a partition of ~200-500M, labeled EFI System, again, where /dev/sdXY is the EFI system partition

mount /dev/sdXY /boot/efi

To reinstall grub:

grub-mkconfig -o /boot/grub/grub.cfg

If the system is EFI, you do not need any arguments for grub-install:

grub-install

If the system is MBR:

grub-install --target=i386-pc /dev/sdXY

If the live environment does not boot successfully:

  • See if Secure Boot is enabled:

Check your UEFI/BIOS and ensure Secure Boot is disabled for most Linux distros, or enabled if you are using a Linux distro that supports secure boot.

  • Try Ventoy, if it boots to the Ventoy menu without issue, try redownloading/burning your Linux ISO. You can ensure the ISO checksum matches:

From Linux (this utility is included in most distros):

sha256sum [file]

From Windows (from Powershell):

Get-FileHash

If the checksum doesn’t match with the one provided by the original source, than something went wrong during the download process, and the ISO needs to be downloaded again.

If the checksum matches and the ISO still isn’t booting:

  • Try a different iso utility (Rufus, Ventoy, dd(unix only), BalenaEtcher)
  • Try a different “base” of distro (RHEL, Debian/Ubuntu, Arch, and OpenSUSE are all common alternatives)
  • Try a different USB drive
  • See if the drive works on a different computer
  • Update your UEFI/BIOS

Second Stage: GRUB/Bootloader

Note: this section assumes you use GRUB

At this point, your UEFI/BIOS has passed control over to GRUB, by default, it presents a menu similar to the one shown below, although the appearance may vary:

grub menu

Recovery shell

With the standard boot option selected in GRUB:

  • Hit e to temporarily edit the boot config
  • Find the line that says linux, and go to the end of the line and put systemd.unit=rescue.target
  • Then hit ctrl + x or F10 to boot with the modified config.
  • If the recovery shell doesn’t work, you can try an emergency shell (a more minimalistic recovery interface) by replacing systemd.unit=rescue.target with systemd.unit=emergency.target

Init shell

In Linux, the init process is the very first process launched by the system, identified with a PID of 1. This can be changed with a GRUB variable.

  • Hit e over the correct entry to temporarily edit the boot config
  • Append init=/bin/bash to the line that starts with linux. You can experiement with having it earlier in the line to see if it makes a difference.

Troubleshooting from a shell

  • Update everything
  • Reinstall GPU drivers
  • Reinstall the display manager and desktop environment
  • Try manually starting display manager/desktop environment
  • Revert your package manager repo to an older date and downgrade packages(process varies by package manage)

Final Stage: System Boot

Once GRUB passes booting over to Linux, it will start booting in VGA text mode under tty1. Troubles here can show symptoms including:

  • Appears unresponsive during boot
  • Screen goes black as it leaves VGA text mode, then crashes or hangs
  • Begins shutting down after a partial boot

Different TTY

During the boot process, you can try switching to a different TTY to bypass the TTY used at boot. You can use ctrl + alt + f2-f9 to drop to a different interface.

Troubleshooting from a recovery shell

If the shell loads successfully, than the system not booting might be prevented by a bad config loaded at startup, a nonfunctional display manager or desktop environment.

If X11: Try starting your desktop environment using xinit: You can also try skipping xinit by specifying the start environment as a startx argument (example uses KDE plasma):

startx startplasma-x11

if that fails, you can check dmesg logs if stdout is inconclusive.

Try starting your display manager from the command line (sddm used in example):

sudo systemctl start sddm

If you don’t know what the systemd service is named, you can try to find it with systemctl list-units | grep possiblename where possiblename is the or part of it.