Skip to content
Thoughtful, detailed coverage of everything Apple for 33 years
and the TidBITS Content Network for Apple professionals

Use Emergency Bypass to Circumvent Do Not Disturb for VIPs

Here’s a common problem: you’re settling down to watch a movie and don’t want your iPhone interrupting you with unnecessary updates that can wait. But you also want to receive potentially important calls and messages—perhaps from an elderly relative. Or maybe you’re out for the evening and don’t want to be distracted from your phone… unless it’s the babysitter. Here’s how to meet those contradictory goals.

Enable Do Not Disturb to Block Notifications

We assume that all TidBITS readers are generally familiar with Do Not Disturb, but if not, let’s review the basics. It’s a feature that silences your iPhone temporarily so you aren’t interrupted by the constant cavalcade of notifications. The easiest way to access it for occasional use is through Control Center—it’s the button with the moon icon.The Do Not Disturb button in Control Center

Tap the button to turn Do Not Disturb on and off. If you press and hold the button, you see options to turn Do Not Disturb off automatically, which we covered in depth in “Inside iOS 12: Do Not Disturb Learns to Turn Itself Off” (19 September 2018).

You can also enable Do Not Disturb from Settings > Do Not Disturb, but more important are the additional options there. Most necessary are the scheduling options, which let you automatically turn Do Not Disturb on and off at certain times. Everyone should set a schedule to avoid having sleep disrupted by random notifications.

There are other useful options here, like Do Not Disturb while Driving (see “iOS 11 to Bring Do Not Disturb While Driving,” 21 August 2017), but we mostly want to draw your attention to the Allow Calls From setting, which lets you allow calls from a certain group of contacts to punch through the Do Not Disturb wall. But what about text messages? That’s where Emergency Bypass comes in.

Use Emergency Bypass to Circumvent Do Not Disturb

What’s the difference between Allow Calls From and Emergency Bypass? In essence, you can use Emergency Bypass to allow both calls and text messages. However, it’s not as straightforward as Allow Calls From. There’s no mention of Emergency Bypass in the Do Not Disturb settings, you have to find and enable it for individual contacts, and you shouldn’t confuse it with the unrelated Emergency Contacts used for Medical ID notifications.

Here’s how to enable Emergency Bypass for phone calls or text messages:

  1. Open a contact card in either the Contacts app or the Phone app.
  2. Tap Edit in the upper-right corner.
  3. Tap Ringtone or Text Tone.
  4. Enable Emergency Bypass.
  5. Tap Done.

The Emergency Bypass setting

There is one potentially unexpected caveat. If your Mac is awake and running Messages, it will likely capture text messages before they’re sent to your iPhone. In most situations, that’s sensible—you don’t want text message notifications to make sounds on every Apple device you own if you’re actively using your Mac. Obviously, if you’re away from your Mac, it should be sleeping, but if that’s not true for some reason, it could prevent messages from arriving on your iPhone regardless of Emergency Bypass.

What about Overriding Emergency Bypass on Occasion?

The only thing to keep in mind is that Emergency Bypass will cause your iPhone to make sounds even if Do Not Disturb is on and the ring/silent switch is enabled. That’s the point, of course, but there are situations where silence is essential—a recital, a play, a meditation class. In other words, if Emergency Bypass overrides Do Not Disturb, how can you override Emergency Bypass every so often? Editing individual contact cards is clearly too much work. We found two levels of workaround:

  • Disabling Wi-Fi and enabling Airplane ModeSilence Everything: If it’s imperative that your iPhone and Apple Watch not make any sound, the brute force workaround is to use Control Center to turn on Airplane Mode and turn off Wi-Fi—both are necessary. That will cut your iPhone off from the outside world, ensuring that no notifications can cause it to make sound. You’ll still want Do Not Disturb enabled to avoid sounds caused by alarms, timers, and apps.
  • Silence Text Messages: If you’re worried only about text messages making sounds, when enabling Emergency Bypass for a contact, set their Text Tone to None, and make sure you’ve selected a Vibration instead. That will guarantee that text messages don’t generate iPhone sounds. For those who also have an Apple Watch, you must also go to Watch > My Watch > Messages, turn on Custom notifications and disable Sound. That’s necessary because the Apple Watch doesn’t honor the contact’s Text Tone of None when Emergency Bypass is enabled.

Text message sound settings

Room for Improvement

In our testing, we discovered that Emergency Bypass is finicky and complicated. Apple could reimplement Do Not Disturb and Emergency Bypass in a much more streamlined way.

For starters, it’s virtually impossible to manage which contacts have Emergency Bypass enabled, because there’s no central list. You would be well-served to add all your Emergency Bypass contacts to a group in Contacts, purely so you could more easily disable the setting for those people in the future without having to dig through all likely contacts.

We suggest that Apple should replace the superfluous Allow Calls From feature and replace it with a Settings > Do Not Disturb > Emergency Bypass section or screen. That interface should provide a master switch to enable or disable Emergency Bypass entirely, plus separate options to specify which contacts qualify for Emergency Bypass for calling and texting. The master Emergency Bypass switch, when enabled, would let the specified contacts break through Do Not Disturb’s cone of silence. When disabled, Do Not Disturb would apply to everyone equally.

It makes sense to separate those contacts who can break through Do Not Disturb by calling you from those who would instead text you. You might have a contact who texts you constantly but would call only in an emergency. And we all know people who call randomly without texting, so it would make sense to force those people to text first if there was something urgent.

Finally, as long as we’re making suggestions surrounding Do Not Disturb, it would be helpful if it was possible to set up an auto-reply for Do Not Disturb that works like the auto-reply feature for Do Not Disturb While Driving. It would be handy for informing contacts that you’re using Do Not Disturb instead of letting them worry that you’re just ignoring them. Additionally, a contact could then respond with “urgent” to break through.

In the end, how you control the extent to which your iPhone can interrupt you has evolved organically, from the simple ring/silent switch to Do Not Disturb to Emergency Bypass contact settings, and it’s time for Apple to revisit the interface and user experience.

Subscribe today so you don’t miss any TidBITS articles!

Every week you’ll get tech tips, in-depth reviews, and insightful news analysis for discerning Apple users. For over 33 years, we’ve published professional, member-supported tech journalism that makes you smarter.

Registration confirmation will be emailed to you.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA. The Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Comments About Use Emergency Bypass to Circumvent Do Not Disturb for VIPs

Notable Replies

  1. I think once again, a lot of the complication arises because we are attempting to do so many fancy things without actually knowing if there is any broad requirement for it in the first place. Ringer switch obviously makes sense. DND possibly too, because it’s essentially for the screen what the switch is for audio. Of course you could already argue against that too and tell people to simply turn off all their chatty notifications instead. And there’s Airplane Mode too. Regardless of DND, now we’re going even one step further. Now we have to introduce punch through because people are looking for a technical solution to what is ultimately a social problem (what are my priorities? and why do I hand out my number to a plethora of freaks when what I really care about is Aunt Ethel calling to tell me she can no longer breath). And as the article details, punch through now calls for another layer, new interface, etc. And already we’re talking about auto replies, etc. on top of that. That would be yet another layer. Where does this end? And how many added panels (that clutter everybody’s UI) are justified to cater to some of these rather exotic use cases?

    This is all very complicated and with every step of added fancy, we need more tweaks, more options, etc. At the same time we wonder why usability and reliability have suffered. We bemoan why settings we check or change fairly often are four layers deep in Settings. We agonize that we get a plethora of bug fixes after every release because apparently the software people just can’t get their stuff to work. MS Office is a good example of what happens when you try to cater to every possible user demand. iTunes deteriorated when it went the same route.

    I personally, would prefer Apple simply did away with this stuff and returned to making kit for the rest of us. Sure, the 10% of folks who use these fancy shmancy options heavily will have to turn to 3rd-party solutions (or, gasp, Android) and for them it will suck, but for the 90% others they’ll end up with a simpler phone that makes doing the stuff we do most of the time easier to handle. Steve liked to point out that better products are those with less whiz-bang. Less clutter allows for more focus on what really matters. IMHO iOS is already far too cluttered and considering obvious bugs that have plagued even the latest iOS 14 throughout countless smaller updates, obviously too complicated for even Apple’s best to handle.

  2. Fwiw, emergency bypass isn’t new. It’s about five years old now (introduced with iOS 10).

    I use emergency bypass specifically with only a few people - my wife, my kids, and my brother and sister, who are primary caregivers for my mom. I keep my phone’s silent switch permanently on (and my watch on silent mode as well) but when I hear a ringtone or text tone, I know it’s one of those people, whether DND is on or not. I agree with Josh that it would be nice if Apple added access to emergency bypass to the DND settings, but maybe it’s best if it is hidden a little, as it is a pretty powerful feature.

  3. I’m with Simon.

    Way too complicated. Look how long your article is! If I had to explain this to a 40-year-old, they’d nod, set it up sorta and then completely forget what they did. Someone in their 70s? Fuhgeddaboutit. I think the VIP idea in mail is a better direction. They’re grouped together, their emails are marked with the star, you can set different chimes for them.

    If you must know, I turn off my iPhone at night. I still have a landline and the right people know they can always get me on the landline. And they know if they call me on the landline at 1am they are in serious trouble if it isn’t important. :slight_smile:


  4. I didn’t know Emergency Bypass existed till last week. First, my phone was reset and while trying to remember where VIP was, I found Emergency Bypass and turned that on for my SO first, even though I was sure I hadn’t seen it before.

    Then reading this thread, I realized I really hadn’t seen it before! And also realized I expected VIP to work the same way the OP did, and finally understood why my SO’s texts weren’t coming through until 9am.

    I use DND from 9pm to 9am because I have too many people in my life that don’t respect a clock. My SO does not use it, and while he doesn’t get as many texts as I do, he does get news notifications which drives me nuts after bedtime.

    I had to setup VIPs simply because one of my clients always assumes something is wrong when my phone goes right to VM and calls back well within the 3 minute window. So that feature got turned off and I am realizing I need to add a few neighbors to VIP because wow, if something crazy like my house catching fire happens, I kind of want my phone to ring if they see it first!

    Anyway, all this said because this is complicated and why is it so? Why do we need a Bypass when VIP should do the same thing? Or vice versa?

    I like DND over the switch for three reasons: it still vibrates when the switch is off, it saves wear and tear on the case over the switch, and it’s easier to either tell Siri to do it or swipe up to hit DND.

    I want my SO and parents to be able to reach me at all times. My parents rarely use their cell phones much less text. My SO rarely calls me, so basically if any of those three call me, I definitely want to answer as it’s likely important. But there are a LOT of times when I don’t want to hear from anyone else. I’ve even started to use it while sitting at my desk to get peace and quiet while working.


  5. That’s pretty insulting and ageist to generalize about “someone in their 70s”. I’m nearly there and know more about the Mac (and preceding machines) than half the people on here. I can program rings around most, and have designed a dozen complex interactive websites in the last decade and still actively maintain a few. And in no way would I be “Fuhgeddaboutit” reading and following those instructions. You’ll be older too someday, and I hope you manage to remember and then reflect upon your posting above.

  6. Tee hee!

    No offense meant! Except! You are in a minority . . . you participate in the Tidbits forums. What I was saying is that in general the average person in their seventies is nowhere near your level of expertise and they are absolutely smacked senseless by the endless qualifications and buttons of unknown function that are now all too common. Many of them, even users of computers for decades, still don’t know about cut & paste.


  7. I think that adding a contact to vip is just as or even more inscrutable. There is nothing in the contacts app that adds an email address to vip, nothing in settings / mail. You have to get an email from somebody first to tap their small contact link at the top of the message and then tap add to vip. How many people know this?

    [edit - forgot to add that the purpose of editing the contact was first to set a custom chime for texts or calls. Emergency bypass is part of that edit.]

    And I agree that it’s probably best not to be ageist and tar specific age groups as technically inproficent. I doubt that my kids know much about vip contacts or emergency bypass, unless I’ve told them. And I think that four steps is easily understandable. Just as understandable as the four steps required to add a contact to email VIP. Both could be better, but neither are horrible and people who don’t know about these steps aren’t missing all that much.

    The thing that bothered me more about Josh’s post was that messages may not sound on your iPhone if your Mac is running and not sleeping and you have messages set up. I’ve noticed this as well and it drives me nuts. I want the phone or watch to sound always - that is my main texting/messaging notification device. Unfortunately there isn’t even an option for this to turn that “feature” off.

  8. Ageism is the last bastion of prejudice. You can do better, Dave.

  9. With all due respect to Josh, he’s made it seem more complicated than it is with this convoluted article. I’ve explained this to plenty of people (even on old folks!), and it’s not hard to grasp if you focus on what you want to accomplish instead of making a laundry list of every possible option and method.

  10. Let’s stay on the topic of Emergency Bypass here, rather than straying into the age-related weeds.

    Josh and I spent quite a lot of time on this article yesterday. It started short and to the point, but as we tested to make sure it actually worked as Apple suggested it should, we found that it was significantly less straightforward than it initially seemed. With quirks like Messages on the Mac capturing messages before they got to the iPhone and the way the Apple Watch didn’t honor the Text Tone of None, we didn’t feel that it was appropriate to pretend that it would just work the way someone might expect.

  11. Lol… settings for settings, in case you don’t want to use the settings. Confused, anybody?! :laughing:

    But still a really useful article to have as a reference. Thanks as ever, Josh and Adam.

  12. Yes, tried to go through it with my wife, whose patience ran out pretty quickly. This all needs to be more straightforward and comprehensible to the many. I’ve been debating lately turning off messages everywhere except my iPhone. Too many sources of interruption and my phone is with me always.

    Young folk regard calling as an unwelcome intrusion, bad manners compared to text messaging, important that there’s a route for them to be able to get through, this will be useful Josh and Adam, thanks.

    Now if only WhatsApp could be contained… my Android wielding friends and the communities on there, that’s real noise. All my various ‘other’ messaging apps, from WhatsApp to Slack to Telegram, are all in a folder with the only permitted notification being a badge. If the folder has a badge I know there’s a message ‘somewhere’ and can look through them. But no noise, no thanks.

  13. I have two very similar contacts. One has entries for “Ringtone” and “Text Tone”. (Interesting inconsistency of terminology.) The other only has “Ringtone”. Can anyone explain why this would be?

  14. I don’t know. But what happens if you edit the contact, scroll down, and tap “edit fields”? Is there an option to add the field text tone?

    Ringtone is in the dictionary spelled that way. I think because of the ending and beginning “t”, text tone looks better than texttone.

  15. This is a little weird. When I visited the “edit fields” list “Text Tone” wasn’t one of the available choices, but when I exited that list “Text Tone” appeared. Unpredictable software can be frustrating.

  16. Could it be related to one contact having a landline phone number that doesn’t accept texts, or is in a different format that suggests it can’t accept texts?

Join the discussion in the TidBITS Discourse forum


Avatar for ace Avatar for jcenters Avatar for Simon Avatar for tommy Avatar for schwartz Avatar for ddmiller Avatar for bb1 Avatar for dianed143 Avatar for whboyd Avatar for jimthing Avatar for Dafuki