You installed Windows on an Intel Mac via Boot Camp, and want to use virtualization in it. But there’s an issue — hardware virtualization extensions are not available. Luckily, this can be worked around easily with the help of rEFInd, an alternate boot manager.

Many software development workflows involve virtualization. WSL, Docker for Windows, and the Android Emulator are some examples of common virtualization-based tools. Then there are general virtualization tools/hypervisors, such as VMware Workstation, Hyper-V or VirtualBox. All these tools require hardware virtualization extensions (Intel VT-x, AMD-V) or at least are very slow without them. Virtualization extensions are not enabled by default in the CPU, they must be enabled by something. On typical PCs, this is often a firmware-level setting (that might be disabled by default), or it might be unconditionally enabled by the firmware. On a Mac, however, enabling VT-x is done by macOS, as part of the boot process. This means that Windows running in Boot Camp will start without virtualization, unless you want to boot into macOS first and then reboot into Windows. That setup isn’t quite ergonomic (and what if macOS refuses to shut down, as it often does for me?).

Instead, we’re going to use rEFInd, a boot manager for EFI-based systems that can boot into various OSes and also handle other parts of the boot process. But first, let’s prepare our system for this.

DISCLAIMER: Those steps may make your Mac fail to boot. I don’t take any responsibility whatsoever if that happens. Prepare for the worst — make backups, perhaps have install media ready, plan some downtime.

Step 1. Install Windows in Boot Camp the usual way

The first thing you should do is install Windows 10 in Boot Camp, with the help of the Boot Camp Assistant. The Assistant will take some time to partition your drive and do other preparations (and show barely informative progress bars, but I ranted about that Apple design “feature” already). There are no special preparations for this, the standard process will work. If you already have Windows installed, you can go to the next step.

Step 2. Ensure the setup is stable

We’ll be making changes to how the machine boots, and as such, it’s good to have other things working correctly and in line with your expected configuration. Make sure that:

  • Both macOS and Windows boot correctly

  • You can change the OS you boot into by holding the Option key after pressing Power (requires disabling the firmware password 1)

  • Disk encryption (FileVault, BitLocker) is enabled (if you want that, of course) and fully configured (initial encryption is complete)

  • Windows setup (including Boot Camp drivers) is complete

  • The OSXRESERVED partition that the Boot Camp Assistant created has been deleted (that should have happened when booting into macOS for the first time after installing Windows — complete with a slowly moving progress bar and no other information, as is usual for this OS — but if that didn’t happen, use Disk Utility in macOS or Recovery OS to do that — pick your drive, click Partition and delete the partition, this will grow the macOS partition)

  • System Integrity Protection is enabled (the procedure is a bit safer that way)

Step 3. Create a partition for rEFInd

First, back up your data before making changes to your hard drive layout. We’ll need to create a new partition for rEFInd to live on. This is the safest option — you could install it to the EFI System Partition (ESP), but macOS might want to put its own stuff there, and it’s safer not to use it.

The rEFInd partition doesn’t need to be large (50 MB will be enough); it must use the HFS+ (Mac OS Extended) file system. To create it, you have three options:

  • From macOS, by shrinking the macOS partition: open Disk Utility, choose your drive, select Partition, add a new partition, set its size and file system (in that order!). This will take a few minutes (10-15, or possibly more), and you won’t be able to use your Mac during the resize.

  • From Recovery OS, by shrinking the macOS partition: same steps apply, but it might be a bit safer than doing it from within macOS.

  • From Windows, by shrinking the Windows partition: open Disk Management (press the Windows key and type partition, or open Computer Management from Administrative Tools), right click your Windows partition, select Shrink Volume. Enter the desired size and click Shrink. Then, right click the unallocated space and create a New Simple Volume. For now, choose FAT32 or exFAT; you’ll need to reformat it as HFS+ from within macOS later (Erase in Disk Utility). This will take a few seconds — and even if you include the time to reboot, it’s faster.

After you create the new partition and make sure it’s HFS+ (Mac OS Extended), you can proceed with the setup. Also, if you don’t want the partition to be visible in the Finder, run the following command (insert the correct volume path for your system):

sudo chflags hidden /Volumes/rEFInd

Step 4. Configure and install rEFInd

To set ue rEFInd, you’ll need to boot into macOS. Download rEFInd from the author’s website — you want the file named A binary zip file. Extract this archive anywhere on your system (~/Downloads is fine).

First, you’ll need to change the configuration file refind/refind.conf-sample. Locate the setting named enable_and_lock_vmx, uncomment it (remove the # at the start of the line), and set its value to true. You can also make other configuration changes — the default timeout of 20 seconds is likely to be too much for your needs.

When your configuration file is ready, you can install rEFInd. You can use the refind-install tool, or perform a manual install (check out the installation docs for more details).

Before installing, you’ll need to get the device name of your rEFInd partition. Open Disk Utility, select the partition from the left pane, and check the Device field (for example, disk9s9 — it will be different on your system, depending on your partition layout).

Open a Terminal, cd into the directory where rEFInd was extracted, and run the following command (replace disk9s9 with the device name on your system):

./refind-install --ownhfs disk9s9

This command will produce an error if you have SIP enabled — but this error is not important for us, the install will work without the change that SIP prevented. 2

You can now shut down your Mac and use the Option key while starting up to choose the OS. You should see three options: Macintosh HD, EFI Boot, and Boot Camp. The EFI Boot option is rEFInd — pick that, boot into Windows (Microsoft EFI boot), et voilà — Windows can now run virtualization software.

There are a few more things that you can do now, depending on your OS preferences.

  • You can make rEFInd the default boot loader. Hold Control on the Apple boot device selection screen and click the Power icon under the EFI Boot drive (source for the tip).

  • You can use rEFInd to boot into macOS, although this might not work with Big Sur according to the author (it seems to work for me, but YMMV). You can use the standard boot method for macOS (by defaulting to Macintosh HD, or by choosing it from the Power+Option picker) and rEFInd exclusively for Windows (and set your timeout to a low value).

  • You can modify rEFInd’s configuration — in this scenario, the config file is /Volumes/rEFInd/System/Library/CoreServices/refind.conf. You can set a custom background image, for example (rEFInd’s site can help you figure out what options are available and what you can set them to).

1

If the firmware password is important to you, you can restore it after the setup is done — this will mean using rEFInd to boot both Windows and macOS, although I decided to remove the firmware password and boot into macOS from the Power+Option boot menu.

2

The failing operation is marking the rEFInd partition bootable in the Mac sense, using the bless command. However, the drive is considered bootable as an EFI-compliant boot volume (it has *.efi files in specific places), and this is the boot method we’re using here. SIP aside, the bless utility is a bit buggy, and we can use rEFInd without a blessed partition just fine.