How to Search in PDF on Mac with Preview

Sep 10, 2016 - 17 Comments

PDF

The Preview app on Mac opens PDF files and image documents, and also allows for the easiest way to search PDF files for contextual term matches on a Mac. Even better, Preview can search in PDF files for matches across multiple pages, and it actually highlights each match in bright yellow making it remarkably easy to quickly locate search matches within the PDF document.


To be perfectly clear, we’re talking about searching within a PDF document for a term match, for example if you wanted to looking within a specific document for “key term”. We are not talking about searching for PDF files on the Mac file system, though if you want to quickly locate PDF files on a Mac, the best way to do that would be to use Spotlight to find the specific file type match on the computer, which in this case would be “kind:pdf”, which effectively locates all PDF files on the Mac. Of course you could first locate a PDF file, then search within that opened PDF file for a matched term using the Preview trick outlined here.

Search in PDF Files on Mac within Preview

Preview for Mac can search within PDF files for matching text, phrases, words, or other terms. It’s extremely fast even when searching within large PDF documents. Here’s how it works:

  1. Open the PDF file you want to search through in Preview *
  2. A PDF file opened in Preview on Mac ready to search

  3. Pull down the “Edit” menu and choose “Find” then select the “Find” option in the submenu, alternatively you can use the Command+F keystroke
  4. Search a PDF on Mac with Preview Find

  5. Enter the search term you want to search the PDF file for, the search box appears in the upper right corner of the Preview window
  6. Search box in Preview to search PDF on Mac

  7. Find matches highlighted in yellow, use the “next” and “previous” buttons to jump to the next and prior search matches in the PDF
  8. Search Preview for PDF text matches

In the screenshot examples here, we’re searching a multi-page product info PDF file for the term for a specific term, and you’ll notice the matches are highlighted throughout the PDF file opened within Preview.

* Preview is the default PDF viewer on the MacOS and Mac OS X, but if you have installed another app that has taken over as the default you can set the default PDF viewer back to Preview with this guide.

Longtime Mac users will likely note the Command+F keystroke is also what can be used to search for files quickly within the Finder windows (separately from Spotlight), and search for matches in Safari and Chrome web browsers, and many other apps as well. It’s a handy keystroke to remember as it works in many Mac apps as the Find keyboard shortcut.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks

17 Comments

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  1. Rick Holcomb says:

    Find some but not all PDF’s can be searched. At this point I cannot work out the difference between those that can and those that cannot be searched with Preview. Any ideas?

    • George A says:

      IF your pdf’s are scans and have not been converted to text then the search function won’t work. A scan is just a picture in a pdf, a bit map image.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Some PDF files are simply sequences of images. Scanned books are often this way.

      You can get inexpensive utilities that will OCR and index PDF image files so that you can search them. I use PDFPen for that.

  2. George A says:

    IF your pdf’s are scans and have not been converted to text then the search function won’t work. A scan is just a picture in a pdf, a bit map image.

    • Rick Holcomb says:

      Thanks George, that makes sense. I checked and that was the case for two recent ones. I suppose that explains why when I scan to PDF it goes into “Pictures” folder instead of onto the desktop as I had directed. Thanks. Your help is appreciated as my frustration level is now down a notch!

  3. Gnuut Jensen says:

    If you have to tell your readers how to use the Search function, you must be writing this for idiots.
    My last visit here, as I am not one.

    • Rick Holcomb says:

      Sorry you feel that way Gnuut. I am a new user of Macs and I find the articles very helpful and I found George’s reply clarified something that would have been difficult for me to figure out. Have a heart for the newcomers. We are the ones that help Apple grow!

    • Djokovic says:

      Gnuut I think if you’re leaving a comment like that rather than having the self control to ignore what isn’t relevant to you than you’re probably the biggest idiot on the internet. Life is one big microaggression to poor little Gnuuty, the all knowing wonder.

      See ya later.

    • Alfred says:

      Regarding Mr. Jensen’s criticism and his reference to idiots, I’m very appreciate of OSX Daily! As with Mr. Jensen, I know a lot already, but there’s a lot I don’t know…including things I don’t even think to ask about. Great way to learn. As for idiots…he reminds me of “Dummies” and all the great books written “for Dummies” that I don’t need, as well as one that I needed: my old copy of OS X Yosemite for Dummies! Even bright, smart, genius people are lacking knowledge in SOME area, and I find many of them (and us) to be more modest and polite than Mr. Jensen. P.S.: I hope Mr. Jensen doesn’t resort to name-calling if and when he has children, and he finds out how much THEY have to learn.

    • Ta4416 says:

      Glad it’s your last visit! Who needs ya??

  4. Shahriar Anwar says:

    One glaring problem in Preview search is this: it cannot search for a phrase; it will search for all occurrences of all the words in the phrase. No, it does not work if you put quotation marks around the phrase. What’s more infuriating is that this used to work many years ago.

    I have complained to Apple numerous times about it but it does not appear they will address it since they now treat the Mac as a second class product.

  5. Glenn Rueger says:

    He seemed so sure of himself on that last bit.

  6. Mike Beaton says:

    I’ve just opened a large (200+) pages PDF on a Mac after upgrading to macOS Sierra, and I was very worried to find that Preview search within this file was no longer working – it was showing zero results for terms which I knew were in there. But then it started working normally after about 2 minutes. Even though this is a fairly fast MacBook (so 2 mins seems like a long time for what I’m about to suggest!), I wonder if maybe Finder (or the OS) has to do some kind of indexing, which can take time when you first open a large PDF file? (Which could be another explanation for a non-searchable, searchable PDF.)

  7. I have a pdf that is not searchable by mac os sierra preview program and I used Adobe Acrobat Reader DC for searching in it.
    Try it instead of Preview if you have a similar problem.

  8. ML says:

    I’ve only ever used acrobat pro xi or spotlight or houdahspot to search a pdf so It’s news to me that I could use preview as well. Thank you.

  9. Chough says:

    I want to search a specific no. of pages (not intro, notes etc). Does anyone know whether you can bookmark specific pages. Currently, I’m trying to Index a book?

    • Sharon Beckas says:

      in preview – select what page you want to bookmark and then go to the menu bar and choose tools and then bookmark and then to see what pages you have bookmarked go to view and choose bookmarks. You can either use the menu bar or the icon for view.

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