How to Enable & Use the Virtual Keyboard in Mac OS X

Jun 21, 2013 - 30 Comments

Virtual Keyboard in Mac OS X

The Virtual Keyboard feature of Mac OS X is exactly what it sounds like, it’s a software-based keyboard that can be used as an auxiliary onscreen keyboard to type anything on a Mac. These virtual keys are pressable by clicking on them with a cursor, rather than tapping the physical keys on a hardware keyboard.

Enabling this screen keyboard is a little hidden away in system preferences, but it’s very easy to show, hide, and use, once it has been made accessible:

How to Use Virtual Keyboard on Mac OS

  1. Go to the  Apple menu then open System Preferences
  2. Go to “Keyboard” preference panel, and then choose the “Keyboard” tab
  3. Check the box next to “Show Keyboard & Emoji / Character Viewers in menu bar”
  4. Enable the virtual keyboard input in Mac OS X

  5. Pull down the newly visible Keyboard menu and choose “Show Keyboard Viewer”
  6. Show the virtual keyboard on a Mac

  7. Place the keyboard on screen in the desired location, and resize the newly visible keyboard as necessary by dragging the corners

The Mac Virtual Keyboard

This onscreen keyboard can input text anywhere, so not only can it be used for standard typing but it can be used for entering passwords, and even key presses for games and other apps.

The virtual keyboard will also always hover atop of existing windows or screen content on the Mac, and in a lot of ways it’s like the software keyboards on iOS devices, minus the touch screen of course, but it is equally as universally applicable across everything on the Mac.

Mac Virtual Keyboard

A Helpful Modifier Key Trick for the Virtual Keyboard on Mac

If you need to use modifier keys and keyboard shortcuts, like copy and paste, or anything else with the Command / Apple / option / control keys, enabling Stick Keys can be a big help.

Go to “Accessibility” in the System Preferences and then go to the “Keyboard” section, then choose to “Enable Sticky Keys”

Enabling modifier keys sticky keys for Mac is helpful for the virtual keyboard

Sticky Keys allows you to use the virtual keyboard with modifier keys by allowing those modifier keys (fn, command, option, control) to be held down without having to physically press down that key.

Closing the Mac Virtual Keyboard

Closing out the screen keyboard must be done by clicking the actual close button on the keyboard window itself, or by going back to the keyboard menu and choosing “Hide Keyboard Viewer”. It is intentionally unresponsive to the normal Command+W close window keyboard shortcut.

Virtual keyboards are primarily aimed at providing a typing solution for those who find it easier to use a cursor than keyboard and it does wonders for that, but it can serve other purposes too. It’s wildly useful if you wind up in a situation where the hardware keyboard on a Mac suddenly stops working, be it from water damage or otherwise, especially when the liquid exposure tricks didn’t work out. And, as an educator recently showed me, it can function as an incredibly helpful tool to learn touch-typing, particularly for those who are learning to type without looking at their fingers (cardboard box over the hands and all!), because the keys being pressed show as such on screen.

Yes there are apps out there that serve the same function, but this is already built into Mac OS X, which makes it an excellent immediately usable solution that doesn’t require downloads or purchases.

The virtual keyboard is available on basically every Mac, regardless of Mac OS system software version running on the computer, and you’ll find it available as an option in MacOS Catalina, MacOS Mojave, MacOS High Sierra, Sierra, Mac OS X El Capitan, Mac OS X Yosemite, Mavericks, Mountain Lion, Lion, Snow Leopard, Leopard, Tiger, and earlier releases of Mac OS X and presumably all future versions of MacOS as well.

If you have any additional tips, tricks, or insight to using the virtual keyboard on a Mac, share in the comments below!


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


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  1. Marc D says:

    I have been using this visual keyboard for ages when I want to find the keyboard combination that will produce a special character. Press the option key (⌥) and the visual keyboard now reveals you all the characters you can type with an option-somekey combination (such as option-m for ‘µ’, or option-u for ‘º’, although these can vary with your keyboard language configuration). Press option and shift, and you see the option-shift-somekey combination characters. This has helped me on countless occasions, to find angled quotes, diacritics & ligatures, maths characters, and so on.

  2. thanks for the great tip Paul. I once lost my keyboard and could not login to macbook pro and this is the way to do it. Virtual keyboard!
    Not only is the virtual keyboard useful but engaging it fixed the indicator light on caps lock key which is now working again normally.
    Thanks again.

  3. Steve Lucas says:

    thanks my caps to h won’t work

  4. Corkson says:

    How can I use the function keys on my virtual keyboard to control my keyboard brightness, can somebody help me out please,thank you

  5. Mark says:

    Is there a way to turn off the second number pad? Usually it opens with the normal keyboard, but more and more often now, it randomly opens that second number pad on the right side.

  6. T-Dawg says:

    It works well for me. Thank you.

  7. Jimmy plant says:

    Is there a way to pull it up on the log in screen my keyboard’s not working & need to type password

  8. Kylie Harrill says:

    I can’t figure out how to click the question mark, @, etc… Please help!

  9. agra says:

    i’m trying to the reset system management controller on my mum’s mbp by asking her to let me have virtual control of her screen through messages.

    once screen sharing is enabled, would this work through the virtual keyboard?

    “Press and hold all of these keys at the same time: Control + Shift + Option + Power”

  10. Thanks a bunch! I needed to use the feature because I’m currently learning Thai, but my current keyboard has no Thai symbols and I don’t really want to use any stickers.

  11. john cena says:

    thanks a ton

  12. Alysha says:

    Help me please
    Is there a way to use the onscreen keyboard for the log in screen. I need to get into my laptop and i cant get past my log in. Help me please

  13. George says:

    Thank you.!!

  14. Allison says:

    Daniel — In System Preferences, in the Keyboard control panel, click the “Input Sources” tab. Click the ‘+’ sign in the lower left to add a language and input source. Then, check the checkbox next to “Show Input menu in menu bar” and you’ll get a menu bar item that will let you switch languages. (OS X 10.10)

    Greg — Are you using an older version of Mac OS? (In recent versions, “Keyboard” and “Mouse” are separate control panels.) If so, try these links:

  15. GREG says:

    When I open the keyboard and mouse section, there is not an option to turn this feature on. Is there somewhere else to do it?

  16. Daniel says:

    But what about multilingual virtual keyboard on Mac OS X?

  17. Ben says:

    @Trecman: It’s probably too late for you, but you set “Enable Sticky Keys” in the Accessibility settings under “Keyboard” to make Modifier-keys like the Apple-key stick.

  18. Dosha says:

    Hi, I had the virtual keyboard set up earlier and had to close it because it wasn’t going away off the top of a video even when I clicked on the video (not the keyboard). Clicking elsewhere on the screen had made the keyboard disappear in the past, but somehow not that time. Now, I can’t get it back. The box is checked that says that the keyboard viewer is showing in System Preferences, but there is no icon on the menu bar to click on. I have deselected that check box and reselected it many times and no icon appears.

    I hope you can help me figure out how to get it back!

  19. amber says:

    Is there a way to pull it up on the log-in screen? I spilled water on my keyboard and need to access a user with a password.

  20. Victor Strawn says:

    Paul Horowitz, you are my savior!
    Thank you so much!!!
    My kid spilled his drink, ruining my keyboard.
    I needed to be able to use the computer and could not wait for the new one to be shipped.
    Your article saved me.
    Thank you so much!!!

  21. Trecman says:

    I’ve been looking for hours for a simple list of key combinations used to do simple tasks, like copy or paste using the on-screen virtual keyboard. My problem is I can’t figure out how to keep the Apple Key held down while clicking on the C key to copy something and then paste to another document. My question is this; how do we get the virtual keyboard to hold down the Apple key or another function key and allow us to hit second key to perform a simple task like copy, or paste the clipboard? If you could please share the URL address of a site that has this information we would ALL greatly appreciate it. TYMV

  22. sammi says:

    I LOVE this tip!! I have physical disability problems, esp spine and shoulders. Sitting near enough to use the connected keyboard isn’t easy. I could get wireless but those are the least ergonomic of all keyboards out there (mac I mean). Too small, have to warp your wrists into bad angles. Not good. There wasn’t another full size wireless other than MS and man… that thing was fugly. Clunky and not good either. THIS is wicked good!!

    And “James” – sure sure… we all know how some random hacker can remotely screw with the keyboard but I could also get hit with a flying goose – it DID happen to Fabio after all. Life is full of chances James… can’t live in mom’s basement forever.

  23. James says:

    There are other reasons someone might want to use the virtual keyboard. Need a hint?

    • Cel says:

      If a hacker installs a keylogger, he/she will be able to know your passwords, accounts numbers, telephone numbers or anything you type on your standard keyboard.

  24. maria says:

    it secure ?

  25. Samresh says:

    Hi i did as suggested, but the keyboard option deselects itself. Help!!

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