OS X: Finding Special Characters with Keyboard Viewer

| TMO Quick Tip

In a lot of programs around your Mac, if you need to insert a special character (like, say, the ellipsis or the trademark symbol), you can select Edit > Special Characters (Option-Command-T, where available) to bring up the Character Viewer.

Double-clicking on an item from that list will insert the selected character into your document, and away you go. However, if you use a certain symbol all of the time, it's worthwhile to know the keyboard shortcut for it. Luckily for us, our Macs have a built-in way to figure out what those shortcuts are, so here's how you find them. First, you'll need to enable a special menu bar icon by going to System Preferences > Keyboard, clicking on the Keyboard tab, and then toggling on Show Keyboard & Character Viewers in menu bar.

After you do that, you'll have this fancy new icon in the upper-right of your screen:

Click on the icon, and you'll see two main choices—not surprisingly, they're to open either the Character Viewer or the Keyboard Viewer.

The Character Viewer is the same window that we invoked before by choosing Edit > Special Characters, but the Keyboard Viewer is pretty cool. At first glance, it looks just like whatever your keyboard layout is.

But if you start holding down modifier keys, you'll see the symbols change. For example, here's what happens when I hold down Option:

What this means is that, if I hold down Option and then press the key specified in the layout above, I'll get the symbol pictured. So Option-; is the ellipsis, for example, and Option-2 is the trademark symbol. Nifty!

Here's what's revealed when I hold down Shift and Option together:

Shift-Option-K is the Apple symbol! That gave me a little fangirl thrill. Anyhow, this could be very useful, as a lot of the most commonly used characters are available as shortcuts.

Additionally, you may have noticed that my second keyboard screenshot above has some orange characters in it. With those shortcuts, you'll be given the choice of typing just that symbol or that symbol as a diacritical mark above a letter. So if I hit Option-n within a document, this happens:

I can then either press the spacebar to insert just the mark by itself, or I can press an appropriate letter to attach the diacritical mark to.

Of course, if you're running Lion or Mountain Lion, you can press and hold on a particular letter to see and select any accents available for it, as I've mentioned before.

I use the Keyboard Viewer all of the time, though, which is sad since the ellipsis is generally the only special character I ever use. So essentially I'm opening the darned thing just to remember Option-; at least five days a week. This is why they call me Ol' Swiss Cheese for Brains. At least, that's what I think they call me. I can't really remember.

Popular TMO Stories



It should not be an OS app but a App for the key board so that each key chyanges to specific characters. OR and small CPU in the key board to control halfr inch screens. Perfect for the world languages.

And one more thing:  It kills the hegmony of qwerty!


Sharp and clear.However,I cannot get the “Show Keyboard Viewer” icon to display in menu bar.Strictly followed your tutoring.
I’ve a mid 2010 iMac,4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 Memory and 3,2 GHz Intel Core i3
Processor,running OS X 10.8.2 (12C60).
Any hints?
Tks a lot

Melissa Holt

Hey Tony,

Do you perhaps see a flag icon in your menu bar instead?



When I bring up the Show Character Viewer, the emoji selection doesn’t appear…What’s missing? Using 10.6.8 OS.

Melissa Holt

Hey there jbarry130,

The problem is that OS X didn’t have Emoji support until 10.7. :(



To jbarry130,
Hi,refer to Melissa Holt’s comment.If you see a flag icon in the menu bar just click on it ,go to ‘Show Character Viewer’ and a palette show up.
You’ll notice the Emoji selection there.



Could someone tell me how to print the keyboard viewer as it appears on the screen? I would like to have a printed copy in my hands to learn characters in a foreign language keyboard. Thanks

Melissa Holt

Hey there,

There’s a program called Grab on your Mac that’ll let you take timed screenshots. To use it, open it from your Applications > Utilities folder, then choose Capture > Timed Screen. That way, you can hold down the modifier keys that you want and print the Keyboard Viewer as it appears with those keys held down.

Hope that helps!


Can I change the font in either character viewer or keyboard viewer?
I would like to be able to see all the different keystrokes available for a specific font.

Is there a better way to do this in 10.8.3?

Melissa Holt

Hi Jason,
As far as I know, you can’t do that. I believe we used to have that capability within the Keyboard Viewer, but Apple took it out around 10.6.

Within the Character Viewer, though, you can see what each item looks like in each font. If you look in my first screenshot above, you’ll see a fourth column on the right, and at the bottom is Font Variation. Click on a symbol, and all of the fonts that contain that symbol will show their version of it. You unfortunately have to click on each variation to see what font it belongs to, however.

Hope that helps!


These are all good hints. I personally like Ctrl-Command-Space to bring up a mini recent- and emoji character viewer, plus a link to the full-sized one (with e.g., almost 100 (!) right arrows, among many others.

Note that the Apple logo character, shift-option-K, will not work on many character sets. It is very non-standard; I couldn’t type it here and I’m pretty sure it won’t work in ANY non-Apple context.

Also, many other browsers may not show many fine, but exotic characters.
9±½℉ ≠ 5⅓±¼℃ looks great on my screen right now, but for instance a person using an Android phone might be baffled by empty boxes or just blanks. If you use anything beyond “regular” characters that you type without benefit of the option key, you should check on any machines you want it to be read on.

Sandy McKellar

I am trying to insert a character into an Illustrator file. The challenge is that Illustrator needs me to identify what the selected font is, otherwise it shows a box with an x in it. But, with this new Character Viewer in Yosemite, I can’t see the font family of a symbol I might select. It seems to me in the past you could select the font family and then select a symbol from that family. I feel like this is a bright and shiny tool with no effective application!! Thanks for your help.

Log in to comment (TMO, Twitter or Facebook) or Register for a TMO account