How to Enable & Use the 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. Pull down the newly visible Keyboard menu and choose “Show Keyboard Viewer”
  5. Place the keyboard on screen in the desired location, and resize the newly visible keyboard as necessary by dragging the corners

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.

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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”

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.

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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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About the Author: Thien Bao