Everything You Need To Know About Mac OS X Keyboard Shortcuts

Angela Randall 01-02-2013

mac keyboard shortcutsNo matter what operating system or program you’re using, keyboard shortcuts are a tool you can use to make things quite a bit easier for yourself. Simply not having to take your hands off the keyboard can save you lots of time wasted by reaching for the mouse. This is why learning keyboard shortcuts for the systems you use every day is so vital to productivity. Once you get familiar with the keyboard shortcuts, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without them.


If you’re a Mac user, you’re in luck. There are many useful Mac keyboard shortcuts for everyday functions. You may even know a few of them already. To ensure you get the most out of your Mac, today we’ll talk you through all the important things you should know about using keyboard shortcuts on Mac OS X.

The Primary Shortcut Keys

There are dozens of symbols used to denote keyboard shortcuts in Mac OS X. Throughout the operating system they are used universally, so there is no confusion. On the internet, often people use full or brief names as they don’t know how to type the symbols or want to ensure it’s very clear which key they mean. Here are the most common keys and symbols you will need to use for shortcuts.

  • Command (CMD) – Often shown as a four-petaled ? symbol, apple logo or in brief as CMD.
  • Option – Shown using a symbol of a left-to-right slash with horizontal lines ? or in brief as OPT.
  • Control – Seen in shortcuts as the caret ^ symbol or in brief as CTRL.
  • Fn (Function) – Usually written as Fn.
  • Shift – Often denoted by an upwards arrow ?.
  • Caps Lock – Shown in shortcut menus as an upwards arrow with a line underneath ?
  • Delete – Seen as a backwards arrow symbol ? or in brief as DEL.
  • Escape – Usually seen as a circular symbol with an arrow heating to the top-left ? or in brief as ESC.

Note also that if you are on a laptop, you may need to use the Function key to access certain keys, like the F1-F12 keys.

mac keyboard shortcuts

The Most Important Mac OS X Shortcuts

There are so many keyboard shortcuts available by default that it would be overwhelming to list them all here. Instead, learn a few of the most important shortcuts, then take a look at the cheat sheets offered below.


Startup/Shutdown Shortcuts:

  • C – Start from bootable disk.
  • CMD-S – Start in Single User Mode.
  • SHIFT – Start in Safe Mode.
  • OPTION-CMD-EJECT – Put Computer To Sleep.
  • CTRL-EJECT – Opens Restart / Sleep / Shutdown Dialogue.

Finder & Application Shortcuts:

  • CMD-A – Select All.
  • CMD-C – Copy.
  • CMD-X – Cut.
  • CMD-Z – Undo / Redo.
  • CMD-V – Paste.
  • CMD-S – Save.
  • CMD-F – Open Find Dialogue.
  • CMD-N – New Finder Window.
  • CMD-Shift-N – Create New Folder.
  • CMD-R – Show Original Of Alias.
  • CMD-W – Close Window.
  • CMD-M – Minimize Window.
  • CMD-Q – Quit Application.
  • CMD-OPTION-ESC – Open Force Quit Dialogue.

Screenshot Shortcuts:

  • CMD-SHIFT-3 – Screenshot Of Whole Screen.
  • CMD-SHIFT-4 – Screenshot Of Selected Area.

Spotlight/Application Changing Shortcuts:

  • CMD-Space – Open Spotlight Search Field.
  • CMD-Tab – Change to Next Most Recently Used Application.
  • F9 – Tile / Untile Open Windows.

Mac OS X Shortcut Cheat Sheets

We love our shortcuts at MakeUseOf so much that we create cheat sheets for everyone to download. Here’s the latest version of our Mac OS X shortcut cheat sheet The Most Useful Mac Keyboard Shortcuts to Know A printable cheat sheet containing the most useful Mac keyboard shortcuts you'll ever need. Read More for you to use. Also, here is a cheat sheet written by Apple, which could also be of use to you as it discusses many of the regular shortcuts used within programs in Mac OS X. If you’re having trouble learning your shortcuts, there’s also a program called Cheatsheet Learn Your Keyboard Shortcuts Using CheatSheet [Mac] If you're growing tired of constantly moving your hand back and forth from your mouse or trackpad to the keyboard in order to launch or quit an application, pause iTunes playing, or copy or paste... Read More which will help you to recall them.

Keyboard Shortcuts Within Programs

In every Mac OS X program, you can find useful Mac keyboard shortcuts to use simply by looking at the menu items. Next to the menu item you want to use, often there is a keyboard shortcut listed next to it. Not all items will have a shortcut by default, but if you find yourself using the same menu item repeatedly you can easily see how you can make the job quicker for yourself.

mac shortcuts

If you use a particular program every day, search for that program’s keyboard shortcut. Sometimes there are very specific shortcuts available which make a world of difference to your everyday usage.


Creating Your Own Keyboard Shortcuts in Mac OS X

Head to your System Preferences, then Keyboards and you’ll find an option for Keyboard Shortcuts. From here, you can add your own keyboard shortcuts to control your actions throughout Mac OS X. Be creative! When you’re finished you’ll see the shortcuts listed in the menus for the relevant programs.

mac keyboard shortcuts

Shortcuts For Special Characters

To type special characters in Mac OS X, there are plenty of shortcuts available. For instance, it’s easy to type accents for foreign languages if you learn the keyboard shortcuts How To: Easy Keyboard Shortcuts For Accent Marks on Letters [Mac] Read More . This will save you from having to swap keyboard languages regularly.

Transferring Keyboard Shortcuts From Other Operating Systems

Many programs have instructions online featuring keyboard shortcuts for Windows. Often these same shortcuts can be used on Mac OS X just by changing the CTRL key for the CMD key. For instance, normally you would find CTRL-S to save in Windows versus CMD-S to save in Mac OS X. Save your work first though, just in case it doesn’t do quite what you expect!


Which Mac OS X keyboard shortcuts could you not live without?

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  1. RustyPolo
    March 20, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    I've been using cheatsheet and it's been really helpful. you can just hold down command for few seconds and it will pop out

    • Angela Alcorn
      May 30, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      That sounds really handy - thanks for sharing.

  2. Richard Livesay
    February 7, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Your guides and cheat sheets are terrific!

  3. Elizabeth
    February 6, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    This article doesn't have "everything." Maybe everything Mac users *need* to know, but probably few people know the history behind the funny-looking Command symbol. Fortunately, good old Wikipedia offers a concise history of the "place of interest" sign aka the St. John's Arms

    • Angela Alcorn
      February 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      Well, it is supposed to be "Everything you *need* to know...", not *Everything*. But thanks for adding that! :)

  4. Adam Campbell
    February 3, 2013 at 2:08 am

    Wow, from the screen shots it looks like you are still using Snow Leopard, that is so old. Just kidding, I still have 10.6 because I don't want my mac to turn into an iPad. Thanks for the article!

  5. Ash Barr
    February 2, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    I plan on buying and iMac soon and found this article very helpful. I will most likely bookmark it so I can refer to it later when I'm stuck =].

  6. Mac Witty
    February 2, 2013 at 12:31 pm

    I use shortcuts all the time - try to use the mouse s little as possible

    My most used standard shortcuts are close to each other on the keyboard - one can easy tell after looking at the keys -

    Then I have my ”private” shortcuts, the one I have defined myself. One reason I do not like to use other computers.

    • Hatem Sindi
      February 2, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Does CMD-X work in Snow Leopard?

      • Macwitty
        February 3, 2013 at 3:39 pm

        Not in FInder but in most applications

  7. Charles Babb
    February 2, 2013 at 12:30 am

    I love keyboard shortcuts. This is definitely an article that every Apple Mac user should read!