How to Quickly Type Special Characters on Any Computer, Smartphone, or Tablet

Female Hands Typing.

Most characters you can type don’t appear on your keyboard, whether you’re using a physical keyboard or a touch one. Here’s how you can type them on your computer or mobile device.

You could always perform a search online to find the symbol and copy-paste it into the program you’re using, too. This is inefficient, but works for quickly inserting the occasional obscure symbol

Windows

You can quickly insert special characters on Windows using Alt key codes. These require a separate numerical keypard on the right side of your keyboard, so they won’t work on most laptops. They’ll only work on desktop PCs if you have that number pad to the right of your Enter key.

To use Alt key codes, ensure that “Num Lock” is on — you may need to tap the Num Lock key to turn it on. Next, press the Alt key and hold it down. Tap the appropriate numbers using the number pad at the right side of your keyboard and then release the Alt key.

For example, let’s say you want to type the £ symbol for the British Pound. It’s numerical shortcut is 0163. With Num Lock enabled, you’d hold down the Alt key, tap 0, tap 1, tap 6, and tap 3 — all on the numpad — and then release the Alt key.

The Character Map tool can help here. Open it by tapping the Windows key, typing “Character Map” to search for it, and pressing Enter. For each special character, you’ll see its Alt key code printed at the bottom-right corner of the window. If you don’t have a number pad, you can also head to this window to view a list of characters and copy-paste them into other applications. You can also find lists of special characters and their associated codes online.

macOS

Mac OS X has its own Character Viewer, which is easier to access. In almost any application, you can click Edit > Special Characters to open it.

Locate a symbol in the window and double-click it to enter it into the text field in the current application. If you use specific special characters frequently, you can add them to your Favorites list so they can be easily accessed here. The list is more organized than it is on Windows.

You can also type a variety of accented letters and other special characters with Option key shortcuts. For example, let’s say you want to type the word “touché.” You could type “touch,” press Option+e at the same time, and then tap the e key. This would instruct your Mac to use an acute accent over the letter e.

There are also Option+Shift keyboard shortcuts, and ones that don’t use accented letters. For example, typing Option+4 gets you a cent symbol (¢) instead of a dollar sign. Washington State University has a good list of Option and Option+Shift shortcuts for typing special characters on a Mac.

If you just want to type a letter with an accent, there’s a much faster way on the latest versions of macOS. Just press and hold the appropriate letter key on your keyboard. For example, if you want to type an “é” character, you’d press and hold the “e” key.

A popup menu will appear. Press the number key corresponding to the accented letter you want to type, or click it in the menu.

iPhone and iPad

You can type many additional characters on an iPhone or iPad’s touch keyboard by long-pressing the appropriate key. For example, to type the word “touché,” you’d type “touch,” long press the e key, and choose the é character.

This also works for a variety of symbols. For example, to type another currency symbol, you’d long-press the $ symbol on the keyboard and choose your desired symbol.

If you frequently need to type symbols that don’t appear on the standard keyboard, you can head to Settings>General>Keyboards>Add New Keyboard to add a keyboard from another language that contains those characters. And, now that iOS offers support for third-party keyboards, you could install a keyboard that offers support for a wider variety of Unicode symbols and use it.

Android

Android’s keyboard works similarly. Long-press keys on the keyboard to access related characters and symbols. For example, long-press the e to find the accented e characters. Long-press other symbols — like the currency symbol — to access additional related symbols.

This is how the default “Google Keyboard” app for Android works, anyway. Other keyboards should work similarly. Because Android offers support for more keyboards, you could install other keyboards from Google Play that are better suited to typing a wider variety of Unicode symbols.


Other platforms with touch keyboards should work similarly. Long-pressing keys will get you additional accented characters and symbols, while other special characters will have to come from dedicated keyboards — or copy-pasting.

There’s no single standard method for typing these Unicode characters on Linux. It depends on the applications and the graphical toolkit they use.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.