Keep your hands on the keyboard using keyboard shortcuts you didn’t know your Mac had to access menu bar menus on the left and status icons on the right. It’s easier than mouse or trackpad.
A mouse or trackpad is the obvious way to interact with menus and icons an Apple Mac and they make is easy to move the pointer around and click on things, however, they are not the only way to control the computer and it is possible to use the keyboard instead.
One advantage of using the keyboard to access the menu bar is that you don’t need to move your hands, you can just reach with your fingers to access menus and icons. This is useful when using apps that have a lot of keyboard access, like text editors, word processors, notes, reminders, email, messengers, maybe calendars too.
There are keyboard shortcuts and keyboard controls for everything, but this does not mean that you should use them for everything. For some things, keyboard access or control is downright awkward and should be avoided. For other things, it is brilliant, quick and easy.
For example, as I type this, I can keep my fingers on the keyboard and press Cmd+S to save it, which is much easier than reaching for the mouse or trackpad, moving the pointer to the File menu, looking for the Save menu and then clicking it. I can type, save, and continue typing smoothly and without interruption. Even when using an app that requires the mouse or trackpad, like a paint program or photo editor, keyboard shortcuts can sometimes be useful.
In this article I will focus mostly on the menu bar at the top of the screen and show some little known keyboard shortcuts that enable it to be accessed without using the mouse or trackpad. It is useful to learn a few keyboard shortcuts and use them when appropriate. They are not to be used exclusively, just when it is more convenient than reaching for the mouse or trackpad.
When keyboard shortcuts don’t work
Apps have priority when keyboard shortcuts are used. When you press Cmd+K, Ctrl+j, Fn+Ctrl+F8 or whatever, it is sent to the app first. If the app does not use that key combo for anything, it is then sent to macOS. This is important to know because if you have a keyboard shortcut in macOS, but an app is currently being used, the app can ‘steal’ the shortcut.
Here is an example. When there is nothing on the screen, pressing Cmd+N opens a new Finder window. When TextEdit is on the screen, a new TextEdit document is created. It is something to be aware of and what you expect to happen may not because a keyboard shortcut is being grabbed by an app. Conflicts can occur!
Access the menu bar with a keyboard shortcut
- Press Ctrl+F2 or Fn+Ctrl+F2 and the Apple logo in the menu bar is highlighted.
- Press left or right arrow keys to move from one menu bar item to another.
- Press the down arrow key to open the currently highlighted menu.
- Press left or right arrow keys to move from one open menu to another.
- Press the down arrow key a second time to move into a menu.
- Press Enter to click on a menu item.
The Ctr+F2 or Fn+Ctrl+F2 keyboard shortcut only accesses the left side of the menu bar. This is where apps show their menus. If the down arrow is pressed to open a menu and down arrow is pressed again, a menu is entered. If there is a submenu, indicated by a > then pressing the right arrow key opens it.
Press right arrow when the last menu item is highlighted in the menu bar and it goes back to the start, the left side of the menu bar. It does not go to the status icons at the right side of the menu bar.
Access menu bar status icons with keyboard shortcuts
- Press Ctrl+F8 or Fn+Ctrl+F8
On the right side of the menu bar are icons and Apple calls it the status bar. There is at least a Wi-Fi icon, battery level (on MacBooks), user, Control Center, date and clock. Other icons are available, like Time Machine and Bluetooth, and software can add icons too.
Accessing the status icons on the right side of the menu bar should be like accessing the menu side of the menu bar. Press Ctrl+F8 or Fn+Ctrl+F8 and use the arrow keys instead of the mouse or trackpad to move around and use the Enter key instead of a mouse click.
It does not work on my Mac. There are several possible reasons why and it could be a feature that was dropped in macOS Monterey, a bug that prevents it from working, or maybe it is just an Apple Silicon M1 Mac feature. My Intel Mac does nothing when that keyboard shortcut is pressed. Maybe a macOS update will fix it.
There are still things you can do to access the status icons and menus at the right side of the menu bar though. Here are a couple of things you can do:
- Press Fn+C and the Control Center appears at the right side of the screen.
- Press FN+N and the Notifications panel and widgets are shown at the right side of the screen.
By default, there is no keyboard access to either of these. The mouse or trackpad can be used to interact with them, but how do we use the keyboard? There are settings in System Preferences that enable the keyboard to be used.
Open System Preferences > Keyboard and select the Shortcuts tab. Select Keyboard in the list on the left and make sure all of the options are enabled. You can see that ^F2 (Ctrl+F2 or Fn+Ctrl+F2) moves focus to the menu bar and that ^F8 (Ctrl+F8 or Fn+Ctrl+F8) should move focus to the status menus, but ^F8 doesn’t do anything on my Mac.
You can also see that ^F3 (Ctrl+F3 or FnCtrl+F3) moves focus to the Dock and this is useful. Use the arrow keys to move left and right, tap up arrow to open a menu, press Enter instead of clicking. Let’s get back to the menu bar.
Open System Preferences > Accessibility and select Keyboard in the left list. On the right, tick the box Enable Full Keyboard Access. Now if you press Fn+C to open the Control Center at the right side of the screen, a blue box is drawn around the first item. Use the tab key and arrow keys to move from item to item in the Control Center and to adjust items, like screen brightness or audio volume. Press spacebar or Enter where you would click a mouse or trackpad.
Press Fn+N to open Notifications and widgets, and you can move from section to section with Tab, item to item with arrow keys and press space instead of clicking.
Enable Full Keyboard Access does enable the keyboard to be used with Notifications/Widgets and Control Center, but I found that the setting interfered with apps. While typing, for example, the spacebar would stop working. Maybe it thought I was trying to click something when I wanted to type something. It was more irritating than useful.
Fn+C and Fn+N are both useful keyboard shortcuts to access items at the right side of the menu bar and they are easily dismissed by tapping the Esc key when you are done with them. Enabling keyboard access within them was not useful, at least on my Mac. Try it for yourself and see.