Photograph documents, read text in images with Office on phones

Scan and OCR printed documents and turn them into editable files

iPhone half in a pocket

If you have documents on paper and need to turn them into editable files, photo them using your phone and OCR the image to text using the Microsoft Office app on your phone. It’s easy.

OCR, optical character recognition, is a process that can turn text in an image like a photograph into editable text in a word processor or other application that handles text. It is especially useful when a lot of paper documents or even just one long multipage document, need to be converted into text files. Maybe old printed documents need to be updated or words and phrases changed, and so on.

It has been possible to scan images for text for a long time and in the past, a large scanner, about the size of a printer, was used to scan a document. It was a process that could take couple of minutes for a single sheet of A4 paper. Then software was run to analyse the image and pick out the text, which could add another minute or two. Finally, the image and text could be saved.

It was a lot of work and a lot of hassle. These days the same thing can be done with the phone in your pocket in a few seconds.

Using the Microsoft Office app on a phone, you can photograph a printed document and then save the text as an editable file in seconds. Just snap, save and edit.

In this guide I use screenshots from an iPhone, but the Microsoft Office app is on both iOS and Android, so you can do this on an Android phone too. I don’t have an Office 365 subscription and this all works with the free phone app and a free Microsoft account.

1 Open the Microsoft Office app

Microsoft Office app on an iPhone

Open the Microsoft Office app on the iPhone or Android phone. They are as alike as can be given they run on different operating systems. You have a choice of either tapping the Plus button or Actions at the bottom of the screen. They both turn images into editable text, but the difference is in where the text ends up.

Let’s look at the Actions button first. Tap it to continue.

2 Select an action in Office

Actions in the Office app for phones

There are many actions that can be performed in the Office app, but the one we want is right at the top: Image To Text. This extracts text from pictures. Select it.

3 Take a photo of the document

Scan a document in the Microsoft Office phone app

The phone’s camera is turned on and you just put the document in front of the phone and tap the big button at the bottom to take a snapshot of it.

4 Crop and save the image

Crop a scanned image in the Microsoft Office phone app

The app automatically selects the area of the image containing the document and highlights it. You can adjust the area to crop by dragging the handles, but I found it was rarely necessary.

You might want to manually crop if you are only interested in a small area of an A4 document and don’t need to OCR the whole page.

5 Copy the text

Save the OCR text in the Office app

The text appears soon after and the original image is at the top and the text extracted from it is shown below. It is not quite perfect and there are a few minor errors that need to be corrected, but it is a lot easier to do this than to type the whole document.

There are two buttons at the bottom and the first is to copy the text to the clipboard. Switch to any other app that can edit text, like Microsoft Word or OneNote, Apple Pages or Notes, and then tap and paste in the text. It can also be shared using the Share button and the usual options are available, like email, messaging, and others.

Scan straight into Word

If you want to convert a paper document into a Microsoft Word file, you could use the previous steps to copy it and paste it in. However, there is an easier way to do it.

1 Read text from images into Word

Microsoft Office phone app

In the first step we saw that there was a Plus button and an Actions button at the bottom of the Microsoft Office phone app. Here is what happens if you press the Plus button. Three buttons appear and tap Documents.

2 Scan into Microsoft Word

Create a document in the Microsoft Office phone app

The option we want is right at the top again and there is an option to Scan text straight into Word. Press it.

3 Photograph printed documents

Scan documents in the Microsoft Office app

The camera opens and as we saw with Actions, you just point the phone at a document and press the button at the bottom of the screen to take a photo.

4 Scan again and save the images

Scan a document in the Microsoft Office phone app

Here is the first difference to the Actions workflow. There is an Add New button to add more documents or more pages to the current document. There is also a Done button for when you have finished.

5 Edit and save the text

Editing scanned text in Word in the Microsoft Office phone app

Pressing Done opens the text in the Word app and you have all the editing features at your disposal. Tap the three dots in the top right corner for a menu with an option to save the text as a Word .docx file. It can be saved to the phone or to OneDrive, iCloud or elsewhere.

This is a great feature of the Microsoft Office app on iPhone and Android phones and it could save a lot of work if you need to turn paper documents into editable ones.

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