On Windows based machines, whenever a dialogue box pops up with multiple choice options (ie 'Abort', 'Continue', 'Retry'), you can use the 'Tab' key to cycle through those options without using the mouse.

On OSX, there doesn't appear to be an option to cycle through dialogue boxes using a key rather than the Trackpad.

Is there any keyboard shortcut to do this?


It is also the tab key. The difference to Windows is, that the "return" key always pushes the default button (which is the colored one). The currently selected button (which can be changed using the tab key) is marked through a colored border. If you'd like to push this button, you have to press the space bar.

For this to work you must have it enabled in System Preferences / Keyboard / Shortcuts

enter image description here

  • 21
    Just remember that for this to work you must have it enabled in System Prefereces / Keyboard / Shortcuts
    – Thecafremo
    Jul 2 '12 at 9:47
  • 1
    downvoted the answer because it didn't work, then I upvoted the previous comment because that was the trick.
    – trusktr
    Jul 2 '18 at 19:27
  • 1
    It would be helpful if this answer had the setting name and location of what needs to be enabled. On the shortcut menu, you have to set the "Full Keyboard Access" to "All Controls" at the bottom of System Prefereces / Keyboard / Shortcuts menu
    – wattry
    Apr 29 '20 at 17:09
  • It used to be that you could hit command and the first letter of whatever button you wanted to press. Guess that is gone now?
    – rebusB
    Jul 8 at 23:14
  • On Big Sur this option is called "Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls". It's at the bottom of Keyboard > Shortcuts box. Oct 11 at 22:33

You can cycle the dialog boxes. Also note that by default esc will choose cancel.

To enable switching via the tab key this feature go to System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → Full Keyboard Access... → All Controls

preferences control

Now you can use the tab key to switch the selection:

example dialog

  • Press Space to choose the selected button (which has a blue border around it).
  • Press Enter to choose the default button (the blue coloured button).
  • Press esc to cancel.
  • 3
    This is the second part of the problem - I didn't have it enabled in the first place!
    – tomdot
    Jul 2 '12 at 10:37
  • 2
    On my Mac, running OS X 10.11, System Preferences informs me that this setting can be changed with <kbd>control</kbd>+<kbd>F7</kbd>. Jul 16 '16 at 3:07
  • 1
    Ctrl+F7 to enable
    – James EJ
    Oct 22 '17 at 18:48
  • esc will choose cancel” is not reliably true any more. Sometimes it does. Mostly, it does not.
    – Dave Land
    May 3 '18 at 21:50
  • 1
    @DaveLand - According the Apple HIG: Include a Cancel button that responds to the standard cancelation keyboard shortcuts. A Cancel button provides a clear, safe way out of a dialog and returns the computer to the state it was in before the dialog appeared. Make sure the keyboard shortcut Command-period and the Esc (Escape) key are mapped to the Cancel button.
    – Glen Yates
    Sep 7 '18 at 20:58

Enable focusing with tab key at  → System PreferencesKeyboardShortcutsFull Keyboard Access...All Controls

tab moves between buttons

space presses focused button (with blue outline)

return presses default button (with blue background)

+first letter on button presses that button (works sometimes)

+. cancels

esc cancels (works sometimes)

  • This is the best answer, as it more or less obviates the need to cycle in the first place Mar 27 '18 at 3:14

On macOS Catalina check the checkbox at :

 → System Preferences → Keyboard → Shortcuts → Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls

enter image description here

  • 4
    While it was already checked for me. It only started working after I unchecked and checked it again.
    – Iggy
    Oct 31 '20 at 16:53
  • 4
    This is the same in Big Sur.
    – Neil
    Jan 25 at 18:47
  • 1
    Sabrina and @Neil thank you! I can't believe that's not enabled by default. Mar 13 at 7:05

You can press Control+F7 (or fn+Control+F7 depending on your keyboard preferences regarding default function keys) to turn this option on/off on the fly.

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