I am looking for an offline scriptable tool that makes an existing PDF file searchable by running OCR on it, replacing the original non-searchable file with the searchable version, and can run unattended.

E.g., www.pdfscannerapp.com - does exactly what I need, but it's GUI only - not scriptable.

I am aware that Evernote makes PDF files searchable, but they remain searchable only when within Evernote.

I am not looking for perfect OCR, even a moderately acceptable OCR is fine, but I would prefer a small utility rather than a bulky software package.

(I am aware of a similar, but different question on AD: Looking for Software to Scan or Convert to Searchable and Signable PDF - however, I don't need to sign or fill PDFs, and my requirement is that the solution is scriptable)


1) Several utilities allow structured text extraction, however in order to be extracted, the text must be there; I am mainly referring to PDFs that are wrapped bitmaps, as is the case with plain PDFs generated by scanners.

2) I am not necessarily looking for a free solution, and I would be more than happy to pay for a good utility that just does what I need, but I am not looking for bulky applications with a million features that include an OCR feature but whose cost does not justify buying them just for the OCR functionality.

3) As stated above, I am not looking for perfect OCR, just a moderately acceptable OCR. Unfortunately, in my experience, tesseract is really below that threshold. I define "moderately acceptable" an OCR that can, say, OCR an utility bill so that at least the account number (customer number) is recognized correctly.

EDIT: "scriptable" or "automatable", that is, able to be triggered automatically and run unattended without human input whatsoever.

  • 2
    ...don't know how hard it would be to do but Tesseract OCR often mentioned code.google.com/p/tesseract-ocr and OCR in Unix.SE.
    – hhh
    Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 18:12
  • 1
    There is a similar question here, does the answer fit your requirements?
    – nohillside
    Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 18:33
  • 1
    You mention OCR. Do your requirements include handling images within PDF, or scanned PDF files? For files that have text within them as simple postscript, then a PDF to text converter like "PDF2Text Pilot" might work for you.
    – Tim B
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 3:16
  • @patrix I was looking for a smaller utility, not necessarily free but in a different price range. Still, it's a possible solution, thank you.
    – magma
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 5:02
  • @TimothyButler unfortunately I'm dealing with scanned PDFs (images). But, nice hint, thank you.
    – magma
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 5:04

13 Answers 13


It's not entirely clear to me what your requirements are for being able to "script" this from the "command line".

If you are talking about automation, then that is possible with any number of utilities.

ABBYY FineReader Express + Keyboard Maestro + Hazel

I use ABBYY FineReader Express + Keyboard Maestro + Hazel like so:

  1. Hazel monitors a given folder for any new PDFs

  2. if a PDF is found, it is opened in "ABBYY FineReader Express"

  3. Keyboard Maestro then automates the process of turning the PDF into a Searchable PDF (OCR) and saves the file to a different directory.

Now, if you don't own Hazel and Keyboard Maestro already, your initial costs are going to rise pretty quickly (although I depend on both so much I consider them a bargain).

PDFPen + AppleScript + Folder Actions

You could do something similar with PDFPen (or PDFPenPro) and folder actions and AppleScript. See https://gist.github.com/prenagha/1355037 for one example.

Marco Arment did a survey of OCR apps for Mac and found that PDFPen had great results and was easy to automate.

A google search for "PDFpen applescript OCR" will turn up a number of alternatives.

  • good answer TJ. Hazel is amazing, I own it and I enjoy using it immensely. I don't currently own abbyy/keyboard maestro, but Hazel + PDFPen is an amazing combo. Overall, while all answers here are generally very good, and serve slightly different audiences, I think that Hazel+PDFPen is a good fit for the original problem. Accepted.
    – magma
    Commented May 10, 2013 at 12:10
  • +1 on ABBYYFineReader Express, easily the best OCR out there right now and I've been through nearly a dozen for a project of my own
    – TechZen
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 22:50

What you want is Tesseract OCR. It's an open source OCR that is maintained by Google and supports a variety of platforms. It also has a native command line interface. It's exactly what you're looking for and available from the Mac ports project as well as homebrew.

Project Home: https://github.com/tesseract-ocr

How to install on OS X: http://blog.matt-swain.com/post/26419042500/installing-tesseract-ocr-on-mac-os-x-lion

Usage Example: tesseract -l eng input.pdf output

  • Nice project. In my tests, recognition was poor, but I'm sure that depends on my inability to fine-tune it. I was looking for a lazier solution, but this might be a fine choice especially if you want more control and can dedicate time to it.
    – magma
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 17:48
  • tesseract doesn't get very good compared to more current proprietary apps. In particular it has problems with encoding and math, often churning out lots of greek characters.
    – TechZen
    Commented Sep 19, 2016 at 22:53
  • Does the OS X version allow PDF inputs? The windows version doesn't.
    – Doug
    Commented Aug 12, 2019 at 3:34
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    @Doug: I just got Error in pixReadStream: Pdf reading is not supported. But using ImageMagick (superuser.com/questions/1469592/…) in between, seems to be a feasible workflow. Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 20:08

A solution which is easily implementable and providing an output pdf with same quality of input file plus reasonable size is OCRmyPDF:


  • It looks like a cool solution, although I've found the OCR backend, Tesseract, rather disappointing (quite certainly because of my own limitations in correctly configuring it).
    – magma
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 1:52
  • 1
    I love OCRmyPDF, see my answer below which explains how to install and drag-and-drop automate it quickly and painlessly with docker.
    – thadk
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 2:04

Disclaimer: NOT AN OCR SOLUTION (but this answer is still useful to extract text from pdf)

There is an Apache Software Foundation project called Apache Tika:

A toolkit detects and extracts metadata and structured text content from various documents using existing parser libraries

They support PDF text extraction using PDFBox:

allows creation of new PDF documents, manipulation of existing documents and the ability to extract content from documents. Apache PDFBox also includes several command line utilities

And they recently also added support for OCR (via Tesserac)

For a text based solution, PDFBox makes very simple to extract text from a PDF:

It also has some other nice options that you can see in ExtractText docs.

  • Definitely a nice option for extracting text, but there's no OCR capability that I can see.
    – magma
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 1:59
  • 1
    @magma OCR means "optical character recognition", there is definitely "OCR capability". Now you need to clarify: is your problem to extract text from poor-resolution image such as generated with VGA cam, poor scanner or distant picture? Then your problem is different and requires physical consideration of things such as super-resolution. Please, ask more specific and shorter questions so they can be answered. I suggest you to simplify this question to one feature you want. If you want something more, ask a new question.
    – hhh
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 4:06
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    @hhh, one thing is extracting text from a binary file (such as a PDF) so that it is usable and readable, by parsing the binary format. there is nothing optical about it. the text is already there, these utilities just extract it so that it's easy on your eyes, so to speak. optical character recognition is different in that it tries to recognize patterns of pixels in a bitmap and make enough sense of them that it can produce a corresponding text fragment.
    – magma
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 22:47
  • This does not answer the original question. AFAICT, pdfbox-app does not do OCR. Commented Jan 31, 2016 at 11:47

You can make your existing PDF searchable by converting it into text file. You need for that at least Imagemagick, Ghostscript (for PDF conversion) and Tesseract OCR tool.

Some command-line example:

$ wget http://www.fmwconcepts.com/misc_tests/pdf_tests/test.pdf
$ convert -density 300 -depth 8 test.pdf test.png
$ tesseract test*.png test.txt
$ grep -i --color=auto the test*.txt
**The** details as told by surviving crew members, to **the** German publication Spiegel and published on ABC's

This can be extended further to your needs.

To install required tools, on OSX you may install it via Homebrew:

brew install imagemagick jpeg libpng ghostscript tesseract

On Linux use apt-get or yum instead of brew.

For more OCR tools, check: OCR on Linux systems


  • The example seems to not work with multiple PNG's. I made a loop and generated multiple text files, that way i didn't get 100s of weird errors. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 10:17
  • I also installed tesseract-lang and then added the -l deu parameter to process localized text and it improved the recognition quality by a lot. Commented Mar 30, 2020 at 10:34

I would recommend DEVONThink Pro Office. It is an excellent application and has very good AppleScript support. Alas only the 'Pro Office' version has the OCR capability - so you'll have to shell out £100 ($150).

It would be overkill if you're only using it for scripted OCR - but it's a very good app.

[edit] - ah just re-read your post - it would definitely be overkill!

If you just want OCR from the shell, you could try talking to ABBY whose engine DEVON licences:


  • Although the DEVONThink Pro Office in OS X is an overkill, it is interesting. If the developers designed it over OS X and iOS, it may though work (keeping the UI more simple) -- do you know anything like that? Cool idea though -- so the Pro version automatically adds the OCR layer to all kind of things such as screenshots and PDFs? And user can somehow "script" it?
    – hhh
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 13:31
  • 2
    Yes - the app has a good AppleScript Dictionary, which amongst other things, allows you to convert images stored in the app into searchable PDFs.
    – Diggory
    Commented Mar 5, 2013 at 14:01
  • Suppose I take pictures with iPhone or screenshots with OS X and put them to a folder ProjectA, does the DEVONThink add the OCR layer automatically to them even without specifying the language? Suppose you put them to a DropBox and then make DEVONThink in OSX to check the folder automatically, you could work with it over OS X and iOS then? It is a fascinating concept if done well... +1
    – hhh
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 2:50
  • In a way, it sounds like EverNote where EverNote adds the OCR but not allowing its exporting like that. Is it possible to export your projects from this software with the OCR? If not, some very simple OCR lib and then some linguistic analysis lib may work the best. Perhaps the other is ABBY, I don't know yet.
    – hhh
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 2:57
  • 2
    It can recognise in several languages: i.sstatic.net/buDLI.png
    – Diggory
    Commented Mar 6, 2013 at 8:56

Stackoverflow has related questions under PDF-parsing covering things such as PDFBox and Apache's TIKA that the PDFBox uses. The ruby code below extracts writing from PDF. You need to have good enough resolution for this type of codes to work robustly. So get a good enough scanner with large resolution and then see if some of the softwares work.


  1. https://github.com/yob/pdf-reader/tree/master/examples

SO threads

  1. https://stackoverflow.com/questions/5217783/pdf-parse-to-text-in-java

  2. https://stackoverflow.com/questions/8149179/alternative-to-tika-pdfbox-for-parsing-pdf-in-solr-any-version-later-than-1-4

  3. https://stackoverflow.com/questions/320621/ruby-pdf-parsing-gem-library

  4. https://stackoverflow.com/questions/15186740/haskell-parsing-reading-content-of-pdf-files


I am not sure whether I understood your problem now. You want to add OCR layer to different kinds of material such as random photos, screenshots, PDFs without OCR layer and so on? I don't know the solution but I am sure someone knows so asked a specific question how to do it with Automator and some OCR software:

Automator-script with an OCR-software to automatically add OCR to material?

  • Again: I am not looking to parse or extract text that is already there. I am looking to recognize text (OCR) in PDF file that are essentially images, bitmaps; they do not originally contain any text.
    – magma
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 2:00
  • @magma please, see my update. You want to automate the addition of OCR layer so you can search over different kinds of documents even without "searchable text"? If you could do this, you could search over all documents in Finder -- you understand? I am surprised if Apple does not do this in coming upgrades...
    – hhh
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 4:31
  • as stated in my question, yes.
    – magma
    Commented Mar 15, 2013 at 22:48

For this type of self-directed application, I'm a big fan of Hazel.

It makes it extremely easy to script actions without needing to learn a more command line oriented tool like perl or python and paired with the OCR engine of your choice (mine is currently PDF Pen Pro) you should have no problems getting your files processed with minimal fuss.

Both of these are paid software, but the utility of both far extends past this one case. In my situation, with the labor involved in digitizing my past scanned records (and ongoing paper), the price of these far outweighs the time I would have spend programming this elsewhere and now that I own both tools, I can do many other tasks with them.


I got high quality Drag & Drop conversion working using Docker.

If you:

  1. install Docker for your Mac and
  2. then create a new Automator app
  3. with these contents inside a "Run a Shell Script" action. Choose Pass Input: "as arguments"

/bin/bash script text:

cd "`dirname "$1"`"
/usr/local/bin/docker run --rm -v "$(pwd):/home/docker" jbarlow83/OCRmyPDF --force-ocr "`basename "$1"`" "`basename -s .pdf "$1"`-ocr.pdf"

You should then be good to drag-and-drop PDFs onto it and and you'll get a similarly named PDF with "-ocr" appended to the file name.

I imagine it could be easily modified to return a file to Automator to copy somewhere as well. More details about the fine OCRmyPDF docker package. and main tool (also mentioned in a different answer).

You can test it in Automator itself with "Get specified Finder items" action as input to this.

The first time it runs, it make take more time as it will need to download the Docker images for OCRmyPDF (invisibly). In Terminal, you can alternatively run docker pull jbarlow83/ocrmypdf to speed up the first run. A typical run takes about 10 seconds per high DPI page but has automatically text-to-speachable results even if there are tables or diagrams. Before OCRing, I crop using Sejda so nonsense margin words from other pages are removed.

The --force-ocr argument tells the tool to ignore and overwrite any earlier OCR attempts, which in my cases are usually only partial and useless.

Edit 2022: This alternative script enables multiple files to be dragged onto the app to be queued and OCRed:

for f in "$@"
cd "`dirname "$f"`"
/usr/local/bin/docker run --rm -v "$(pwd):/app" jbarlow83/ocrmypdf --force-ocr "`basename "$f"`" "`basename -s .pdf "$f"`-ocr.pdf"

PDFScannerApp does have an unofficial scripting support. Contact the author for the Automator action.


I use Adobe acrobat to OCR in batch. My duplex scanner can OCR after scanning but the OCR technology in acrobat is more accurate in my opinion. I just point to there folder that has no OCR then acrobat re saves the PDF as a searchable PDF now including a text layer. If I wanted to OCR via command line, I don't know of a way but I can automate the GUI end by using Autohotkey. Not as reliable nor fast as command line, but it does the job after you set up a workflow action to minimize the GUI interaction.

For Mac, apple script does what Autohotkey does on the PC although I haven't tried on my Mac yet.

Auto hot key comes with a recorder so most of the script writing is dinner for you with a littler bit of editing for refinement and perhaps looping if you want that.

I've been experimenting OCRing images but haven't automated the process fully yet through acrobat. Command line is ideal but haven't found a quality OCR engine that exceeds acrobat so I stick with acrobat for now.


I stumbled upon this recently: http://ocrkit.com/faq.html

You have to pay after 14 days though

  • 2
    Welcome to Ask Different! We're trying to find the best answers and those answers will provide info as to why they're the best. Explain why you think the software you recommended is better than others out there. In general, link-only answers are susceptible to being deleted so you always want to make your answer inclusive of all relevant info. See How to Answer on how to provide a quality answer.
    – fsb
    Commented Dec 26, 2016 at 17:44

OCRKit has both AppleScript support and a CLI. From their help page:


You can also script OCRKit to integrate it into your specific workflow. For example process incoming files, via shared folder, from MFP copy machine, etc. and simply tell OCRKit to open and thus process is via AppleScript:

tell application "OCRKit"
   -- the wonders of AppleScript POSIX path handling, ...
   open "Users:admin:Desktop:orderform.pdf"
   open POSIX path of "/Users/Admin/Desktop/orderform.pdf"
end tell 

Command line

Since OCRKit version 2.5 direct command line scripting is supported. This greatly simplifies the use of OCRKit in batch processing, allows to set more options and is also more robust and cross-platform than AppleSCript.

OCRKit.app/Contents/MacOS/OCRKit \ 
    --lang en | de | fr | es | ... \
    --format pdf | html | rtf | text \
    --no-progress \
    --output out-file in-file

Since OCRKit version 16.9 additional command line options are supported:

-r, --recursive directory

Scan directory recursively for new files. Skips files from OCRKit, with text layer or vector graphics.

--pattern "regex"

Pattern used to match filenames during recursive scans. Defaults to %.pdf$, recommendation for TIFF is %.tiff?$

--log file

Write log file information and statistics during recursive scan to file.

--password secret

Use secret password to decrypt PDF files during batch processing.

--test-run [ fast ]

Only run test batch processing in test mode to test PDF files or to obtain page count to estimate total processing time. "fast" will only check the first page of each file, instead of going thru all pages for image and vector analyzation.

--tag name

Use extended attribute name to tag the processing state of files during batch processing. macos:OCRKit (%s) will use native macOS Finder tags instead, or simply macos:OCRKit not including the state attribute. The order of the state attribute are: started, analyzed, processed, and can also be encrypted.

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