What are Excel Alt shortcuts?
If you’ve ever seen someone use both hands all day long on the keyboard in Excel, chances are they were using Alt shortcuts or “keyboard accelerators.” So what are they and how do they work?
These letters and numbers guide you through keystroke sequences that allow you do do virtually anything with your keyboard — instead of clicking with your mouse — as I’ll explain below.
Terminology-wise, the letters and numbers that pop-up are alternately called “badges” or “key tips” or “key tip badges” or “access keys” or “hot keys” or “hotkeys.” The shortcuts that you can string together with them — the keystroke sequences — are called “keyboard accelerators.” Not everyone uses the terminology the same, so it can be confusing when you read about this subject. In this post I’ll stick with “access keys.”
It doesn’t matter what tab you’re on when you hit Alt in Excel – you’ll see the same things light up: a letter for each tab, and a number (or number/letter combination) for each QAT option.
Here’s An Example: Alt-H-V-U To Paste A Picture
After hitting the Alt key, if you then hit ‘H’ (for example), those initial access keys (one for each tab) will disappear and you will be magically transported to the Home tab (because ‘H’ is the Home tab’s access key). And now the Home tab will display access keys for its Ribbon options (I am truncating the Ribbon in the interests of space):
Every keyboard accelerator requires the first two keystrokes — Alt plus an access key. After that, you’ll type a letter (or letters) to execute your command.
So, for example, if after hitting Alt-H, you then type ‘X’, you’ll Cut (the same as Ctrl+X), since the X is the access key for Cut. The full keystroke sequence is Alt-H-X. You type Alt, let go, then type H, let go, and then type X and let go. You don’t need to press any keys simultaneously.
To continue with some examples, If you type ‘1’ (or Alt-H-1) you’ll format with Bold (same as Ctrl+B or Ctrl+2) since the 1 is the access key for Bold.
If you see two letters next to each other instead of just one – e.g., ‘FP’ for Format Painter in the Home tab image above – just type both letters in sequence (they don’t have to be pressed simultaneously)). Alt-H-F-P is the shortcut for Format Painter.
Sometimes you’ll type a letter and end up with yet another set of access keys to choose from. This occurs when the Ribbon has another level to it — for example, for the Paste icon. If you type ‘V’ (for Paste), you’ll go down another level into the Ribbon, and see yet another set of access keys. See below.
This happens because there are multiple Paste options, and you have to tell Excel which one you want. In other words, you need one more key in your keystroke sequence.
Above, you can see the various access keys for the Paste Options – ‘P’ for regular Paste, ‘F’ for Formula and ‘U’ for Picture, to name a few. So if I choose ‘U’ to paste as a Picture, the full Alt shortcut sequence would be Alt-H-V-U.
Paste Picture (keyboard): Alt-H-V-U
(Note: You can tell that you’ll go down another level after hitting ‘V’ because there’s a little down arrow beneath the word ‘Paste’, just above the letter V — that tells you there’s another menu. The same would happen for any option that has that little down arrow.).
But Wait, There’s More…
But because Paste Special has so many applications, there’s yet another level you can access. How can you tell?
The bottom Paste option — an ‘S’ for ‘Paste Special…’ — has those three dots at the end. The three dots (…) mean that selecting the option will bring up a dialog box. Thus, to bring up the Paste Special dialog box, the entire Alt shortcut sequence would be Alt-H-V-S:
Once this dialog box is up, you’ll see that each menu option has an underlined letter – e.g., ‘V’ for Values and ‘M’ for Multiply. These are hot keys. Just type the letter for the commands you want (one for the top section, one for the middle section, and one or two (or none) for the bottom section), then hit Enter. (The default selections are Paste All and Operation None, which you’ll get if you don’t enter anything before hitting Enter).
So, for example, to paste Values and Multiply them against the selection you’re pasting into, the full sequence would be Alt-H-V-S-V-M. You could then click on OK with your mouse, but that would defeat the purpose of having both hands on the keyboard. Instead, to have a pure keyboard shortcut, you Tab over to OK, then hit the Spacebar. Thus the full sequence would be Alt-H-V-S-M-Tab-Tab-Tab-Spacebar.
Paste Values & Multiply (keyboard): Alt-H-V-S-M-Tab-Tab-Tab-Spacebar.
Another Example — Using Alt-F-A or Alt-F-A-B To Save As
We began this example by typing Alt-H to enter the Home tab. Obviously, you can apply the same approach to all of the other tabs (e.g., Alt-F for the File menu).
For example, here’s a great Alt shortcut to Save As in Excel 2010:
Save As in 2010 (keyboard): Alt-F-A
In Excel 2013, the File tab is reorganized, so you lose this great shortcut. Instead, to get to the same place, you have to add a ‘B’ to the end:
Save As in 2013 (keyboard): Alt-F-A-B
Hitting Alt basically opens up a keyboard-driven navigation system into anything that’s on the Ribbon – or on your QAT (more on the QAT later). With each keystroke, Excel takes you down one level deeper into the Ribbon until you hit the key for an action. Once you hit that final key, the command is executed and the access keys disappear. You can refer to the keystroke sequence as a keyboard accelerator, and you can refer to the access keys as key tips, key tip badges, hot keys or hotkeys.
Obviously, you don’t want to memorize every single Alt sequence. If you’re not a keyboard addict, I recommend starting with those you can use often, using your left hand only (leaving your right hand on the mouse). Here are some posts that discuss such shortcuts:
Alt-R shortcuts (Review tab): 6 Excel Shortcuts For Comments (& Other Review Tab Stuff)
Alt-A shorcuts (Data tab): Excel Alt-A Shortcuts For Your Left Hand
Alt-A Sort shortcuts: Excel Sort Shortcuts With Alt Key & Menu Key
Alt-W-F for Freeze Panes: Freeze Panes For Fearless Scrolling
Alt-E shortcuts (legacy Alt shortcuts): Zombie Excel Shortcuts