Type foreign (non-English) characters easily with Holdkey [Windows]

Do you have to type in a foreign language on an English keyboard? If you do, then you must hate accents with a bü®ñïñg ¶äߧîöñ. I know I would. Before, you’d have to memorize tons of totally intuitive Alt codes, or open up the clunky character map. Holdkey does away with that, and lets you enter character variations on your keyboard just like you might on a smartphone: by pressing and holding a key.

Holdkey is so, so much simpler than using Character Map. Just press and hold on a character that you want accented–the letter a, for example–and wait for the blue box shown in the screenshot above to appear. Then press the corresponding number on your keyboard. To type an a-umlaut, for example, I’d hold and press the 1 key.

There’s tons of special characters. For instance, need an ß? That’s easy to get. An ®? Even that’s available. And if there’s too many available to be accessible with 0-9, you can click the More link to bring you to Holdkey’s page on that letter. You’ll find a huge range of special characters there.

Overall, Holdkey is awesome. In fact, the only thing at all I can think of that’d be nice to add would be to prioritize characters based on a language setting, so that umlauts appear later in the sequence if you’re typing French, for example.  It’s unclear if this is offered in the Pro version, as the only mention of a paid feature is the ability to add Greek characters and have the More button part of the app, not a webpage.

Holdkey is really a must-have for anyone who likes to type in foreign languages.

Price: Free with $9.50 Pro version

Version discovered: v2.0

Supported OS: Windows XP+

Download size: 728KB

VirusTotal malware scan results: 0/41

Portability: Requires installation

Holdkey homepage

[via Gizmo’s Freeware]

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  1. Paul D

    Bugger all the esoteric ramblings above. This app is COOL! After a few days I’m using it a lot and it’s just about second nature already. And I haven’t even looked at the extra characters yet, just the accents. I like my Gaelic/Celtic music files correctly named.

  2. Luc Laroy


    If it helps, maybe a little further precision about this site’s font :
    If this font would have covered the block where your character is in, it would have been displayed with the image as found in this font. So, possibly an other style of umbrella, or a closed one instead of an open.
    But as this font does not cover that block at all, the server doesn’t know what image to display, hence a ‘?’.
    If (parts of) the text would have been accepted here with the parameters of Holdkey (read: that Arial font), your character would have been displayed exactly as you wanted it.

  3. Luc Laroy


    Well, you have two different spaces : the text document you are working in and for which you have selected a font for what you type there (in your case a Word document) – and on the other hand the area in which the extra character is prepaired (Holdkey, or a virtual keyboard) and from where it’s copied into your text document.
    When I said to mind the font, that was related to that second area, in casu the virtual keyboard, where you choose the font and copy the character ‘manually’. In Holdkey these actions are preprogrammed to run automatically, and yes, I too suppose that it will automatically use that Arial font indeed.
    The character is then copied into your document, with the parameters as set in Holdkey , no matter what are those in your document.
    As for this website, I suppose that its font is set to have precedence over any other one, e.g to avoid that other people would make a chaos of it. But that is rather a question for Locutus or Ashraf…

  4. Janetb

    @Luc Laroy:

    I don’t get exactly how that would work with today’s app….or for this site. When I use HoldKey in e.g., Word or WordPad, no matter what font I am using, the program manages to find the right images (e.g., a little umbrella) without my doing anything about the font. If it finds the pictures (probably in Ariel UNicode Ms?) in apps, why doesn’t it do the same thing on the dottech site?

    Thanks for the interesting input!

  5. Luc Laroy


    Oh, yes, there’s one more thing :
    as a computer looks at a font to find the image of a character to display, it’s important that you select the right font as well.
    This explains why you got ????? on this site instead of the characters you wanted to show : the font that is linked to this site does not cover the unicode blocks in which your characters are located.
    Most fonts are very limited in what they cover, but in windows you will centainly have ‘Arial Unicode Ms’ on board, which covers a whole lot of blocks. Also ‘Code2000’ is very rich.
    If characters are still missing, sometimes it helps if you just download and install the latest version of a font.

  6. Luc Laroy


    The keyboard is the one I suggested to @meldasue for typing french (my previous post , number 7).

    And by ‘accessing characters in a logical and structured way’ I mean having all needed/wanted characters for a certain job at hand in one single place,
    like e.g.: having a french keyboard that gives you all you need if you want to type a french text, or making your own keyboard to combine whatever characters you want together (arrows, fractions, emoticons, …) in one place, ready to grab them.
    An other example: I am confronted with a number of languages, each with its own script and (totally defferent) traditional keyboard layout. I like to study these scripts, but I refuse to break my brain learning to type on all these different keyboard layouts, so while learning the scripts, I make my own keyboards putting e.g. a local character for the ‘R’ sound under the R key, whereas in official keyboards you’d have to search it under the I or C or whatever key.
    Making a keyboard yourself comes down to making a file with a table where the program finds for each key the unicode code point of the character you want to print if clicking on that key. These files in the program I pointed at are just plain text files, so you can open one of them in the text editor of your choice, and replace the numbers you find there with the the values for your target charaters.
    Of course this involves knowing unicode and where in their tables you’d find these values for characters you want, but you really don’t need a university degree for it. If you want to know more about this topic, I’d suggest you have a look at :

    Switching keyboards is only a 2-click affair, which I don’t consider too difficult or annoying. I mean: you can really make as many of them as you want to work comfortably.
    Enjoy !

  7. Janet

    @Luc Laroy:
    “And then it virtually gives me all 170000 characters of unicode, and not just the few that one or another app decides to ‘make available’ for me…
    And then I prefer to access them in a logical and structured way, rather than like a dice game or an sms”

    Which keyboard is this and what is the access structure?

  8. Luc Laroy


    Your french might not be that academical, but its sympathetic funnyness is by far more important and convivial.
    People do understand it, and that’s what counts in communication, isn’t it ?

    About the program : it all depends on how you like to work … or play.
    My virtual keyboard is never floating in my way, it nicely waits in the tray until I wake it up to access some characters.
    And then it virtually gives me all 170000 characters of unicode, and not just the few that one or another app decides to ‘make available’ for me…
    And then I prefer to access them in a logical and structured way, rather than like a dice game or an sms.
    After all, why do we all use hardware keyboards, and not a hardware version of this app … ?

    Anyway, let me use this occasion to thank You and Ashraf for the ardeur and ferveur with which you make us discover news and apps daily, whether this or that one is to our taste or not.
    Many Thanks !
    And don’t give up !

  9. Locutus

    Francoise: Je ne parle pas francais tres bien. J’ai pris French 101, 102, et 103, mais je n’ai jamais visite france. :(

    ^ Pretty sure I just absolutely butchered that. Sorry :P

    @Ed: @meldasue: @Luc Laroy: @LuisR: The great thing about Holdkey is it only appears when you want it to. There’s no changing your keyboard from whatever it’s on (you can keep it in German, or Australian English, or French, or Windings), and there’s no omnipresent floating keyboard that you’d get from a virtual keyboard. Pulling up just the relevant characters is easier than a virtual keyboard, too, as instead of calling up the virtual keyboard, selecting the key to be modified, and then the modification, it’s longpress-number done.

    @Janet: This program is one of those awesome ones that you only find once in a while. Glad I could show it to you!

  10. Ed

    @meldasue: If you need British, United Kingdom Extended works similarly, but with different keys. Plus, from what I have seen, British English has mostly the same spellings. You just need to right click, and add to dictionary on the words that aren’t.
    And American keyboards also have a backslash.

  11. pohanginapete

    I’ve just installed it and it works well — but, ironically, not in this comment field. I can live with that ;^)

    However, it damages WordWeb (at least in Win 7): if Holdkey is enabled, selecting a word and pressing Ctrl-Alt-W doesn’t load the word into WordWeb; instead, WordWeb opens with an empty input field.

    Consequently, I’ll be leaving Holdkey disabled until I need it (it’s simple enough to toggle it on and off with Win-Alt-Esc).

  12. LuisR

    This application preys in the ignorance of a large number of Windows users that don’t know this capability has been around for decades, yes decades. At least since Windows 3.1 (launched in 1992) you can select the keyboard layout as United States-International and be able to type all accents and non-English punctuation marks (recent Windows versions added the Euro character) without any special software or physical keyboard layout change. Why pay that much for something that is already built-in?

  13. Francoise

    @Locutus. Oui, tu parles comme un americain. Tu aurais du dire “Est-ce que je parle…” ou “Je parles…?”

    I haven’t found an easy solution yet. Switching the keyboard is a PAIN. Since I type a lot of french, I know Microsoft Word shortcuts. The problem is that I have to open Word to get them. These shortcuts should be universal on all Microsoft products (internet Explorer, etc…)

    For now I do what a lot of people do: just skip them. You will notice that both Loculus and I typed “americain” without the accent. For every day email, who cares?

    But I do care, because when I reply to a french email in a hurry, it looks like I din’t know how to spell.

  14. Janet

    This app is simply FANTASTIC!!!! Forget the accents–take a look at the zillions of other signs and symbols:

    I will particutlarly be using it for degrees, bullets, FRACTIONS (!), arrows in 8 different directions, etc., etc…..And it has all kinds of nice bits like ?, ?, ?, ?……?

    Edit: The characters showed up in the text box when I was writing the post, but they turned into “?”s in the final post :-(……

  15. Luc Laroy


    All these solutions seem so infantilishly inadequate and user-unfriendly.
    What about a solid virtual keyboard ?
    Since I found this little jewel, I for sure don’t want anything else :

    It comes with over 70 different keyboard files covering all european and some asian scripts.
    (even separate keybords for french french and belgian french…)
    Plus , if you can play a bit with unicode , you can make your own ones , laid out completely as you like them.
    I made some for some southeast asian scripts – work great.
    Easily switch between them.
    You can use it to type a whole text with your mouse, or just insert some accented characters – as you like.

    No need for language packs, keyboard drivers or whatever.
    Just needs .NET (2 or higher) – and unicode compatible applications.
    I never use Word, but it does work well with Excel , Libreoffice, my webmail client, and a few note managers like TreeDBnotes and Rightnote.
    There are a few applications that directly accept your text while you are typing it , otherwise you prepare a chunk in its own window and just copy/paste to wherever.

    You can use it for free, but a license is only EUR 15 , and it’s definitely worth that as a ‘donation’.

    It’s not (yet) compatible with the newest version of unicode (6) but that is no problem for a general user.

  16. meldasue

    @Ed: It’s a great layout, but since it’s ‘American’ (Microsoft) English, it switches Office to American spellings. (Simply setting your language and every Windows setting you can find to proper English won’t do it – the only way to make British English stick in Office is to use a British keyboard layout.)

    Of course, if you have an American keyboard, you’ll find that the British have two extra keys. This is only a problem when you need a backslash (try creating that in a DOS window – ALT codes don’t work) or pipe.

    I also type in French a lot, so I’m always looking for a keyboard mapper that will work across programs. Not sure Holdkey will do it, but I’ll take a look.

  17. Ed

    There is a free way of making accents and the like easy, and without the use of extra programs on windows. Switch your keyboard to “United States – International”. For an umlot, just push the quotations (“) and the letter you want it over. If you want an accent, press the ‘ key and the letter you want it over. Want a tilde? press ~ and type the letter you want it over. press ctrl + alt for more characters. Press that combo plus ? to make ¿ etc.