How to Type German Characters On Your Computer

Typing ö, Ä, é, or ß (ess-tsett) on an English-language keyboard

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The problem of typing non-standard characters unique to German and other world languages confronts computer users in North America who want to write in a language other than English. 

There are three main ways of making your computer bilingual or multilingual: (1) the Windows keyboard language option, (2) the macro or "Alt+" option, and (3) software options. Each method has its own advantages or disadvantages, and one or more of these options may be the best choice for you.

 (Mac users don't have this problem. The "Option" key allows the easy creation of most foreign letters on a standard English-language Apple Mac keyboard, and the "Key Caps" feature makes it easy to see which keys produce which foreign symbols.)

The Alt-Code Solution

Before we get into the details about the Windows keyboard language option, here's a quick way to type special characters on the fly in Windows—and it works in almost every program. To use this method, you need to know the keystroke combination that will get you a given special character. Once you know the "Alt+0123" combination, you can use it to type an ß, an ä, or any other special symbol. To learn the codes, use our Alt-code Chart for German below or...

First, click on the Windows "Start" button (lower left) and select "Programs." Then select "Accessories" and finally "Character Map." In the Character Map box that appears, click once on the character you want.

For example, clicking on ü will darken that character and will display the "Keystroke" command to type a ü (in this case "Alt+0252"). Write this down for future reference. (Also see our Alt code chart below.) You can also click "Select" and "Copy" to copy the symbol (or even form a word) and paste it into your document.

This method also works for English symbols such as © and ™. (Note: The characters will vary with different font styles. Be sure to select the font you are using in the pull-down "Font" menu in the upper left corner of the Character Map box.) When you type "Alt+0252" or any "Alt+" formula, you must hold down the "Alt" key while typing the four-number combination—on the extended keypad (with "number lock" on), NOT the top row of numbers!

TIP 1: It is also possible to create macros or keyboard shortcuts in MS Word™ and other word processors that will do the above automatically. This allows you to use "Alt + s" to create the German ß, for example. See your word processor's handbook or help menu for help in creating macros. In Word you can also type German characters using the Ctrl key, similar to the way the Mac uses the Option key.

TIP 2: If you plan to use this method often, print out a copy of the Alt-code chart and stick it on your monitor for easy reference. If you want even more symbols and characters, including German quotations marks, see our Special-Character Chart for German (for PC and Mac users).

Alt-Codes for German
These Alt-codes work with most fonts and programs in Windows. Some fonts may vary.
ä = 0228Ä = 0196
ö = 0246Ö = 0214
ü = 0252Ü = 0220
ß = 0223 
Remember, you must use the number keypad, not the top row numbers for Alt-codes!

The "Properties" Solution

Now let's look at a more permanent, more elegant way to get special characters in Windows 95/98/ME. The Mac OS (9.2 or earlier) offers a similar solution to that described here. In Windows, by changing the "Keyboard Properties" via the Control Panel, you can add various foreign-language keyboards/character sets to your standard American English "QWERTY" layout. With or without the physical (German, French, etc.) keyboard, the Windows language selector enables your regular English keyboard to "speak" another language—quite a few in fact. This method does have one drawback: It may not work with all software. (For Mac OS 9.2 and earlier: Go to Mac's "Keyboard" panel under "Control Panels" to select foreign language keyboards in various "flavors" on the Macintosh.) Here's the step-by-step procedure for Windows 95/98/ME:

  1. Make sure the Windows CD-ROM is in the CD drive or that the required files are already on your hard drive. (The program will indicate the files it needs.)
  2. Click on "Start," select "Settings," and then "Control Panel."
  3. In the Control Panel box double-click on the keyboard symbol.
  4. At the top of the open "Keyboard Properties" panel, click on the "Language" tab.
  5. Click the "Add Language" button and scroll to the German variation you want to use: German (Austrian), German (Swiss), German (Standard), etc.
  6. With the correct language darkened, select "OK" (if a dialog box appears, follow the directions to locate the proper file).

If everything has gone right, in the lower right corner of your Windows screen (where the time appears) you will see a square marked "EN" for English or "DE" for Deutsch (or "SP" for Spanish, "FR" for French, etc.). You can now switch from one to the other by either pressing "Alt+shift" or clicking on the "DE" or "EN" box to select the other language. With "DE" selected, your keyboard is now "QWERZ" rather than "QWERTY"! That's because a German keyboard switches the "y" and "z" keys--and adds the Ä, Ö, Ü, and ß keys. Some other letters and symbols move also. By typing out the new "DE" keyboard, you'll discover that you now type an ß by hitting the hyphen (-) key. You can make your own symbol key: ä = ;  /  Ä = " -- and so on. Some people even write the German symbols on the appropriate keys. Of course, if you want to buy a German keyboard, you can switch it with your standard keyboard, but it isn't necessary.

Reader Tip 1: "If you want to keep the US keyboard layout in Windows, i.e., not switch to the German keyboard with all its y=z, @=", etc. changes, then simply go to CONTROL PANEL --> KEYBOARD, and click on PROPERTIES to change the default 'US 101' keyboard to 'US International.' The US keyboard can be changed to different 'flavors.'"
   - From Prof. Olaf Bohlke, Creighton University

Okay, there you have it. You can now type away in German! But one more thing before we finish...

that software solution we mentioned earlier. There are various software packages, such as SwapKeys™, that let you easily type in German on an English keyboard. Our Software and Translation pages lead to several programs that can help you in this area.