Annotate PDFs with Apple’s Preview

Annotate PDFs with Apple’s Preview
Mac Tip #399, 26 August 2009

Preview, installed on all new Macs, allows you to add annotations to a PDF. This Tip shows you how to add ovals and rectangles of different colours, links and notes. It shows how to highlight text, add underlines and strikethroughs.

I suggest you start with the movie (about 7.5 minutes) where I demonstrate these techniques:


Use the Text Tool

In order to mark up a PDF with Apple’s Preview you need to have the Text Tool selected. Find it either on Preview’s toolbar or under the Tools menu.

Make sure to select the Text Tool before following any steps below.

Draw an Oval or Rectangle

To draw an oval or rectangle:

  1. Go to the Tools menu.
  2. Choose Annotate > Add Oval or Add Rectangle. The cursor becomes a crosshair.
  3. Click on the page and drag to draw an oval or rectangle.

Change line colour, thickness and style

You may change the colour, thickness and style of lines on the shape you draw:

  1. If necessary, double click on a shape to select it. When it is selected a grey box is displayed around the shape, with a ‘handle’ in the bottom right corner.
  2. Call up the Inspector from the Tools menu. Make sure the Annotation Inspector tab is displayed.
  3. To change the line color click in the color patch. The Colors palette is displayed. Choose a new color and close the palette. The shape you’ve drawn changes colour.
  4. To change line thickness enter a new value (in pixels) in the Thickness box, then press Tab or Enter or Return. The shape’s line thickness changes to the new size.
  5. To change the style of the line check or uncheck the Dashed checkbox. The line is displayed as solid or dashed, according to your choice.

Add a link

Items such as words and images can link to an URL on the web, or to another page in the same PDF.

To add a link:

  1. Choose Tools > Annotate > Add Link. The cursor changes to a crosshair.
  2. Drag around a word or image. A grey shaded link selection box appears.
  3. If necessary, call up the Inspector from the Tools menu. Make sure the Annotation Inspector tab is displayed.
  4. In the Inspector window make a choice from the Action drop-down menu: Link within PDF or URL.
  5. To link to a URL (web page): enter the URL in the text area that appears after choosing URL from the drop-down menu. Then click the Set URL button. The link will be saved with the document.
  6. To link to another page of the same document: after choosing the Link within PDF action, navigate to the destination page within your PDF, then click the Set Destination button in the Inspector window. The link will be saved with the document.

Add a note

You can save Notes within your PDF. These might be reminders to check something or messages to other users of the PDF.

Notes can have specific colours. They are represented by an icon within the PDF and are displayed in an area to the left of the page. Under the View menu choose to Show or Hide Notes.

To add a Note:

  1. Choose Tools > Annotate > Add Note. The page of your PDF shrinks to create a grey ‘sidebar’ on the left.
  2. Click in your document at the point where the Note should appear. An icon is displayed on the PDF page and a Note appears in the left ‘sidebar’.
  3. Type your notes into the Note in the left sidebar. It will be saved with your document.
  4. To move the icon drag it to a different location on the page.
  5. To change the colour or style of the icon: If necessary, call up the Inspector from the Tools menu. Make sure the Annotation Inspector tab is displayed.
  6. To change the color of the Note and icon click in the color patch. The Colors palette is displayed. Choose a new color and close the palette. The icon and note change colour.
  7. To change the icon for the Note choose an option from the Icon drop-down menu.

Highlight, strikethrough or underline text

To highlight, strikethrough or underline text:

  1. Select some text with the Text Tool.
  2. Make a choice from the Tools > Mark Up menu: Highlight Text, Strike Through Text, or Underline Text. The text is marked up according to your choice.

Remember to Save the document if you want to keep any Annotations you’ve made.

Do you have any comments on this Tip? Add them below.

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  1. Gerald said:


    I am among other things an I.T. subject head. I use Preview directly from Mariner Paperless for quick marking of scripts. It is really great cause it is fast. I am still using Snow Leopard so may be out of touch, but would love to see ticks and crosses available like arrows or other annotations. Would love it even more if you could assign a mark to ticks and or negative marks to crosses, because sometimes I mark positively and sometimes negatively. If these could be auto totalled and inserted at the end with a mouse click, preview would be unbeatable for me for day to day marking of I.T.

    If you are an educator marking the paperless way, you should agree with me and hopefully Preview writers are listening.

    Thank you

  2. Elizabeth said:

    I was annotating a PDF, and decided to continue later, so I closed to document. When I opened it later on, my changes had not been saved.

    Turns out Preview does not register changes to previous annotation so these will not be saved when you close the document (even if you explicitly say “Save”).
    So if you need to add something to an annotation you made earlier, make sure to create a new one, or you’ll lose your changes when you close.

    Just lost a bunch of stuff it took me a while to do. VERY frustrating…. :-(

  3. Hina Jamali said:

    I was using Mac preview to go through a document- when I started highlighting, the width of the highlighter was covering the complete height of each line. The next day when I continued my work and started highlighting, the width of the highlighter had become very narrow. I wanted it to revert back to being like a thick highlighter like the day before but I have not yet been able to find such an option. Any thoughts??

  4. Johnny said:

    Thank you for the video. Is it possible to search for words within the notes I make in the PDF? Thank you

  5. Tamara said:


    I have saved various powerpoint presentations as PDFs then annotated on them on preview. I can save the files and open them with all the annotations saved just fine on my computer, but if i try opening the same annotated PDF on my iPad using iBooks or any pdf reader, it loses all the annotation I had previously added. I was hoping there was something I can do about this since all those annotation are very important, and being able to read them on a pdf reader on my iPad would make it much easier.

    Thank for the help!

  6. Catherine said:

    For those of you asking how to draw a line without an arrow head, keys “1″ and “2″ will toggle the arrow heads on and off for each end of the line.

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      That sounds great Catherine, but I’m having trouble making it work. Any chance you could explain your steps in more detail?



  7. Gerald Corbin said:

    I really use the annotated tools in various PDFs.
    My only problem is, is that after I choose the add text option I can no longer work with the PDF in the way that I want. How do I turn off or close the annotate tools once I’ve used them?


  8. Jonathan said:

    Hey, just wondering if you know how to get comments from preview to something like Google Drive (previously Google Docs), all I get is the highlighted areas that were commented when I upload it as a .pdf or convert it.

  9. brockway said:

    I can draw arrows on a pdf in Preview, but does anyone know how to draw just a line, not an arrow?


  10. Ari Dy said:

    Carolyn, I have exactly the same experience, and I think it’s down to the kind of pdf file you have. In my experience, highlighting does NOT work with pdf files of materials I have scanned at a photocopier machine and sent directly to my USB; for those I use ovals and rectangles. On the other hand, pdf files of articles I downloaded from academic journals can be highlighted or annotated using any of the Preview options. I have no idea what explains the difference, and would be interested to know!

  11. Carolyn Beans said:

    I have a MacBook Pro and I’ve been using Preview to view PDFs for two years now. Suddenly, I can no longer use the highlighter. I can use the arrows and circles. If I open pdfs that I highlighted in the past, the highlighting is still there, but I can’t add additional highlighting to the document. Any idea what went wrong or how I can fix this issue? Thanks!

  12. mike said:

    Big thanks, this is the “missing link” that just put it all together for me!!!!!!

  13. simon said:

    hi..when i add a link through annotations and then save the pdf file it automatically reduced the files size (eg from 30 mg to 500 kb)… any suggestions to stop this?

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      That sounds like a filter has been applied, as that’s a massive reduction in file size. When you open it again do the images look awful?

      Try Save As or Export after adding a link to a fresh PDF file and look at the Quartz Filter options in the Save dialog box. Make sure it’s set to None and Save. Compare file size against the way you’re doing it now. Any difference?

  14. Ari said:

    I use a MacBook Pro and I’m able to annotate journal articles that I’ve downloaded. However, the annotation function does not work with scanned materials. Is there any way around that?

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      That’s odd. I just opened a PDF of an invoice I’d scanned in a few weeks ago, added some text via a text annotation and saved. When I opened it again the text annotation was still there.

      I’m afraid you’ll need to try Apple’s Support forums…

  15. Bridget said:


    I am trying to add text to a jpg file in Preview, but I am not able to save anything that I annotate with the text tool????? I have tried jpg, PDF, tiff, and photoshop file. I was successful with one PDF, but it was completely empty when I reopened it.

    It basically tells me:
    “The document “Chic_Postcard_Front_empty2.jpg” could not be saved.”

    I need to be able to save, as this is hoe my clients mark-up postcards I design for them so that they are able to add information without coming back to me. Preview is the only compatible program that I can think of for a client to use that does not have any Adobe programs.


    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Hmmm, I just did a test. I opened a jpg file in Preview and added the word ‘important’. I exported it as a jpg with a new filename. I then opened that file in both Preview and Acorn (my image editor). Both showed the word I’d added on top of the original picture.

      I suggest you check carefully the steps you’re doing and that you are actually saving the changes you make.

      It’s odd that a file would open up empty, losing even the previous work – or did you just mean it hadn’t saved your annotations?

      • Bridget said:

        Hi Miraz,

        Thank you for your quick response!

        I “save as” with a new file name every time, and it won’t even let me save it. It always says: “The document “Filename.jpg” could not be saved.”

        In the save dialogue box, it also always says “File Size: Zero KBs” for anything I try to save with added text annotations. No matter what file format I am trying to save in.

        I was only successful in saving an (empty) PDF once, but now nothing will save? Think it is a problem with the program?

        Thank you (again) in advance!

        • Miraz Jordan said:

          OK, so here’s a question: where are you trying to save the file to? It sounds as though you’re trying to save it to somewhere that’s not allowed, such as a CD or perhaps a folder you don’t have permissions for.

          Try saving it into your Documents or Downloads folder as a test.

          Is there anything unusual about the file? Does it have any kind of permissions attached to it that might prevent you from saving? Is this a file you’ve created yourself or have you obtained it from somewhere else?

          Does this happen with all jpgs or just a certain file?

          • Bridget said:


            Thank you again for your speedy, informative response! I found out that you cannot annotate JPGs what-so-ever in Preview.
            Only PDFs can be annotated, and then obviously can be saved as a JPG.


  16. Sarah said:

    Looks like performing a “save as” seemed to clear the glitch.

  17. Sarah said:


    Does anyone have a suggestion for the following: I marked up part of a pdf document using Adobe Acrobat, and then transferred the file to my mac and am now annotating the document using Preview. For some reason though, when I choose to highlight text for example, preview will jump to the first page of the document after I’ve finished highlighting selection. So I have to keep scrolling between the first page and where ever I am in the document each time a make an annotation.

  18. Paulo Pedro said:

    Hey, could anybody help me with a very annoying problem? I am using preview for a few months now and I make a lot of annotations on the slides in a PDF file. Somehow sometimes when I open a document after a while, the annotations are all turned vertically, instead of there horizontal position. I have to click on all of them to put them back on their horizontal position to be able to read them, but after I open the document again, the same problem occurs. What can I do to prevent this problem? I hope somebody can help me!

  19. Claire said:

    I converted a document from Scribus to PDF and am trying to add annotations so readers can click on a chapter title and go to that page. The annotations work fine until I save my file, and then they start linking to the page *after* the one I’ve specified. Very frustrating! Any ideas?

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      That sounds very annoying, but I’m afraid I have no idea why it happens or how to fix it. I’ve heard excellent things about PDFPen Pro though. You may like to see whether that would do the job for you.

      • Claire said:

        Thanks for the tip. I ended up using a trial version of Adobe InDesign, and the PDF table of contents works like a charm. So I think it’s a Preview bug.

  20. Monica Cook said:

    I’m trying to use preview to highlight some material. The problem is that the ‘text select’ doesn’t seem to work. It doesn’t select any text and the icon stays as an arrow. I can draw ovals and such, but can’t select any text to then highlight.

    Any suggestions would be helpful!

  21. Michael said:

    Hi there
    So I have a PDF in preview and I added quite a lot of notes. They are all neatly displayed on the left hand side. However, now the space is rather crowded and the notes on the side already reach the bottom of the page. If I now add another note on the same page, the symbol is there but no more notes appear on the side. The last visible one does show a small white rectangle with a “+” in it. Naturally one would think, that this will expand the “missing” ones. Unfortunately, absolutely nothing happens if i press it.

    Any brilliant ideas?

    Cheers Michael

    • Emily said:

      I’m having the same problem. In addition what is quite aggravating to me is that for some reason, my comments on the first page of the document, which used to appear close to the lines they referenced, now (after entering more annotations on later pages) appear on the second page. Not only does this mean that I can’t see the comments where they belong, but that also gives me less space to make annotations on the following pages.

      Any ideas why Preview would be doing this?

      Also, Michael, I’ve found that if you hover the mouse over the grey plus, you can see the entered text; however, since the note won’t expand, it makes it very hard to type the comment.

  22. Roger said:

    You CAN make a circle. Use “Add Oval” and hold the shift key. This follows the same logic used with Adobe products.

  23. James said:


    does anyone know why PDFs printed after annotating in Preview turns into lower quality (as opposed to before annotation)? And is there a way around this? Thanks for the help!

  24. Naref S said:

    Hello Miraz,

    Thank you for trying to help me, for being generous with your time.


  25. Naref S said:


    Is there any way to control the thickness of the highlighter in the annotation tools? I’m currently reading a PDF and when I highlight a passage, the highlight width seems oblivious to the text size in that although it seems to be anchored on the baseline of the text, the highlighted region is at least twice if three times the height of the text. This has the visual affect of highlighting the content above and below the content I’m interested in.

    Any advice is most appreciated.

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Naref, there doesn’t seem to be a thickness control on the highlighter.

      I did some experiments on half a dozen PDFs I had. Two were user manuals, a couple came from one client and another from the designer for a different client.

      In almost every case the highlighter accurately highlighted just the single line of text.

      The exception was the PDF from a designer, and only in parts of that PDF where the type was set in a special display style. In that part the highlighter covered multiple lines.

      I suggest you try highlighting in some different PDFs. You may find your problems are unique to that one PDF you’re working on.

  26. Julia said:


    I type in my annotations, but when I go to re-open the saved document they are not visible at first. I have to click around the page to try and find the “invisible” annotations, and once I’ve clicked in the right area the annotations show up. Is there a way to simply SEE the annotations instead of clicking around blindly?


    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Hi Julia,

      I just opened a PDF, added a rectangle annotation, saved and closed. Then I reopened the PDF and the rectangle was right there. I don’t know why your annotations are going missing.

      One thing you can try is to make sure the drawer is open at the side, and set to show a list of all annotations:

      View menu – Sidebar – Annotations

      Let me know if that helps.



  27. Vinny said:

    I don’t know what happened but I did something to the highlight function. Instead of drawing bars over the selected text it creates an odd series of overlapping ovals and triangles. I can’t figure out how to turn them back into lines!

    • Miraz Jordan said:

      Vinny, is it possible that you’ve somehow accidentally selected the Annotate tool instead of the Highlight tool?

      Check the Tools – Annotate menu in Preview and make sure you’ve selected Highlight Text and not one of the others.

      • Vinny said:

        It’s very possible. It somehow fixed itself so I’m hoping the problem doesn’t recur. If it does that is the first thing I will check.

        Many thanks!

  28. Laura said:

    I have an old macbook and i don’t have the ‘annotate tool’. I can only add those ‘yellow notes’. Is there a way to update my preview version, to get the same version that the new macs have?

  29. Miraz Jordan said:

    Damon and Bendert: I’m afraid I can’t see a way to do either of these things.

    Damon, you could choose to annotate a *copy* of the document and use the riginal as your reference.

    It’s always a good idea to put in a feature request to Apple for things you’d like to see in their software:



  30. Bendert Katier said:

    Hey, is there a possibility to export the annotations made to a separate document? Would help speeding up the process of summarizing my articles. Thanks!

    • brandonjp said:

      I was having the same issue… I took several important notes onto a PDF in Preview, but then was very annoyed when there was no way to copy, export, print, etc with them. I found this great little app called Skim which has a feature to convert Annotations/Notes, then you can do whatever you want with them in Skim |

      • innes mclean said:

        Thanks for the Skim tip. This will save me TONS of time in future

  31. Damon said:

    I’ve been trying to find a way to toggle annotations on and off.
    I know how to delete them but what if I want to read a page w/o seeing the annotaions. and then reactive them. Any ideas

  32. Dainis said:

    Har har…that’s just a marker during editing…looks like I have a workable solution. Whew.

  33. Dainis said:

    Hey, can the annotation attributes be changed? I’ve got a Mac Word 2008 Doc that simply won’t place appropriate links into the PDF files I’m trying to create. I’ve printed, exported, messed around with how the links were created internally in the doc, and I’m left with adding the links manually in Preview, but it looks like I can’t change the link attributes, and the links seem to be stuck in a grey diagonal line color scheme. Yuck. I’d like to be able to put links into my PDF file, though I can’t change the source format of the doc.

  34. Miraz Jordan said:

    Bruno: I just tried making a PDF from a text document. Then I opened it in Apple Preview, added annotations and saved it.

    Then I opened it again and removed the annotations as follows.

    On the Toolbar click the Sidebar button so that the Sidebar opens.

    On the Toolbar click the Annotate button (pencil icon). That opens up an Annotations Bar at the bottom of the document.

    On the Annotations Bar at the bottom of the document click the pencil icon at far right. That causes the Sidebar to list the Annotations.

    Select the Annotations you’d like to remove and press the Delete key on the keyboard. The annotations are removed.



    • Apta said:

      Thank you, Miraz for showing us how to remove annotations. I couldn’t find any references in Preview’s Help nor Apple’s website.

      By the way, under OS 10.5.8 the way to access the annotations in the Sidebar is by clicking on the little popup menu at the bottom of the Sidebar and immediately to the right of the dragging area (three vertical bars) used to change the width of the two panes. There was no need to click the Annotate button beforehand.

    • Iporã said:

      Thanks, this is the missing knowledge in the way I use preview!!

      Again, thanks!!

    • Alayne said:

      I need to highlight text in Preview on my Mac. It is the first Mac that came out. The directions shown above, on how to highlight, is not helping, nor does it work. What is the text tool, where is it, and help me highlight my text! I’ve been searching to find out how this works and I can’t do it. Please help…It’s really frustrating!

      • Miraz Jordan said:

        Hmm, the first Mac that came out was what, 1984? I suspect you’re not using that one.

        Perhaps you can say which version of the Operating System and which version of Preview you’re using?

  35. bruno pedroso said:

    do U know how to clean the marks and anotations from a document I read, marked and saved?

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