How to access clipboard (copy-paste) history on a Mac

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Copy and paste has been revolutionary for productivity. That may sound bizarre, considering how commonplace it is. Everyone copy–pastes, all the time. But without such functionality, we’d have to start from scratch on whatever we are working on every time we’d need a duplicate.

Instead of starting over, copy and paste gives us control and time. Control to know that once we’ve created something once — whether it’s a passage of text, an entire document, images, videos, music, code — we can replicate it, instantly and easily. Wherever we have an internet connection, we can share those creations or links with anyone else in the world.

When you stop and think about it, copy and paste is remarkable (on a Mac: ⌘ + C to copy, then ⌘ + V to paste). The problem is, we are so used to it, so used to skipping back and forth between tasks that once we’ve copied something, if we don’t paste it right away, we can lose it and need to start again. Such a pain! Unfortunately, even the most expensive Macs only have one clipboard.

How to view and manage clipboard history on macOS

Once you’ve copied something else, what you originally copied is lost. A Mac clipboard is a transient memory function, only designed to hold one item at a time. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You can see what the problem is here. So knowing how to see previous copied items on Mac is essential, and developers have been working on numerous solutions — known as clipboard managers — designed to solve this for years. 

Thankfully, now we have apps that we can highly recommend to resolve this particular problem with copy and paste history once and for all.

Where do you find the clipboard on your Mac?

“Where is my clipboard?” you may ask. It’s kind of everywhere and nowhere. A Mac clipboard is one of those macOS programs that runs in the background and has no functional user interface. Although you can find and view the last item copied to the clipboard by activating Finder, then selecting Edit ➙ Show Clipboard from the menu bar.

Show clipboard in Finder

How does the macOS clipboard work?

As a native program, macOS clipboard runs the same way as other macOS operating functions. Clipboard is a basic function, which is why it takes up almost no processing power or space, except for the item it currently holds. Unfortunately, this produces some limitations. You can’t just open clipboard and see everything you’ve ever copied (and we hate it!) Once you copy something else, the first copied item disappears. 

Natively, your Mac also carries a second, very little-known clipboard that you can use to effectively double your copy buffer.

The Mac’s hidden secondary clipboard

Not many people know that macOS has a hidden secondary clipboard for cutting and pasting functions. It’s a very well-kept secret. Why? We don’t know. 

Here’s how to open clipboard that is called hidden secondary clipboard on Mac: select any text and then Control + K to cut it. To paste it in its new location, use Control + Y.

Note that this cuts, rather than copies, the text. As this feature uses a different functionality, it won’t remove what is currently on the main copy-paste clipboard. Double the buffer, just like that!

What is Mac's Universal Clipboard

Universal Clipboard is yet another feature that was introduced in macOS Sierra and iOS 10. It allows you to seamlessly copy and paste information between Apple devices, as long as they’re signed into the same iCloud account and connected to the same WiFi network, with Bluetooth switched on.

To use Universal Clipboard, make sure your Apple devices are close to each other and then copy on one and paste on the other just like you’d do if it was only one device.

If you have any problems using Universal Clipboard, try logging out of iCloud on each device and logging back in again.

How to view clipboard history

The quickest way to view your clipboard history is to paste (Command/⌘+V). That will show you the most recent item you copied. 

Did you know you can copy and paste in the Finder too? If you want to copy a file from one folder to another, for example, you can select it, press Command/⌘+C, then click in the folder you want to copy to and press Command/⌘+V. You can even access clipboard history on a different device than the one you copied from, thanks to Universal Clipboard to share something between different devices.

How to avoid clipboard limitations

As having a clipboard buffer limitation of just one item is a widespread problem, you could expect that there would be more workarounds to this besides using a cut-paste clipboard or Universal Clipboard. And there are indeed quite a few available alternatives.

You can use text clippings, for example. These are snippets of text that look like files, but can’t be edited and behave differently. To create a text clipping, select text in any document and drag it to the desktop. You can then drag it onto any document in any application that accepts text and drop it at the point where you want to paste it. You can also drag and drop the snippet directly from one application window onto the window of another without taking up any clipboard space at all.

macOS text clipboard

Besides, there’s also a selection of various clipboard managers and other tools available today that approach the same problem from a variety of angles. 

How to save text from image to clipboard

You can’t copy and paste text from visual content. Which is another huge roadblock. Let’s say you have a photo with text you want to save in a text document. Or, you watch a video presentation and you’d love to save some text from the slides. This is where you’ll need a helper tool. 

TextSniper approaches the how to access clipboard problem from the text recognition perspective. This lightweight utility features a special screenshot tool that automatically applies OCR (optical character recognition) on any image or PDF, and then saves the resulting text to your clipboard, which you can paste at any time. Additionally, if you enable Additive Clipboard in the menu bar options of TextSniper, you can copy as many bits of information as you like, and then paste them all at once. 

copy text from image

Do you know what could improve the TextSniper use case even more? Paste app! It’s an app that saves all your clipboard history in one place. So here’s a trick: 1) open Paste; 2) grab text with TextSniper; 3) go to Paste and find everything you’ve copied there. It’s a dream workflow for when you watch online presentations and take notes. 

Once you start using Paste, you’ll be answering the question “what is clipboard?” in a new way. With Paste, the clipboard turns into a rich source of information and a great tool to speed up your flow.

Use a clipboard via Paste app

Save screenshot to clipboard

What if you need to copy screenshots? Of course, you can do that using the native macOS shortcut — the copy and paste works with images. However, when you save Mac screenshot to clipboard through Ctrl+C, you don’t actually see the screenshot you’re copying. 

This could be a problem if you have a dozen of similar-looking screenshots on your desktop. To know which one you need, you should first open each screenshot, one by one. Unclutter can help you avoid this. 

Unclutter is designed as an app for storing notes and files neatly on your desktop, plus a clipboard manager that retains the contents of your Mac’s clipboard, even after you copy something else. Its organized interface makes your clipboard history easily accessible, allowing you to find any old item if you need to paste it again.

Unclutter's cliboard manager

And if you want to edit your screenshot before saving it to clipboard, get Capto. Essentially a screen recorder and editor, it has one awesome feature — automatically saving your screenshots to the built-in editor where you can apply any changes. Crop, annotate, you name it.

freehand snipping tool

Automate your flow with text expanders

Rocket Typist is another great app that approached solving clipboard limitations from a different angle. This app allows you to create multiple text snippets for passages you use frequently, from email greetings to PHP scripts. Assign trigger combinations for saved snippets and call on them in any app or environment. Alternatively, you can then paste directly into the document you’re working on by selecting the snippet in Rocket Typist to move it to the clipboard and pasting it the regular way.

Rocket Typist paste feature

How do you paste from the clipboard on a Mac?

To paste something from the standard macOS clipboard, use ⌘ + V. However, when you are using a clipboard manager like Paste, you’ve got several options for pasting items from the clipboard.

  • Drag and drop items from the Paste interface directly to any Mac app
  • Select and paste multiple items at once
  • Paste items as plain text, no matter the format of the original
  • Access and paste files from multiple devices using iCloud sync
  • Allow others to paste your snippets by sharing over AirDrop

Depending on the clipboard manager you have, you can also paste using customized shortcuts for most recent as well as old items.

How to fix it a non-working clipboard

The first step when you discover that copy and paste don’t work is to check that it’s macOS that’s at fault and not your keyboard. Select some text in any application, then go to the Edit menu and choose Copy. Then go back to the Edit menu and choose Paste. If that works, the problem is with your keyboard.

If that doesn’t work, trying fixing the issue with Activity Monitor.

  1. Go to Applications > Utilities and double-click on Activity Monitor to launch it
  2. In its search box, type: pboard
  3. When it shows the pboard process, select it and press the X in the toolbar
  4. Click Force Quit and then close Activity Monitor

Activity Monitor pboard process

Go to an app where copy and paste wasn’t working and try again. If it still doesn’t work, try using Terminal to fix it.

  1. Go to Applications > Utilities and double-click on Terminal to launch it
  2. Type: killall pboard
  3. Hit Return
  4. Close Terminal

kill pboard in Terminal

Try and copy and paste again in the same app as before. If neither Activity Monitor nor Terminal solves the problem, the next step is to restart your Mac.

How to recover clipboard history on a Mac

The fact that the macOS clipboard only retains the most recently copied thing means that there’s no way to easily view or recover clipboard history.

You can, however, use ⌘ + Z to undo the most recent action and then press it repeatedly to step back through everything you’ve done. 

Eventually, assuming the application you’re using supports unlimited undos, you’ll get to the point where you pasted the item you want to recover.

A much easier way to recover clipboard history is to use apps like Paste or Unclutter. They retain multiple items and allow you to view them easily in the app, selecting the one you need.

How to clear the clipboard

Clearing your clipboard is easy. Either overwrite the current copied item with a copy of something else or, in case of using Paste or another clipboard manager, delete the clipboard history with a few clicks. 

It’s still a good idea, however, to store some items or the whole clipboard history in iCloud just in case you need some of it in the future. In this case, Paste, TextSniper, or Unclutter will ensure that managing your clipboard history is as straightforward as it can be.

While most Mac users limit themselves to one clipboard item at a time and feel frustrated with every accidental overwrite, you can use apps like Paste, Unclutter, Rocket Typist, Capto, and TextSniper — all available in Setapp — to extend the native capabilities of your Mac and save yourself hours of headaches in the future.

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