Getting Started with VoiceOver on iOS and iPadOS.

By Kevin Hollington - Staff Writer
9 Min Read


If you’re new to the iPhone, learning and mastering VoiceOver screenreader can seem daunting at first. Thankfully, learning how to use Voiceover on iPhone and iPad is easy. So, if you are new to voiceover, this step-by-step guide will introduce you to everything you need to know.
VoiceOver is a very powerful screen reader, and there are many more commands you may choose to use. This article assumes you are very new to using an iOS device with VoiceOver, so the more advanced topics are left for another article when you are more comfortable with basic navigation and usage. Nevertheless, this will help get you started if you’ve just received your device and are not quite sure how to use VoiceOver.

What is VoiceOver?

VoiceOver is Apple’s screen reader for iOS devices. It provides nonvisual access to the interface using a combination of synthetic speech, sound effects, and Braille output if you have a supported refreshable Braille display.
You control VoiceOver using a set of simple gestures on the touch screen, keyboard commands on a hardware keyboard connected via Bluetooth or USB, and Braille keys if you have a Braille display connected.
iPhone VoiceOver reads the information in text messages, the Internet, e-mails, and third-party applications that are designed to work with the screen reader. Essentially, it tries to convey all information a sighted user would get so that someone who is blind or has low vision can use iOS to its full potential. For the most part, this works well, with the obvious exception of images. VoiceOver does not describe graphics unless they have been specifically tagged with alt text descriptions. VoiceOver will also not provide adequate information in applications that aren’t fully supported. Depending on the severity, you could only deal with minor issues such as items that say “button” because they do not have proper labels, all the way up to VoiceOver reading absolutely nothing at all.

How to use VoiceOver on iPhone and iPad

Here are step-by-step instructions for how to use voiceover on iPhone or iPad.

How to enable VoiceOver on iPhone or iPad,

VoiceOver can be enabled in several ways. If the device has not been set up yet, you can press the home button on older devices or the side button on newer devices without a physical home button three times in quick succession. VoiceOver should immediately start reading the setup screen to you. The second way to enable VoiceOver is through the Settings app. Go to Settings>Accessibility>VoiceOver and turn the switch on. If you’re using iOS 12 or earlier, this is located in Settings>General>Accessibility>VoiceOver. You can also have Siri turn VoiceOver on by saying, “turn on VoiceOver”. Finally, you may want to set VoiceOver to the Accessibility Shortcut. This option is located at the bottom of the Accessibility screen in Settings and allows you to quickly turn any accessibility feature on or off by pressing the home button on older devices or the side button on newer devices three times quickly. If you enabled VoiceOver using the triple-click method on the setup screen, this should already be configured for you. It is not configured if someone already went through the initial setup and did not turn on VoiceOver.

Basic Navigation

There are several ways to navigate iPhone with VoiceOver. When VoiceOver is enabled, items are not activated unless you perform another gesture. The first involves simply dragging your finger around the screen or touching specific parts of it. VoiceOver will select the current item as well as tell you what it is. This is very useful if you wish to learn where items are laid out visually on the screen. For example, touching the top of the screen usually selects an item in the status bar, while dragging your finger down the middle of the screen reports all the app icons located there. This can be a very efficient way to navigate, as all you must do is memorize where an item is located and put your finger on that part of the screen to quickly jump there. If you wish to activate an item, perform a single-finger double-tap. I.E tap the screen twice with a single finger very quickly. Unlike the standard way someone would use iOS, this gesture can be performed anywhere on the screen, so you do not have to know exactly where the item is located. Just make sure that VoiceOver selects the item you want before performing this gesture.

The second method of navigation involves swiping a finger left or right on the screen. Swiping to the left takes you to the previous item, while going to the right moves to the next. While this is not as efficient as exploring by touch or directly touching the item you want, it may be easier for some people. VoiceOver presents items to you in a logical order that is easy to follow. For example, you can navigate using this method on the home screen. By default, VoiceOver should read the icons in the following order. “FaceTime, Calendar, Photos, Camera, Mail, etc. VoiceOver will automatically scroll the screen as you continue navigating this way.

Scrolling content

While the above navigation commands are useful, there may be times when you wish to navigate even faster. For example, imagine you want to navigate the list of settings in the Settings app. This list is very large, so navigating item by item will take forever, particularly if you want to locate something further down the list. To scroll the screen down, swipe up with three fingers. To scroll the other direction, swipe down with 3 fingers. VoiceOver will tell you how many rows are selected when you perform this gesture. If you find this confusing, imagine it like this. You push the screen up to reveal more items, and pull it down to bring the content you were previously examining back into focus. If you perform the scroll up gesture on the home screen, you are taken to the spotlight search field where you can search for items.

If you want to scroll by pages, use the three-finger swipe left ot go to the next page, or right to go to the previous. If this is confusing as well, think about turning the pages of a book. When you want to go to the next page, you turn the current page to the left to find it. When you want to read the previous page you were just on, you turn it to the right to put it in view again. This is very useful in areas such as the home screen. If you have many pages of apps, this will allow you to quickly navigate them. Finally, using the previous page gesture on the first page of the home screen will take you to the Today View screen.
It is also possible to change these gestures if you are running iOS 13, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

The VoiceOver Rotor

VoiceOver contains a mode that allows you to quickly navigate by certain elements and change various settings on the fly. Apple calls this the Rotor. Imagine you are turning a dial. It can either go left or right, and each setting corresponds to a VoiceOver navigational element or setting. For example, you will hear things like words, characters, lines, headings, links, and language as you turn the Rotor. The options will wrap around regardless of the direction you choose to move in. Please be aware that the Rotor is context sensitive. If you are in Safari on a website, you will be able to select options such as headings and links. In contrast, these will not be selectable in other areas such as the home screen because they are not necessary. It is possible to specify what you do and do not want to appear on the Rotor in Settings>Accessibility>VoiceOver>Rotor.

In order to use the Rotor, place two fingers on the screen and move them in opposite directions. I find the easiest method is to place my index finger and thumb on the screen and move them left or right to turn the rotor. If you have difficulty doing this, here is another method which might help you. Place a finger from each hand on the screen and move them in opposite directions. For example, moving the finger on your left hand down and the right up will turn the rotor to the left, while the opposite gesture will turn to the right. If you truly cannot master this gesture, it can be changed if you are using iOS 13 or later.

Once you find the Rotor setting you want, swipe up or down with one finger to move by the element you have selected. For example, swiping up when the characters option is selected reads the previous character of the currently focused item, while swiping down reads the next one. Once you master the Rotor, you can do many things very quickly from anywhere. For example, it is very useful to put speaking rate on your Rotor, as you can quickly increase or decrease the speech rate from anywhere by selecting the option and flicking up to increase, or down to slow down.

Adding additional languages to the Rotor

VoiceOver allows you to quickly switch languages using the Rotor. In order to set this up, go to Settings>Accessibility>VoiceOver>Speech>Rotor Languages. Select the add button and you will be presented with a list of languages. Select the ones you would like to include by double-tapping each one in the list. You must select languages one at a time, but they will all appear under the Rotor Languages heading. Selecting a language will allow you to change the voice and speech rate associated with that language. Select the language option in the Rotor and swipe up or down to change the voice. VoiceOver will immediately switch the voice and tell you which language has been selected. As a bonus, it is possible to set 2 voices from the same dialect if you wish. For example, you could use one U.S. English voice as your default voice, and set the English U.S. language to use another voice.


Changing VoiceOver speech options

If you wish to customize VoiceOver speech settings, go to Settings>Accessibility>VoiceOver>Speech. From this screen, you can choose the default voice for your language. Many voices have two versions. The compact voice is already installed and can be used immediately. However, it does not sound as good as the premium voice. If you wish to download the premium voice, select the enhanced option next to the voice name and hit the download button. This will download the voice files to your device. Please be aware that this might take some time, depending on the speed of your Internet connection and the size of the voice files. Once this process is complete, you will be able to select the voice and VoiceOver will immediately start using it.

If you wish to change the speech rate from VoiceOver settings rather than the Rotor, navigate to Settings>Accessibility>VoiceOver and adjust the slider under the Speaking Rate heading. VoiceOver will immediately begin speaking with the setting you choose, so this is a really quick way to test the speech rate while adjusting it.

Typing with VoiceOver

There are several ways to type using VoiceOver. If you have a keyboard or Braille display connected, you can type using those hardware devices. For the touch screen, VoiceOver allows you to use the standard onscreen keyboard, handwriting mode, and Braille Screen Input. Handwriting allows you to draw the print characters on the screen, and Braille Screen Input lets you use your fingers to write Braille which is automatically translated to text. Both of these modes must be activated from the Rotor and are beyond the scope of this basic article.

VoiceOver allows you to type on the touch screen keyboard in one of three ways. The first is called standard typing. In this mode, you can swipe to a letter or directly touch it, but it will not be entered until you double-tap. This is the best mode if you would like to have full control over what you type, as nothing will happen until you explicitly choose to type something. Touch typing works similarly to standard typing, except letters are activated immediately when you lift your finger. In order to use this mode effectively, you must slide your finger around the screen until you hear the character you want, and then lift your finger to automatically type it. Direct touch typing functions the way a sighted person would use the keyboard. Any letter that is tapped is immediately entered. Unfortunately, it appears this feature is not working properly in iOS 13.3.1, which is the version used to write this article. It may be fixed in future versions of the operating system. You can quickly change typing modes by adding Typing Mode to the Rotor. Alternatively, you can manually change the mode by going to Settings>Accessibility>VoiceOver>Typing.

Using the Screen Curtain

There may be times when you want privacy while using your iPhone with VoiceOver. VoiceOver includes a feature called Screen Curtain which can be activated by tapping the screen three times with three fingers. This toggles the Screen Curtain on or off. The Screen Curtain turns the display black so that no one can see what you’re doing. Please note that this does not save battery life, it just provides a level of privacy by preventing people from glancing at your screen.

Accessing the Control and Notification Centers

Knowing how to access the Notification Center and Control Center are very important. The Control Center allows you to quickly toggle things like Wi-Fi, Cellular data, and Bluetooth on or off, while the Notification Center allows you to check previously received notifications from Apple and/or third-party apps. Before doing anything, however, you must set focus to an item in the status bar. Touch an area near the top of the screen and VoiceOver should put focus somewhere in this area. Now, swipe down with three fingers to open the Notification Center, or up to go to the Control Center. From that point, use the gestures discussed previously to navigate these screens.

Practicing VoiceOver gestures

If you wish to practice any VoiceOver gesture, perform a four-finger double-tap on the screen. This will enter VoiceOver practice mode. In this mode, you may perform any gesture on the touch screen. VoiceOver will tell you the gesture, as well as its function. When you are finished practicing gestures, perform the four-finger double-tap gesture again to exit and go back to what you were doing. Read more aboutVoiceover gestures on iPhone and iPad here


I hope this article has given you more confidence using your iPhone with Voiceover. While these gestures might seem complicated and confusing at first, you will become more familiar with them as you practice navigating and using your device. After a while, it should be a breeze to use your favorite apps and get the most out of this powerful technology.
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By Kevin Hollington Staff Writer
Kevin Hollington is a seasoned tech journalist based in Los Angeles with a penchant for all things Apple. He started writing about Apple products in 2007 and it’s been a love affair ever since. He has spent over a decade testing and writing about iPhones, iPads, Macs, and other Apple products. In his spare time, he likes nothing more than catching up with the latest news and sports podcasts on the beach.
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