How to type pinyin on the iPhone or iPad

It took me a while to figure out how to type pinyin on the iPhone and iPad (iOS). Note that I’m not talking about the pinyin input method used to type actual Chinese characters, but how to type “nǐhǎo”, tone marks and all.

The trick is that you can actually type tone marks with iOS’s Simplified Chinese keyboard. Simply hold down the letter that you want to add a tone mark to and it will pop up variations of that letter with the possible tone marks. fēichánghǎo!

Pinyin tones on iOS's Chinese keyboard.

Of course, this keyboard is normally used to type actual Chinese characters, but once you start adding tone marks, it gets out of the way and doesn’t try to transform your pinyin.

If you haven’t enabled the “Simplified Chinese (pinyin)” keyboard already, you can do so by:

  1. going to Settings ⇒ General ⇒ Keyboard ⇒ Keyboards,
  2. clicking “Add New Keyboard…”, and
  3. choosing “Chinese – Simplified (pinyin)”.

I’m sure this would work with the “Chinese Traditional (pinyin)” keyboard too. You should now be able to switch keyboards using the globe icon near to the left of the space bar.

For a potentially faster alternative, there is a dedicated app out there that looks like it would be good for typing pinyin quickly, but it’s not free and is a separate app rather than a keyboard mode. This means you’d need to switch apps and copy and paste.

Typing pinyin is something I commonly need to do because I like to write up my hand-written notes and printed sheets from my teacher and put them into Evernote. Hopefully this tip will be helpful for other students out there too! Let me know if you have any other tips.

Unfortunately the situation for typing pinyin on Android devices is quite a bit harder to do 🙁

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12 thoughts on “How to type pinyin on the iPhone or iPad

  1. Wayne Wong says:

    Hi, I’m the developer of Pinyin Typist. Thanks for writing on this topic, and for linking to John Pasden’s review of my app!

    Pinyin Typist gives you *dedicated keys* for the tone marks, for “ü”, and for the apostrophe and the hyphen (used often in Pinyin). These dedicated keys are logically and consistently situated, they do not require switching keyboards or tapping-holding/waiting-scanning-sliding/aiming-releasing, and they enter typographically correct characters.

    You can even type out an entire Pinyin final before tapping a tone mark key, and Pinyin Typist will automatically put the tone mark over the right vowel for you (e.g., “ài”, not “aì”).

    I have found that compared to using the default Apple keyboard, typing Pinyin with tone marks using Pinyin Typist is much more like regular typing, with similar rhythm and productivity. It can even feel fun. In contrast, the tapping-holding/waiting-scanning-sliding/aiming-releasing required by the default Apple keyboard slows things down and demands special concentration that gets tiring noticeably faster.

    Also, interestingly, while switching to another international keyboard may theoretically be more convenient than switching to another app, some have found that they actually do not prefer that in practice for typing Pinyin. E.g., John Pasden of Sinosplice said “Pinyin Typist works even better as an app rather than an input method.”

    So, while the default Apple keyboard may be okay for typing the occasional Pinyin vowel with a tone mark, I think that especially for any significant amount of Pinyin typing, Pinyin Typist is still the best way to type Pinyin with tone marks on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. While it is not free, it is not expensive. Many who have tried it really love it, and have found that it is more than worth the minimal cost.

    • Louis Grenzer says:

      OK, I do not understand. If i wanted to type into an application such as Anki flashcards i mus t click on your app. Can i then type directly in to the application or would i have to copy and paste.

      Lou Grenzer

      • Wayne Wong says:

        To take advantage of Pinyin Typist’s superior Pinyin typing environment to quickly and easily produce professional-quality Pinyin text for use in another app:

        1. Launch the fast-launching Pinyin Typist app and use it to type the Pinyin you want.

        2. Copy the Pinyin text you typed there, e.g. by using the fast and convenient one-tap Copy button on the top left of Pinyin Typist’s interface.

        3. Switch to the app that you want the Pinyin text to end up in, and paste it there.

      • Wayne Wong says:

        BTW, please note that Apple simply does not allow third-party developers like myself to install international keyboards on iOS. So, Pinyin Typist was developed as an app that provides the quickest, easiest, most natural, most fun, and most beautifully iOS-native way to type exactly the Pīnyīn you want, with proper diacritical tone marks, on the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod touch. It turns typing Pīnyīn from a pain into a pleasure.

        And, as mentioned above, “interestingly, while switching to another international keyboard may theoretically be more convenient than switching to another app, some have found that they actually do not prefer that in practice for typing Pinyin. E.g., John Pasden of Sinosplice said ‘Pinyin Typist works even better as an app rather than an input method.’ ”

    • There would be an even simpler way to type in pinyin only without the popping up of Chinese characters to chose from. There is a keyboard on Mac desktop which you could intall: formally named US extended, it appears under the name ABC extended (El Capitan). It is very simple to write the proper tones on vowels. opt+a for the first tone followed by the vowel you want to tone, opt+e for the 2nd tone, opt+v for the 3rd tone, and finally opt+tilde for the 4th tone. No need for an app.

      Unfortunately this ABC extended keyboard is not available on IOS. I spoke today with Apple technical support to report the problem. I travel around the world and I recently bought an iPad Pro which I want to test as a substitute to my Macbook Pro. I am fed up of removing my laptop from my carry on to pass the screening and I can do most of what I need with the new iPad Pro, its split screen for multitasking, its Smart keyboard and its pencil.

      There is a potential market for Apple: enable us to download this ABC extended keyboard on our iPhon and iPad

  2. Karin says:

    Thank you it was so helpful 🙂 xièxie

  3. Miguel says:

    Thanks, but is it possible to write pinyin and REMAIN pinyin, instead of be transformed into characters? thanks.

    • mike says:

      Yes, as I mentioned in the post:

      once you start adding tone marks, it gets out of the way and doesn’t try to transform your pinyin.

  4. Sue says:

    That easy? Thank you..just what I needed to know 🙂

  5. Susuapps says:

    I’ve made an app – keyboard extension for typing Pinyin with tones quickly, you don’t need to long press the key, give it a shot: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pinyin-keyboard-type-pinyin/id959310626?ls=1&mt=8

  6. Tim says:

    Beautiful – thank you! thank you!

  7. Some dude says:

    Hey, so I virtually never comment on anything, but I wanted to give you a proper thanks. I couldn’t figure out a way to do pinyin without downloading an additional app, and this totally solved it for me. Thanks for making my flash card deck 100% better.

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