How to Turn On the Mac’s Scroll Bars

Updated October 9th, 2020.

First thing I do when setting up a new Mac is turn on the scroll bars. I shouldn’t have to turn them on, because they should be on by default… but starting in Mac OS X 10.9, Apple turned them off!

I think Apple was thinking “The iPhone doesn’t have scroll bars, and the iPad doesn’t have scroll bars, and everyone loves the iPhone and iPad. Maybe we should take them away from the Mac too.”

Apple got this one wrong. The Mac should have scroll bars.

Default “scroll bars turned off” situation

See below for a representative picture showing the minimal “no scroll bars” look (this is the “Notes” app but the problem is present in nearly every Mac app):

Apple's Mac Notes app without scroll bars
(Click picture to see full-sized version.)

Can you tell whether there are notes below (or above) the ten that are shown? No, you can’t. You’d have to first TRY scrolling and if there was something below (or above), the scrolling would actually do something (that is, it would reveal more notes, below or above the ones displayed in the window).

If there weren’t more notes to show, you would have wasted a scroll move– sort of like going to the trouble of putting your key in the lock to unlock a door and when you turn the key you realize the door was unlocked already. You feel silly, and you’ve wasted your time.

Using Apple’s default settings (“When scrolling”) the scroll bars will appear as soon as you start scrolling (unless there’s nothing to scroll) but that’s not very helpful. The fact that you have to TRY to scroll in order to see whether you NEED to scroll will inevitably result– at times– in wasted time and effort. That would be an irritation, and it’s all because you can’t tell whether you need to scroll or not without first trying to do it.

Big improvement with scroll bars turned on

Now look at the picture below, with the scroll bar showing.

Mac Notes app, scroll bars showing.
(Click picture to see full-sized version.)

You can see instantly that there must be more notes above the ones that are shown (because the scroll bar– bracketed in red here– is not all the way to the top), and there also must be more notes below the ones that are shown (because it’s also not all the way to the bottom).

You can also tell how many notes are not shown in this window, roughly, by noting that the scroll bar is roughly one-third as long as the window is tall, which means you’re seeing about a third of what there is to see. (If you resized the window– made it taller– more notes would show, and the scroll bar would continue to get longer, until finally every note showed, and with no need for a scroll bar at that point, the scroll bar would simply disappear.)

This is the way scroll bars are meant to work– that is, they shouldn’t require you to move the mouse or trackpad in order to see them. It’s how they used to work before Apple got carried away with simplifying thing.

Here’s how you make things right.

How to change settings in System Preferences to show scroll bars ALWAYS

Turning on the scroll bars is easy. All you do is go to the Apple menu, then System Preferences, then General. Set “Show scroll bars” to “Always.” There, better! See below.

General Preference pane on Mac showing how to set scroll bars to "always on."
(Click picture to see full-sized version.)

You can always change things back but I’m betting you won’t. Try it my way and see for yourself. (It’s especially handy in Safari, as you’ll know whether you’re reading a short page or a long one, simply by looking at the vertical scroll bar.)

This one simple setting will save you time, many times a day. It will also save you the irritation of going to the trouble of positioning the cursor so you can scroll, only to find out there was no reason to do so. Add it up over a year and you’ll be a less irritated person, with a couple of extra hours to spend on something fun.

Note: this one change affects all windows with scroll bars. It’s not something you have to change on an app by app basis. Super-easy, and super-powerful.

First in a series of short blog posts explaining how I use my Mac– shortcuts, techniques, settings, etc. Each post is self-contained but I suggest you read them all.
Also in this series:
How to Make “Recent Items” More Useful

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Copyright 2008-2023 Christian Boyce. All rights reserved.

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19 thoughts on “How to Turn On the Mac’s Scroll Bars

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  1. OMG THANK YOU!!!!! I am about to finally make the leap from Snow Leopard to the current OS having being forced into it, used SL for years because of the Word functionality (like scrollbars) being lost in OS updates – and was getting very uptight about losing the scrollbars (well, don’t get me started on the scrollbar arrows too) but at least this is a small comfort. Didn’t realise that choice was there. Simple but Huge thanks.

  2. I did find the way to set the scroll bars to always, but for some reason it keeps defaulting back to “automatically based on mousepad tracking”An tips on how to avoid this? Came across your page and thought you might be able to help. (OS10.11.6)

    1. That’s interesting. Usually, when a setting doesn’t stick, the trick is “set it to something you don’t want, close up the setting, then come back and change it to what you do want.” See if that works.

    1. Interesting. It works with Safari 11 for me. If it doesn’t work for any app, try toggling the checkbox. If Safari is the only issue, try resizing the Safari window so it is smaller. Maybe the scroll bars will show up after that.

  3. Thank you so much for this suggestion. I’ve had my mid2017 mac just a month and was getting terribly frustrated, especially in Photos! (I’m an Apple or Mac user of 27 years).

    1. (I got my first –and the original– Mac in September 1984)

      You’re welcome!

      So far, no solution to this (seemingly?) simple problem.

      We are but mere end users.

      Who be we to question the gods?

  4. Thank you so much for this suggestion. I’ve had my mid2017 mac just a month and was getting terribly frustrated, especially in Photos! (I’m an Apple or Mac user of 27 years).

  5. I once almost missed a project submission because Safari did not show the submission category that I needed to submit to (in a drop-down menu), there was plenty of vertical space on my screen, but just 4 categories shown, and no scrollbar to indicate that I needed to scroll down for more categories… I totally agree with you this is Apple’s mistake! I just turned on the “always show” thanks to your suggestion. Now let’s hope for the scroll arrows to return!

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