How to Select and Extract Text from PDF Files on Mac Computers

As a tech writer with over 10 years of experience using Mac computers, I often need to copy text from PDF files for my articles. Selecting and extracting text from PDFs can be tricky though, especially if the PDF contains complex formatting with images mixed in.

In this comprehensive guide, I’ll share my best tips and preferred methods for selecting and extracting text from PDF files on a Mac. Whether you just need to copy a few paragraphs or extract all the text while retaining the original structure, this guide has you covered.

Why Extract Text from PDFs on a Mac?

There are a few key reasons you may want to extract text from a PDF on your Mac:

  • To copy and paste text snippets into other documents
  • To edit or reformat the text in a word processor
  • To extract tables, lists, headings etc. while retaining structure
  • To archive the text content for search and discovery
  • To analyze the text data using Mac apps or scripts

The key is that PDFs display beautifully but can be difficult to copy text from. Converting the PDF to an editable text format gives you much more flexibility.

Challenges of Extracting PDF Text on Mac

Extracting text from PDFs seems like it should be straightforward. But PDFs can contain complex formatting and layouts like:

  • Text wrapped around images
  • Text in narrow columns
  • Scanned documents with no text layer
  • Secured documents preventing text access

These types of PDF complexity can cause issues when extracting text:

  • Text order may not flow logically
  • Formatting like bold and italics will be lost
  • Scanned docs require OCR for text extraction
  • Secured docs need password removal first

So extracting text from PDFs requires specialized software that can handle these complexities.

Best PDF Text Extraction Tools for Mac

There are many PDF apps and online tools that claim to extract PDF text. But in my testing, these three reliable methods work best for accurately extracting text from even complex PDF layouts on Mac:

1. Preview App

All Macs come with the Preview app pre-installed. For basic PDFs, Preview can select and extract text excellently:

  • Open the PDF in Preview
  • Select the text with the Text Select Tool
  • Right click and Copy the text
  • Paste into any Mac app

However, Preview can struggle with complex docs like scanned PDFs. It’s best for clean, editable PDFs.

2. Adobe Acrobat Pro

For handling scanned, secured, and complex PDF files, Adobe Acrobat Pro is the gold standard. With powerful OCR and text manipulation tools, Acrobat can:

  • Extract text from scanned docs with OCR
  • Remove passwords from secured PDFs
  • Export PDF text cleanly to Word or TXT
  • Retain lists, tables, and structure during export

The catch is that an Acrobat Pro subscription costs $15/month. But it’s worth it for regular PDF work.

3. PDFElement Pro

For a budget option, PDFElement Pro costs just $80 as a one-time purchase. It rivals Acrobat Pro in features and performance, with the ability to:

  • Convert scanned PDFs to editable text
  • Unlock secured documents
  • Batch export PDFs to TXT/Word
  • Maintain formatting during export

I find PDFElement to be the best value for complex extraction tasks without an ongoing subscription.

Step-by-Step Guide to Extract Text from PDFs on Mac

With an overview of the best methods and tools, let’s walk through the step-by-step process of extracting text from a PDF using both Preview and PDFElement.

Extract Text with Preview

  1. Open the PDF in Preview
  2. Click the Text Select Tool (A with arrow)
  3. Highlight the desired text
  4. Right click the selection and Copy
  5. Paste the copied text into any app

This works great for clean PDFs. But for scanned or secured files, a tool like PDFElement is needed.

Extract Text with PDFElement

  1. Open PDFElement and add your target PDF
  2. For scanned docs, click OCR to recognize text
  3. For secured docs, remove password in Inspector
  4. Highlight text and copy OR…
  5. Export PDF to Word or TXT to extract all text

And that’s it! PDFElement makes text extraction easy while handling scanned documents through OCR and removing passwords.

Preserving Structure When Extracting PDF Text

A key challenge when extracting text from PDFs is retaining the original structure from the document. Tools like Acrobat and PDFElement have specialized export formats to preserve:

  • Headings: Tagged export formats preserve heading styles and hierarchy
  • Lists: Numbered and bulleted lists are maintained in exports
  • Tables: Table structure is retained during export to Excel or XML
  • Images: Image placeholders show image location in the text
  • Footnotes & Endnotes: Notes export as superscript numbers in text

Activating these output formats requires just a click during the export process. This saves huge time by avoiding manual reconstruction of PDF elements.

Converting Scanned PDFs to Text

Scanned PDF documents present a unique challenge for text extraction, as they contain images without selectable text. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology is required to identify text in images and convert to selectable text.

On a Mac, the best OCR options are:

  • Adobe Acrobat: Powerful OCR built-in. Highest accuracy for clean scans.
  • PDFElement: Integrated OCR with good accuracy. More affordable than Acrobat.
  • Free Online OCR Tools: Can convert scanned docs to text but lower accuracy.

Running OCR on a scanned file is as simple as clicking the OCR button in apps like Acrobat and PDFElement. This adds a selectable text layer over images for easy extraction.

Removing Passwords from Secured PDFs

Locked PDF documents prevent access and copying of text. To extract text from secured files, you first need to remove password protection.

On a Mac, two excellent unlocking options are:

  • Adobe Acrobat: Can remove owner and user passwords from PDFs.
  • PDFElement: Removes passwords and restrictions from locked files.

The process takes just a click, allowing full access to copy and extract text after removing passwords.


I hope this comprehensive guide gives you confidence selecting and extracting text from even complex PDF documents on your Mac!

The key takeaways are:

  • For basic extraction, use Preview built into MacOS
  • Leverage Acrobat Pro or PDFElement for complex PDFs
  • Maintain structure with tagged exports to Word/TXT
  • Unlock scanned and secured PDFs with OCR and passwords removal

With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to cleanly extract text from any PDF file on your Mac. This allows you to easily access and work with the valuable information stored in your PDF document collection.

Let me know if you have any other questions! I’m always happy to help explain techniques for effectively managing PDFs on Mac computers.