Keyboard access to the Windows taskbar

[Edited 2011-03-31 to fix a typo.  Also note that WIN+T in Windows Vista/Windows 7 will set focus to the first taskbar item]

[Edited 2004-01-29 to fix mistakes]

Windows 95 introduced the “taskbar.”  Designed to remind users what programs were running and to provide a single STARTing point, it was intuitive and original1.

I didn't join the Windows team until late in the development cycle and there was no keyboard access to the taskbar, often known as the “tray“.  With Nashville, the codename for shell-intergrated Internet Explorer, the taskbar code was completely rewritten and given basic keyboard access.

The taskbar is really a series of sections.  At a minimum, there will be three sections.  The first is the Start button, the second is the series of open windows commonly known as the taskbar.  The next section will be the taskbar notification area, which includes the clock and any notification icons, like the Volume control, and Dial-Up networking status.

Normally, the taskbar doesn't have focus - one of the open windows does.  There is no direct keyboard shortcut to the taskbar, but there are a couple of ways to get it focus.  The first is to open the Start menu by pressing it's shortcut.  That would be the Windows key, or CTRL+ESC for keyboards without a Windows key.  The Start menu will appear and have keyboard focus.  You can use the arrow keys to move around the menu and press Enter to select an item.

To set focus to the taskbar, you can press ESC to dismiss the Start Menu.  The keyboard focus will then be placed on Start button.  Notice the faint dotted rectangle indicating focus. Pressing Space or Enter will open the Start Menu again.  Pressing the Context Menu key or the older SHIFT+F10 shortcut will present the shortcut menu for the Start Menu.

With the focus on either the Start Menu itself, or the Start button, pressing the TAB key will move focus to the next section.  This maybe the Quick Launch toolbar, or the buttons representing open windows.  Each acts like a toolbar, and you can move between the items with arrow keys.  Pressing Space or Enter activates the item just as if you clicked on it.  Similarly, pressing the Context Menu key or SHIFT+F10 will present the menu for that item.

Pressing TAB again moves to the next section - either an enabled toolbar or if none, the tray notification area.  The focus will be placed on the first icon.  Unlike a toolbar however, the tray icons have three methods of input - primary (left) click, secondary (right) click, and primary double-click.  When keyboard focused, pressing Space performs the same action as primary click, while the Enter key is the same as a primary double-click.  The Context Menu key or SHIFT+F10 would do the same as a secondary click, normally presenting a context menu for the item.

To see this in action, play around with the Volume icon.  It's disabled by default in Windows XP, you might have to enable it first.

A single click on the Volume icon presents the volume slider control.  When focused, the slider will appear after pressing Space.  A secondary (right) click produces a context menu with two items, “Open Volume Control“ in bold letters and “Adjust Audio Properties“.  The bolded item indicates the default action when the icon is double-clicked. To replicate the double-click, press Enter and the full Volume Control appears with several sliders.

The notification icons are always the last section.  If you press TAB while on any icon, focus is given to the desktop.  Note that focus is actually on the Desktop itself since no icons are selected.  Pressing Context Menu or SHIFT+F10 here gives you the (in)famous desktop menu.  Pressing Space will select whatever icon has focus.

Pressing TAB while focus is on the desktop will move focus to the next toolbar is enabled (such as Address bar docked to one edge of the screen).  If no other toolbars are enabled, focus will be given to the Start button and the cycle is started over.

Basically, if you are a keyboard-only user, the taskbar has full functionality available.

There is one piece of functionality I didn't demonstrate, and that's the ability to turn on or off other Toolbars.  That can ONLY be done from the taskbar context menu.  Usually the cursor is placed over a empty area of the taskbar and a secondary click is done.  A Toolbars sub-menu lists those installed.  To get to the taskbar context menu, you have to get the focus on the clock and press the Context Menu key.

If you want to play around with the keyboard, note that the taskbar can be moved and resized by the keyboard.  Press ALT+Space to activate the system menu.  Choose Move and press the arrow keys towards the new screen edge the taskbar should dock to.  Nothing will appear to happen at first, but as you get near the screen edge, the taskbar will snap from it's old location to the new one. Press Enter when finished to exit the Move or Size operation.

The keyboard access to the taskbar and desktop is hardly optimal, but fits with Windows overall keyboarding scheme.  When other toolbars are enabled, quirks get into the mix, so I can't recommend them.  For those users who are forced into keyboarding only due to physical or machine limitations, this functionality can be very useful.


1 No, the Apple menu bar does not count.  Ever try figuring out what other programs are running on a Mac?  Maybe it's easier now with OS-X.


  • Surely the context menu shortcut key is Shift+F10, not ALT+F10.

  • Surely you are right. Since my laptop doesn't have the Windows or Context Menu keys, I use SHIFT+F10 all the time. I've edited the post, thank you!

  • Thank-you . This was exactly the information I was looking for ; how to get keyboard access to the desktop menu (toolbar) on the main system taskbar (toolbar?) . My desktop is normally so cluttered I can't get to the shortcuts on my desktop without moving things around. My google search with 'windows 2000 toolbar desktop "shortcut key"' brought me here. Thanks again.

  • hello. perhaps you can help: while i can indeed go from start button to taskbar to quick launch bar------ i am simply unable to jump from there to the system tray (some write that despite the lack of visible selection the focus is there, but NOT IN MY CASE)----- the focus then jumps to the desktop. i am using win 98 and no matter what i try, the focus skips the system tray... what could be the trouble?!


  • Windows 98 didn't support focusing the system tray icons. That started with Windows 2000. When I say "system tray icons" I mean the area of the taskbar that includes the clock and small icons, AKA notification icons.

  • if you want to jump directly to the tray, Win+B will do it for you... Deen 24/01/2008 20:24:26

  • Thanks for the tips. I have never really been the greatest person when it has come to using windows. I always have liked using a mac more and know that it really can be a lot easier to understand and use than a PC, but I am trying and doing what i can. Hopefully I'll pick it up.

  • Win + T sets focus to task bar in Win7.

  • Thanks Cato, I knew about WIN+T, but forgot about this blog article. I've updated it.

  • When minimizing Windows Media Player to the taskbar (as a mini player) it seems to be not accesable through the keyboard. I can get focus on open folders, etc.. using WIN+T, and use the arrow keys to move between items, but it skips the media player. An oversight?

  • I get slightly different behavior than Muzak. Pressing WIN+T and then using the arrow keys allows me to focus WMP taskbar icon. Pressing Space or ENTER restored the window.

    The special button (back, play/pause, and forward) buttons shown when Aero is running, aren't keyboard accessible.

    This is specific to Windows 7, with Aero Effects enabled (not the Basic or Classic themes.

  • On Vista (with Aero) it totally ignores WMP it seems. With focus on taskbar, hitting TAB goes from taskbar to system tray (with WMP sitting inbetween them), again ignoring WMP.
    Good to hear it does work on Win7 though.

  • On a related note, I did find that WIN+G sets focus to the Sidebar :)

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