Gestures are the best way to navigate your smartphone—here’s how to start swiping

Go beyond single-finger taps.

Smartphone gestures

Pinch-to-zoom is just the beginning.

If you want to navigate your smartphone at top speed, single-finger tapping just won’t cut it. As device manufacturers ditch physical buttons for huge, bezel-free screens, specific hand gestures have become vital shortcuts for powering through emails, notifications, maps, and more.

But how can you tell when to make specific motions? The correct swipe isn’t always obvious (especially if you’ve just recently upgraded your iPhone to one of the new Home-button-free versions). Here are the gestures you should add to your repertoire.

On an iPhone

Hide the keyboard: When you’re typing a message, but then decide to check something on the lower half of the screen, that keyboard gets in the way. To hide it, swipe down on its top border; then restore it by tapping inside the text-entry box again.

Go back: In certain iOS apps, such as Safari and Messages, a back button appears in the top-left corner of the interface. You can also return to the previous screen with a gesture: swipe from the left to the right edge of the display. This should work in most, but not all, apps.

iOS Messages
In Messages, a gesture will reveal the time of every response. David Nield

See message times: In Messages, you don’t automatically see the arrival time of every response. A gesture can change that. While viewing a conversation thread, swipe left on screen, and the exact timing of each message will appear on the right.

Zoom into maps: When you want to examine details on a map, you have a few different options. The traditional pinch-to-zoom gesture works, but, depending on how you hold your phone and whether you have both hands free, this can be tough to pull off without bobbling your handset. For an easier option, in Apple Maps, double-tap to zoom out and double-tap with two fingers to zoom in. If you prefer Google Maps, double-tap and hold on the map with one finger, then move that digit up or down to zoom in or out.

iOS Calculator
Swipe on the digits to delete them. David Nield

Delete digits in Calculator: In the iOS Calculator app, you can remove one digit at a time by swiping left or right on the main number display at the top. For example, if you’ve typed “8011” when you wanted to enter “801,” swipe left or right on that 8011 to erase the final 1. Then carry on with your calculation.

Select multiple photos: When you use the Photos app for iOS, you normally select multiple photos by hitting Select and tapping each image you want to highlight. For a faster process, tap Select and then swipe across the photos you want to choose.

Save email drafts: You’re composing a missive in Mail when a new message arrives in your inbox. To check the incoming email without losing your work, just swipe down on your draft. This saves it before you navigate away. Once you’re ready to finish writing, pull up your draft by finding it at the bottom of the screen and then tapping it.

iOS Mail
The swipe options in Mail for iOS. David Nield

Speed-sort emails: Speaking of Mail, this app gives you a lot of gestural control. Swipe right to mark a message as read or unread without opening it; swipe left briefly to access a menu of options like reply and forward; swipe left all the way to delete something. You can also change which gesture performs which task in **Settings > Mail > Swipe Options.

Quickly shut up messages: To keep Messages tidy, swipe left on any conversation. This will bring up two options: mute alerts for that thread or delete it entirely.

Power through notifications: Many notifications appear as banners on the lock screen and in the Notification Center. Swipe right on one of these to open it in the relevant app. If you’d rather get rid of it, then swipe left. Once you do this, you can dismiss the notification by tapping Clear, or mute that type of alert by tapping Manage.

iOS Control Center
The iOS Control Center. David Nield

Open the Control Center: The Control Center includes shortcuts for many iOS settings, including rotation lock and Do Not Disturb. To easily pull it up on screen, swipe up from the bottom of the display.

Run a search: To look up anything—whether that’s a contact stored on your iPhone or a Wikipedia article on the web—place your finger in the middle of the home screen and then swipe down. This will bring up a comprehensive search option.

Reach the top of the screen: On larger iPhones, you may have trouble reaching all of the screen with one hand. So shrink it by pulling the top of the screen toward the bottom. First, you need to enable this option by heading to Settings > General > Accessibility and turning on Reachability. Then lightly tap the Home button twice.

New iPhone gestures

In 2017, Apple removed the Home button from the iPhone X, and the iPhones debuting in 2018 are equally Home-less. To cope with these changes, the new models come with new and reconfigured gestures. The following motions will work only on the iPhone X, XS, XS Max, or XR.

Unlock and go home: No home button, no problem—look at your screen and swipe up from the bottom to unlock your phone via Face ID. When your phone is open and you’re using any app, that swiping-up gesture will return you to the home screen.

View recent apps: You can check out recently-used apps on an iOS multitasking screen. To get there, swipe up from the bottom to the center of the screen and hold your finger in place. You can also switch from one recent app to another by swiping right along the bottom of the screen.

iOS recent apps
The recent apps pane in iOS. David Nield

Open the Control Center: On newer iPhones, you can still open the Control Center with a gesture—but it takes a different movement. You now need to swipe down from the top-right corner of the display.

Reach the top of the screen: The screen-shrinking gesture has also changed for the latest iPhone models. First, as you did on the older iPhones, turn on Reachability in Settings > General > Accessibility. Then you can bring the top half of the display down toward the bottom by swiping down on the bottom edge of the screen, or swiping quickly up and then down.

On an Android

Jump to Quick Settings: When you swipe down from the top of an Android’s screen, notifications will pop up. Perform the same downward swipe a second time, and you’ll see the Quick Settings pane, which allows you to quickly access Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, and other settings. If you want to go straight to Quick Settings without viewing notifications first, swipe down from the top of the display with two fingers instead of one.

View open Google Chrome tabs: Speaking of swiping down, when you perform that single-finger gesture on the address bar of the Chrome browser, it will pull up all of your open tabs. Then you can swipe left or right on the bar to jump between tabs.

Android notifications
Notification options in Android. David Nield

Zip through notifications: When notifications appear on the lock screen, you can tap each one to open it. Or, to quickly sort through a long list, do a hard swipe left or right to dismiss individual alerts. If you do a slow swipe left or right, you’ll reveal two icons: Tap the clock to snooze the alert or tap the cog change the notification settings for that particular app. To really cut down on the number of notifications you receive, do a long press on an alert you don’t care about. This will hide that app’s notifications in the future.

Archive messages: In Android’s default Messages SMS app, you only have one swipe option, but it’s a good one: Swipe left or right on a conversation thread to quickly archive it.

Gmail on Android
Swipe options in Gmail for Android. David Nield

Deal with emails: In the Gmail mobile app, like in Messages, you can swipe left or right on a thread to archive it. But you can also edit this setting to make a swipe to perform a different function. Tap the menu button (three lines) on the top left, choose Settings > General settings > Swipe actions, and change the action to Delete, Mark as read/unread, Move to, or Snooze.

Type with one hand: The Gboard Keyboard, which comes standard on Pixel and Android One phones and is available for download on other Android devicess, gives you an easy way to type with one hand: Tap and hold on the comma button, then swipe up to the icon on the right. This will open a one-handed mode with a smaller board so the letters are easier to reach.

Zoom into maps with one hand: As we mentioned in the iOS section, in Google Maps, you don’t have to settle for the usual pinch-to-zoom motion. If you only have one finger free, you can double-tap, hold the digit in place, and then slide it up or down to zoom in or out.

Swipe to uninstall: To uninstall an app, you don’t need to open the Google Play store. Instead, find its shortcut in the app drawer (the master list of apps) or on the home screen. Tap and hold that icon, then drag it up to the Uninstall button at the top of the screen. Tap OK to confirm you want to get rid of it.

New Android 9 Pie gestures

Like Apple, Google has made the latest version of Android more gesture-reliant than its earlier incarnations. If you’ve downloaded Android 9 Pie already, then go to Settings > System > Gestures to switch on your improved swiping abilities. If you have a new phone that comes with the updated operating system, it should have enabled these gestures by default.

Go home with a tap: The new gesture system replaces the usual three navigation buttons with a small “pill” (and some models do still include a back button). To head back to your home screen, just tap the pill.

Recent apps in Android
The recent apps screen in Android. David Nield

Access recent apps: A button for accessing recent apps, called the Overview button, used to show up on the right of the navigation bar. In Android 9 Pie, it has disappeared. Instead, swipe up on the pill button to view your recently-used apps.

Switch between apps: To jump from your current app to the one you were using previously, swipe right on the pill button. You can also return to that first app by swiping right again. This particular gesture is very handy for checking details between apps. To scroll slowly between apps, swipe right on the pill button and hold your finger down. Then move that digit left or right.

Put apps in split-screen mode: You can now perform this task from the recent apps screen. Swipe up on the pill button, then press and hold the app icon at the top. Finally, choose Split screen. Just be aware that this option only appears if the app supports split-screen mode.

David Nield

David Nieldis a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.