Fortunately, there are some effective workarounds. If you're using Microsoft Windows, by far the most common operating system, the best way to type Spanish characters — especially if you'll be doing it often — is to install software that configures your keyboards with an international character set. (This configuration is also useful if you're using German, French or most other European languages.)
This page covers installation of the international keyboard software in Windows, and the following page provides information for workarounds you can use if you seldom type in Spanish or if you're using someone else's computer system.
Installing the international keyboard in Windows XP: From the main Start menu, go to the Control Panel and click on the Regional and Language Options icon. Select the Languages tab and click the "Details..." button. Under "Installed Services" click "Add..." Find the United States-International option and select it. In the pull-down menu, select United States-International as the default language. Click OK to exit the menu system and finalize the installation.
Installing the international keyboard in Windows Vista: The method is very similar to that for Windows XP. From the Control Panel, select "Clock, Language and Region." Under Regional and Language Options, pick "Change keyboard or other input method." Select the General tab. Under "Installed Services" click "Add..." Find the United States-International option and select it. In the pull-down menu, select United States-International as the default language. Click OK to exit the menu system and finalize the installation.
Using the international keyboard with the "right-Alt" method: The international keyboard provides two ways of typing special characters. The method I have found easier involves pressing the right-Alt key (the key labeled "Alt" on the right side of the keyboard, usually to the right of the spacebar) and then another key simultaneously. To add the accents to the vowels, press the right-Alt key at the same time as the vowel. For example, to type á, press the right-Alt key and the a at the same time. If you're capitalizing to make Á, you'll have to press three keys simultaneously — the a, right-Alt and the shift key.
The method is the same for the ñ — press the right-Alt key and the n at the same time. To capitalize it, also press a shift key.
To type the ü, you'll need to press right-Alt and the y key.
The inverted question mark (¿) and inverted exclamation point (¡) are also done similarly. Press right-Alt and the 1 key (which also is used for the exclamation point) for the inverted exclamation point; for the inverted question mark, press right-Alt and the question mark key at the same time.
The only other special character used in Spanish but not English are the angular quotation markets (« and »). To make those, press the right-Alt key and one of the bracket keys (usually to the right of the p) simultaneously.
Using the international keyboard with the "sticky keys" method: This method can be used to make the accented vowels. To make an accented vowel, press the single-quote key (usually to the right of the colon key) and then, after releasing the key, type the vowel. To make the ü, press the shift and quote keys (as if you were making a double-quote) and then, after releasing the key, type the u.
Something that takes getting used to when using the international keyboard configuration is a result of the "sticky keys" method. When you type a quote, initially nothing will appear on your screen until you type the next character. If you type anything other than a vowel (which will show up accented), the quote mark will appear followed by the character you just typed. To type a quote mark, you'll need to press the quote key twice.
Note that some word processors or other software will not let you use the key combinations of the international keyboard because they are reserved for other uses.
The next page looks at some more-cumbersome methods you can use if you don't have the international keyboard installed.