How to Add Subtitles & CC to YouTube Videos — For Free

June 28, 2016 BY EMILY GRIFFIN
Updated: January 4, 2018

Let’s face it: quality captioning subtitling services can be expensive.

Traditional captioning services cost $6-$14 per minute. And even though our prices are a fraction of that, the cost of hiring a professional captioning company may still be prohibitive for some.

If your budget is tight or if you have more time than money, you can create video transcripts and captions yourself — for free!

Here’s how.

How to Turn Transcripts Into Closed Captions in YouTube

Did you know that if you upload a transcript into your YouTube video, it can automatically generate captions?

YouTube uses speech recognition technology that aligns your transcript with the audio and breaks it up into correctly timed caption frames. It does a pretty good job, especially with high quality audio and clearly spoken English. YouTube even lets you export the captions file for use in other applications.

Note: this method only works correctly if the transcript is in the same language as the video. It would not work if you’re adding subtitles in a different language, because YouTube cannot match the transcript dialogue to the audio sounds if the words and sounds are completely different.

Follow these steps to create captions from an existing transcript:

  1. Prepare the transcript file by making sure that it’s a plain text file (.txt) without any special characters like smart quotes. You can force caption breaks by inserting double line breaks. For best results, manually insert caption breaks during long pauses or when music is playing.
  2. Log into your YouTube account. Find the video you want captioned and click on the CC icon button underneath the video player.
  3. Click the Add subtitles or CC button.
  4. Select the language of your captions.
  5. When given options to select a method, choose Upload File.
  6. In the dialogue box that pops up, select File Type Transcript and select the transcript file for your video.
  7. Click Upload.
  8. Next, click Set timings to instruct YouTube to match your transcript with the audio and create captions.
  9. Your captions should be ready in just a few minutes.

video illustration of the above steps for converting a transcript into closed captions in YouTube

How to Create Closed Captions in YouTube

If you don’t have a transcript of your video and its audio quality is not that great, then your best option is to manually type out the transcript by repeatedly listening to the video.

You can expedite this process with free transcription software, like F4 , Express Scribe, or Transcriber.

Once you have a transcript, follow Steps 2-8 above.

However, with good audio quality and clearly spoken English, you can use YouTube’s automatic captions to create a rough draft and then edit where necessary.

A machine-produced transcript will have errors — probably a lot of them. But it is a good starting point and spares you from transcribing the whole video from scratch.

Follow these steps to create high quality captions using YouTube’s automatic captioning function:

Step 1. Download Automatic Captions From YouTube

  1. Log into your YouTube account. Find the video you want captioned and click on the CC icon button underneath the video player.
  2. Click the Add subtitles or CC button.
  3. Click Request Processing. If this button is not showing, then the processing has already been completed (skip to Step 4). Instead, you’ll see a caption option under Published that says English (Automatic). These are YouTube’s automatically generated captions.
  4. Wait for the processing to complete. YouTube advises that it can take up to a few days, but often it’s completed in less than an hour
  5. Click on English (Automatic). Go to Actions > Download > .srt. This prompts a dialogue box to download an SRT format of your caption file. Save it to your computer.
The Easiest Way to Create YouTube Captions
YouTube 3Play Media integration
3Play Media’s round trip integration with YouTube provides an automated workflow for adding captions and subtitles.Your YouTube videos can be processed in a matter of hours and captions will be automatically sent to YouTube and added to your videos.Learn more about YouTube captioning >

Step 2. Edit Automatic Captions

  1. Go to and paste the URL to your YouTube video. Then import the contents of the .SRT file by selecting File > Open Subtitle File and select your SRT file.
  2. Use the Subtitle Horse tool to edit the captions. When your captions are ready to publish, go to File > Export > SRT. Download and save this updated SRT file.

The Subtitle Horse tool is not required, but we find it makes the editing process easier.

If you prefer to edit captions in MS Word, Notepad, or directly in YouTube, that works fine, too.

Note: if you choose to edit YouTube’s automatic captions directly within YouTube, you will not enjoy any SEO benefits from captioning unless you download and reupload the captions as a new file.

Step 3. Upload Edited Captions to YouTube

  1. Log back into your YouTube account and navigate to your video.
  2. click on the CC icon button underneath the video player.
  3. Click the Add subtitles or CC button.
  4. Select your language.
  5. A dialogue box will pop up asking if you want to overwrite the current caption file (the automatic captions). Click Overwrite.
  6. Next, click Upload > Subtitles File, and select your edited .SRT file.
  7. Click Upload. Finally, hit Publish.

Your newly uploaded captions will replace YouTube’s automatic captions.

Turning CC On and Off

To activate captions, viewers need to press the CC button on the video player.

If you are embedding a YouTube video, you can set the captions to be on by default by adding this string to the end of your video URL or embed tag: ?cc_load_policy=1

Captioning Best Practices

When creating your closed captions, consider some of these captioning best practices:

  • Captions appear on-screen long enough to be read (at least 1 second per caption frame).
  • Limit captions to no more than two lines per frame if possible.
  • Captions must be precisely synchronized with spoken words.
  • Identify speakers when more than one person is on-screen or when the speaker is not visible.
  • Use correct puncutation to clarify meaning.
  • Use correct spelling, even for proper nouns and names.
  • Caption sound effects when they are relevant.
  • Identify when speaker uses slang or has a distinct accent.

Free Video Captioning Software

As an alternative to the captioning methods described here, there are a number of free captioning and subtitling programs that are robust and user-friendly.

The most popular programs are Magpie, which is available for Windows and Mac and Subtitle Workshop, which is for Windows only.

More Tips on DIY Captioning

For more advice and resources on creating your own captions from scratch, check out our free whitepaper:

Download free whitepaper: Everything you need to know to transcribe videos & create closed captions in-house

This post was originally published on July 14, 2010 by Tole Khesin as “How to Create Free High Quality Captions with the Help of YouTube” and has been updated.

Read the free report: 2017 State of Captioning.

The closed caption CC icon shown in the middle of a TV.