How to change the header margins in Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word’s margin settings cover the entire document, but you can still change the header or footer margins with this simple solution.

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If your organization has conventions for correspondence, you may need to change the margins each time you open a new Microsoft Word document. By default they are set to one inch, but setting custom margins is common. However, these settings encompass the entire document. This means you cannot use the margin settings to change the left and right margins in the header or footer. Although this requires a different strategy, it’s not difficult.

In this tutorial, I will show you how to change the margins in the header of a Word document without changing the margins in the body. I’ll work in the header, but this solution applies to the footer as well. Throughout the document, I will distinguish between the header/footer and the body of the document using the term body.

I’m using Microsoft 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use earlier versions of Word, and Word for the web supports this solution.

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How to access margins in Word

By default, all four margins in a new Word document are set to 1 inch. To see the current margins in the header, double-click the header pane to open it, click the Layout tab, and then click the Page Setup group dialog launcher (Figure A). If your margins are different, don’t worry; Someone changed the underlying Normal template.

Figure A

Page Setup dialog box in Microsoft Word with an arrow pointing to the Margins section
Figure A: The left and right margins of the header are 2.5 cm in all new documents.

These are the same settings you see when you open this dialog box from the document body or footer. This is because the margin settings span the entire document.

How to change the top position of the header

When you open the header, Word automatically displays the options on the Header and Footer contextual tab. This is where you can get a little lost as the header doesn’t have a top or bottom margin setting as Word uses the same margins you set for the entire document. The area between the top of the paper and the header text is one position (Figure B). The same goes for the footer.

Figure B

Header and footer area circled in Microsoft Word ribbon
Figure B: The header has a half-inch top and bottom position.

By default, both positions are half an inch. If you set the Header From Top position to 0.25 (Figure C), Word adjusts the space between the page number and the top of the page. The footer is the same but the position is relative to the bottom of the page.

Figure C

A line between the document header border and the Header & Footer section of the Microsoft Word ribbon
Figure C: Decrease the top position to move the header content further up the page.

To change these settings, simply enter new values. By reducing the top position to 0.25, the page number moves closer to the top of the page. The reverse happens when you increase the top position setting.

It’s important to note that changing the top or bottom position also changes the position of the first line in the body of the document. If you compare the ruler on the left in Figures B and C, you’ll see that the header size has decreased and the content now starts slightly higher.

Adding a new line to the header moves the content in the body down one line. However, this behavior applies whether you change the top position or not. The body of the document contains header content.

There is one more setting you can apply to subtly change the spacing in the header and that is the Before and After Whitespace settings (Figure D). Increasing these settings increases the spacing between lines of text. Consequently, setting these options too high can cause the first line of content to shift in the body of the document. I recommend not resetting them in the header or footer unless necessary.

Figure D

the before and after spacing settings on the Microsoft Word layout ribbon
Figure D: By default, the before and after settings are 0.

Not that you know anything about the header position settings, let’s move on to the left and right margin settings.

How to change the left and right margins of the header

Margins are a section property. This means that you cannot change the left and right margins for the header or footer without also changing them for the body of the document. To work around this behavior, use an indent and aligned tab in the header. You can do this manually or by changing the header or footer style.

The manual method is quick and easy. If the ruler is not visible, click the View tab, and then enable the Ruler option in the View group.

Open the header. You can see the margins and two alignment tabs on the ruler (Figure E). The default alignment tabs only apply to the header. The left and right margins correspond to those of the document.

Figure E

Arrows pointing to the alignment tabs on the ruler in Microsoft Word
Figure E: The ruler shows a tab for alignment in the middle and a tab for right alignment on the right edge.

On the left edge you will see an icon that has three parts and looks a bit like an hourglass. All three components control different parts of the left indent: left indent, hanging indent, and first-line indent. Click and drag the bottom rectangle half an inch to the right and type the text Links.

On the right edge, look for the right alignment tab. At this point, you could set an indent of half an inch from the margin, but instead move the right-align tab half an inch (Figure F) and enter the text Right.

Figure F

Lines connecting the left indent and right alignment tabs in the ruler to the words
Figure F: Move the left indent and right alignment tab.

As you can see in Figure F, moving the left indent and right alignment tab seems to change the left and right margins. However, as you can see on the ruler, both margins are still set to 1 inch. There is no need to remove the center alignment tab, especially if you want to center the content in the header.

It seems a little strange that you can’t change the left and right margins in the header without changing them in the body of the document. However, by moving the left indent and right alignment tab in the header, you can achieve the same results. If you’re using a much older version of Word, you may have to type the right-aligned tab yourself.

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