Two experiments assessed the impact of word familiarity on visual search for phrases. Participants' eye movements were recorded while they memorized target phrases and then searched for them within more or less similar phrases. The phrases were written with either familiar or unfamiliar, neuroscience-specific vocabulary. Most participants did not search for the target by reading lines in a systematic way but scanned the first words of phrases to identify those beginning with the same words as the target. Visual search for unfamiliar target phrases was associated with an increase in the number of non-target phrases that were scanned. The only search phase during which fixation durations depended on word familiarity was the final recognition of the target phrase. Hence, the data support a model of search within menu-like displays in which searchers primarily rely on fast, visual match mechanisms and engage in reading-like processing only during the critical decision-making phase. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.