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How to edit PDFs for free

If you’ve ever had the uniquely irritating experience of trying to open a file in your Google Docs, only to be redirected to a set of apps you can download, you’re certainly not alone.

Unlike, oh, just about any other type of file, PDFs require a dedicated tool to edit — and many require a paid subscription. In the past, Adobe Acrobat was often the best choice for individuals and businesses, but these days, there are plenty of solid options to choose from.

Still, free PDF editors aren’t always easy to find. Some are okay, others feel downright scammy or have limited features and confusing terms of service.

Here, we’ll give you a few options you can turn to next time you need to edit a document.

Why are PDFs so hard to edit anyway?

So, here’s the thing. PDFs are a proprietary file type that was initially owned by good old Adobe.

The reason they exist is, they look and act the same way no matter what device they’re on. Thus, making it easy to share content.

What to look for in a free PDF editor?

  • Content editing
  • Add annotations
  • Security settings
  • Mobile support

What do you need to accomplish?

This might seem like a dumb question, but there are several reasons why one might want to edit a PDF.

  • Do you want to switch formats?
  • Update a photo?
  • Sign a form?
  • Move pages around?
  • Extract individual pages?

Not all PDF editors are created equal. Some support digital signing and text editing, while others add watermarks and limit features.

A note about conversions: If you need to mess around with the formatting, Acrobat might be your best bet, as it tends to be more accurate than the free tools on the market.

Free PDF editors worth checking out

Smallpdf

smallpdf screen shot

Smallpdf is a free online tool designed to help you add text, images, or a signature to a PDF.

What’s nice about this option is, they don’t force you to sign up for an account or pay to remove a watermark and security is a core part of their platform, for free users and paid subscribers alike.

Key features

  • Add text to PDFs
  • Load and save from multiple sources
  • Access from anywhere
  • Secure editing
  • Converts documents to Word

That said, if you edit more than two PDFs in an hour’s time, you’ll need to pay to upgrade to a paid account.

This option is best for people who want to quickly edit forms like W9s or sign a contract here and there. Since you can’t edit existing text, it’s not the best option for anyone who needs to make significant changes to a document.

If that’s you, you might want to upgrade to a paid account, which comes with a whole host of features for $6 a month. What we’re not wild about is, while everything about the features is pretty straightfoward, it’s not clear where Smallpdf draws the line between what’s free and what requires a subscription.

FormSwift

formswift pdf editor

FormSwift’s Free PDF Editor is a simple PDF editor that like Smallpdf’s option, allows you to start editing documents without an account.

The editing process is simple. All you need to do is add the PDF file to the website and select one of the editing functions from the drop-down menu at the top of the page.

Some of the key features you’ll find in Form Swift’s editor:

  • Redact text with a black bar
  • Erase text
  • Insert images
  • Highlight anything on the page
  • Edit images and Word documents (as opposed to a PDF file)
  • Add checkmarks, Xs, or circles

Once you’re satisfied with your handiwork, you can download the file or print it. You can also save it as a Word document, which comes in handy if you need to edit something like an article.

While you can’t edit the text directly, the Word conversion feature is a good workaround for this issue — simply edit the document in Word and convert it back to a PDF when you’re done. Simple.

PDFsam

pdfsam split and merge

If you need a tool that lets you rearrange the contents of an existing document, PDFsam is one of the best options around. The “sam” part of the name actually stands for “split and merge,” which means that you can slice, dice, and rearrange PDFs as you see fit in order to build the document you need.

When you sign up for a PDFsam account, you’ll gain access to their free trial offer, which gives you a taste of the full set of tools included in the lineup. Here, you’ll find a full set of editing tools, plus OCR, secure signing, and more.

The free version does not come with any tools that allow you to alter the content of the document and what your left with is a page management solution.

Key features:

  • Page rotation
  • Extracting individual pages
  • Cut large files into smaller documents
  • Rearranging pages

Okay, if you’re thinking, PDFsam doesn’t perform the same basic tasks you’ll find with the others on this list, that’s totally fair. On its own, we probably wouldn’t recommend PDFsam unless you were planning on using the paid plan.

The benefit of this free version is, this one functionality doesn’t come standard in other free PDF editors so it may be worth stacking with another that allows you to sign documents and edit text.

Sejda

sejda free pdf editor

Sejda PDF Editor is a simple PDF editor that allows you to sign PDFs and edit existing texting, without adding in a watermark. The editing tool offers a free plan with some limitations based on time and volume, but it seems to offer more features than some of the other free plans we’ve mentioned above.

Key features:

  • Load PDFs from other sites
  • Allows you to add hyperlinks to documents
  • Supports e-signing
  • Doesn’t add a watermark
  • Remove pages
  • Rearrange pages
  • Insert shapes and images

PDFelement Pro

pdfelementpro editing view

PDFelement Pro is a free PDF editor that does allow you to edit the text in any PDF, but it will slap a watermark on every single page. The watermark doesn’t take up much space, so if that’s not a deal-breaker, you’ll have access to some pretty great editing tools free of charge.

Key Features:

  • Crop document pages
  • Rotate, insert, extract, delete, and rearrange pages
  • Add a password to the PDF
  • Edit the background of any page
  • Include headers and footers
  • Add images and links
  • Add custom watermarks
  • Edit text
  • Merge multiple files

In many cases, the watermark feature is a deal-breaker. We can’t imagine sending out a contract or a proposal to a new client with the watermark, as it doesn’t give off a super professional vibe. That said, if you need to sign something or edit a one-off doc and there’s no need to make that “first impression,” this PDF editor offers more features for free than most of its competitors.

Wrapping up

 As you can see, there are several options for editing PDF files without paying for an Adobe Acrobat subscription. But, all have some limitations in place as just about every tool out there wants to get more people to sign up for their paid subscriptions.
That said, something like Sejda is only about $7 a month, so those who need more features or do a whole lot of editing may find that a few extra bucks is a small investment for more convenient PDF editing.
Where free editors come in handy is, they can be a real lifesaver for situations where you need to sign a contract – -fast. Or, you need to create a PDF file on a rare occasion. Again, high-volume PDF pros probably need a more robust solution.
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