Do you need to alter the contents of a PDF? The best free PDF editors allow you to make changes to a Portable Document Format file without costing you anything. However, you can’t expect to get all of the sophisticated features you’d get with a paid PDF editor.
Most free PDF editors let you create and edit PDF files which is more than enough functionality for occasional use. Remember though, you can always save a web page as a PDF. If you’re going to regularly create and edit PDF files, then you’ll be better off paying for one of the best PDF editors, which also allow you to combine, sign and convert PDFs to other file formats.
For everyone else, the best free PDF editors provide basic editing and document-creation abilities though sometimes they toss in some surprising extras.
It’s worth noting that not all free PDF editors offer the same features and some really don’t do much at all. However, many allow you to annotate and edit PDF files and a few can even recognize scanned text – all at no cost.
At Tom’s Guide, we’ve tried and used half-a-dozen free PDF editors and compared them to the best PDF editors. These are the best free PDF editors you can get today.
What are the best free PDF editors?
PDF Candy is your best option if you need a free PDF editor as it has many features you’d normally pay for, including excellent text scanning and a number of file-conversion options.
PDFescape runs a close second to PDF Candy as it offers very good annotation and form-creation and editing tools as part of its free service. (There are also two paid tiers.)
Mac users need look no further than the built-in PDF-editing tools that ship with their MacBook or Mac desktop. Preview is built into macOS and includes both image-editing and annotation tools. It should be your first stop if the only thing you need to do is attach an electronic signature to a PDF.
We’ve also tested FormSwift, a good option if you work with forms and Smallpdf, a basic program that does really well when it comes to converting files. Like Preview, Smallpdf is a useful tool for adding electronic signatures to documents.
The best free PDF editors you can use
PDF Candy may be one of the more compelling free PDF editors, mostly because it offers an OCR option not available in other free PDF editors.
While you can't edit the OCR'd text directly within PDF Candy's web-based PDF editor, you can upload a PDF file and have PDF Candy extract text and create a text document, RTF file, or Word document in both .doc and .docx formats.
PDF Candy's tool set is formidable. You can use 44 tools to create or convert PDF files. Additionally, you'll find tools for rearranging pages within a document, adding watermarks, protecting PDF files with passcodes, editing metadata within a PDF file, splitting or adding pages to documents, and extracting images.
All these tasks are as simple as selecting the tool, uploading a document and allowing PDF Candy to work its magic.
When you finish one task on a document, you'll get a list of other tools you can use for different tasks. Once your changes are complete, you can download the edited document or upload a new document to work on. PDF Candy keeps all of your documents in a queue so you can download them all at once after you've finished making changes to them.
While the actual text-editing tools in PDF Candy are as limited as on every other free PDF-editing app, everything else PDF Candy has to offer puts it head and shoulders above the other free options.
PDFescape is an excellent option for online PDF editing. Simple to use and available to anyone with a web browser, PDFescape may be all you need to edit and annotate PDF files.
Previously, PDFescape had a limit of either a 10MB or 50-page PDF file. That 10MB file-size limit remains in place, but you can now edit files of up to 100 pages for free.
PDFescape offers ample annotation tools. You can use the app to fill out forms, create form fields, insert text and web links, highlight text, add sticky notes, redact or strike out text, crop and rotate images, add or remove pages and even lock and encrypt PDF documents.
You'll have to contend with severely limited font options, however. PDFescape offers five fonts, one of which is a generic "signature" font that looks nothing like your own signature. But otherwise, you'll find a lot more tools in PDFescape than you will in the typical, bare-bones free PDF editor.
Apple's Preview application is built into every version of macOS, including macOS BIg Sur. Not only is it capable of working with PDF files, but it also offers a number of other image-editing features. It is the multitool of the image-editing universe, capable of opening virtually any image file you may encounter.
The bulk of Preview's markup capabilities aren't obvious when you first open the app, although you'll find a few basic tools for rotating pages and highlighting text on the basic toolbar.
Preview's full set of markup tools appears when you click a small markup button that looks like a pencil tip located next to the search tool in the Preview toolbar.
Those markup tools include text-selection options; drawing tools you can use to add freehand drawings to a document; a text tool for adding additional text to a document; a tool that adds shapes and notes; and a signature tool that you can use to capture your signature using your Mac's camera, a tablet or your trackpad.
Preview is a solid option for basic PDF editing, and if you own a Mac, accessing Preview's powers is as simple as launching the app.
FormSwift offers a slightly different twist on PDF editing. While it gives you the option to upload and edit PDF files, it also offers a large library of legal and other business forms you can fill in online and download as a PDF file or Word document.
I found FormSwift's offerings to be excellent and well worth a look if you need basic business documents such as 1099s, lease agreements and business meeting minutes.
All of these forms can be filled out online and downloaded once you've added the pertinent information. Or you can download blank versions of the documents and enter information locally on your computer.
For PDF editing, the process is simple. Drag a file to your browser — there's a 10MB max size — then use FormSwift's tools to add new text and images; highlight, redact or erase existing text; and sign documents.
FormSwift's text tools are limited. You have four fonts to choose from, but you can resize those fonts to almost any level you want, and you can also make changes to text colors and styles. You can add a new text field to your document, enter new text and adjust the text, placing it anywhere you want on the document.
But there is no way to make changes to existing text, other than by redacting it. All the other tools work as expected, including a signature tool that lets you sign a document using the keyboard, your mouse or an uploaded image.
Smallpdf's free online PDF editing offering is super-basic, only making it possible to add minor changes to documents.
But you may find Smallpdf's other free features more compelling. These include tools for converting PDF files to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and JPEG. You can also convert each of those file types to PDF.
Basic as it may be, Smallpdf can add pages to or compress existing PDF documents. Additionally, there are tools for adding signatures to documents that are similar to those available with Apple's Preview application on a Mac.
All of this is available with no file-size limitations, but Smallpdf lets you process only two documents per day. If you want to do more, you'll have to upgrade to the Pro plan, which gives you Smallpdf desktop applications as well as unlimited processing.
As with all online PDF editors, you begin using Smallpdf by dragging the file you want to work with directly to your browser window.
For editing PDFs, you have four options to work with: Add Text, Add Image, Add Shape and Draw. You'll note that there are no options to add notes or comments, and no way to highlight existing text. If you need to add annotations or otherwise mark up a PDF document, you should look elsewhere.
Even if the four options offered seem to be enough for you, you'll still feel constrained within each of those tools. Add text, and you have only five size options and no font choices (although you can select serif, sans serif and monotype styles for your single font choice). You're also limited to seven font colors.
While Smallpdf may lack anything beyond the basics for editing PDF files, it's much more appealing for adding electronic signatures, converting or compressing files and merging documents.
How to choose the best free PDF editor for you
Picking the best free PDF editor is a lot like choosing a paid version of a document editor as you first need to identify exactly what you want to do with PDF files and go for the program that offers the features needed to accomplish your goals.
This can be as simple as deciding whether you need a PDF editor that can handle document creation and design or whether you just want a program that allows you to leave comments and suggestions on a PDF.
As this is free software, you should pay attention to any limitations that are imposed on the free tier. Are there restrictions on the size of the documents you can edit or are certain tools locked behind a paywall. If you need access to these tools, then it may be worth paying for those particular features.
If you’re doing your PDF editing on a computer, first check to see if you have built-in software that can handle the job. For instance, Mac users might not realize just how good Preview is at annotating documents and adding signatures to PDFs. You can save a lot of time searching for the best free PDF editor if you already have access to all of the features you need.
How we test free PDF editors
When testing free PDF editors, we use the same process as when we test paid versions. However, we make note of the limitations that can come with free software. We also consider both general PDF editors as well as applications designed specifically for annotations.
When looking at free PDF editors, we use a few different types of documents that comply with file-size limitations. These include text-heavy files, documents with a mix of both formatted images and text and simple documents with text and images inserted in a linear fashion.
While free apps don’t often include features like text recognition, we do test this feature when it’s available. We also try making changes to text, replacing and adding images and adding notations with each product we test.
For more on testing procedures, check out this guide on how we test, review and rate products.