Unless you're editing the next Star Wars trilogy, there's no reason to spend a fortune—or anything, for that matter—on video editing software for your Mac or PC. While we have our picks for the best cheap video editing software less than $100, completely free or freemium editing packages can accomplish most or all of what some of the paid software packages can do.
After testing numerous suites, the best free video editing software overall is HitFilm Express for its lavish cinematic capabilities and high-powered interface. The best free video editing software for Mac owners, Apple's iMovie, is a no-brainer choice, because of its macOS integration, top-notch output, professional themes and trailers, and support for professional shooting and editing techniques.
1. HitFilm Express
The best free video editing software overall
Hitfilm Express is the best free video editing software, as its high-energy style appeals to budding filmmakers who want to put a special touch on a personal event or get creative with a video blog, but it's still easy enough for the adventurous friends-and-family crowd. The one concession you have to make is that you have to give the software maker a shout out on social media in order to download the free app.
New features include animation keyframing in the editor, motion blur, enhanced preview options, a new layout panel, improved masking in composite shots, additional workspaces and new export features.
Other great features include the ability to create your own lightsaber battles, support for 4K video, as well as such features as 3D effects, 360-degree video editing and lens distortion correction from action cameras. Our one quibble is that some features, such as picture-in-picture and animated text require a $9.99 expansion pack.
As with previous versions, HitFilm wasn't the fastest at encoding videos, but that's a trade-off we're willing to make for such an expansive feature set.
Editor's Note: Since our initial review, HitFilm has been updated to version 13.1; improvements include increasing the maximum supported resolution to 4K (4096 x 2160), GPU-accelerated decoding on Nvidia and Intel graphics cards, changes to the interface, and native support for Dolby AC3 audio.
Read our full HitFilm Express review.
2. Apple iMovie
The best free video editing software for Mac users
iMovie is the best free video editing software for Mac users, as it delivers themes, Hollywood-style trailers and video effects with minimalistic panache, a cinematic flair, and deep integration and optimization with the Mac OS. Recent updates tweaked the interface and added Touch Bar support for the latest MacBooks.
While you can now edit and share 4K videos, iMovie lacks features found in other free apps, such as the ability to edit 360-degree video, multicam editing and motion tracking. You also have limited control over output settings.
Because it's so deeply entwined with the macOS, iMovie was one of the fastest apps when it came to encoding video. Once that's finished, it also gives you plenty of sharing options: You can upload directly to YouTube and Vimeo, and share any video frame as an image. When you couple iMovie with iMovie Theater and iCloud, you can also view your creations on any Apple device or via Apple TV.
Read our full Apple iMovie 10.1.8 review.
Great video editing software for beginners and social media
This free video editor makes it a cinch to export your creations to YouTube, Facebook, Dropbox, Flickr, Google Drive and an assortment of mobile devices through a simple pull-down menu. You have to sign in to these services first. And while YouTube uploaded directly to my channel without incident, you may have to save your video to your hard drive with social media specs and then upload to the social network yourself.
Compared to HitFilm's high-energy interface, VideoPad has a simple, soothing look which makes it the best free video editing software for novices. It works with both Macs and PCs and still lets you edit 360-degree video with the same ease as you would traditional movies, though adding text to 360-degree clips can be a bit tricky. VideoPad also lacks some of the advanced features you'll find with HitFilm, like multicam editing, high-end special effects and motion tracking, but you can purchase a number of add-ons to expand VideoPad's feature set.
Our biggest issue with VideoPad was not knowing which features were disabled in the free version versus the trial and paid versions. We found VideoPad to be a bit slower on our transcoding tests than Hitfilm, too. But that may not matter for those looking for an app that they can use to quickly and easily edit video and then upload to the social media outlet of their choice.
Read our full VideoPad review.
4. DaVinci Resolve
Best free video editing software for advanced enthusiasts
DaVinci is the best free video editing software for those who are more advanced. A powerful pro-level, cross platform app, you’ll want to use a system with discrete graphics to get the most out of this video editor.
The latest version of DaVinci incorporates Fusion, previously a stand-alone application, which brings with it four high-end video-production modules for editing, color correction, audio production, and video effects and motion graphics. This video editor is quite powerful, but has a bit of a learning curve. If its 256-page manual doesn't intimidate you, high-level enthusiasts will find a lot of tools at their disposal.
Editor's Note: DaVinci Resolve 16 is now available, and includes such new features as facial recognition, fast export to YouTube and Vimeo, and 3D audio.
Read our full DaVinci Resolve review.
A Windows-only free video editor with some good features
VSDC is not bad for basic edits, but its interface has a learning curve, and it lacks some popular features, such as the ability to edit 360 video. VSDC's basic version is free, though If you upgrade to the pro version for $20 (good for one year for two machines), you get additional features such as technical support, a full multimedia suite, advanced settings, hardware acceleration, sub-pixel resolution, a masking tool, chroma key functionality and a visible audio waveform.
Read our full VSDC review.
A powerful cross-platform free video editor, with a steep learning curve.
Shotcut is a free, open-source, cross-platform video editor for Windows, Mac and Linux that works with a variety of formats and with resolutions. The platform-agnostic Shotcut appeals to prosumer and enthusiast filmmakers with its broad format support and abundant audio and video effects and editing features. However, its steep learning curve might be a bit much for novice users.
Read our full Shotcut review.
What to look for in free video editing software
The definition of free: There's free and then there's freemium. Some software, like iMovie, is genuinely free. But just as some video-editing packages are sold in tiers — with more-expensive versions offering more and expanded features — a freemium video program may just be the lowest level of a paid version. Or it may be a trial version that hobbles the end product in various ways, like putting a huge watermark on your video or limiting output formats.
But there are variations on this theme. HitFilm, VideoPad, DaVinci Resolve and VSDC, for example, offer paid versions with high-end features that most consumers probably won't miss, but otherwise allow for full use of the basic program.
Another hidden "cost" is periodic or even constant in-line advertising or reminders that an upgrade is available. Our favorite program, HitFilm, never pushes an upgrade on you, but it makes you go through a social media and authorizing song and dance to download the product or switch computers. VideoPad (on the Mac) makes you verify at every launch that you are using the free version for noncommercial purposes.
Both DaVinci and VSDC mix paid features in their basic programs, but they do not explicitly mark these features as such. However, if you try to use them, you'll get an error message and an ad. We can't fault the software companies for trying to get users on board with paid versions, but just be warned that such annoyances are the hidden cost of otherwise-free video apps.
Those looking for a powerful editor with a huge variety of built-in resources and responsive technical support may be better off dropping some cash on a consumer video-editing program, like Adobe Premiere Elements, CyberLink PowerDirector and Corel VideoStudio. However, first consider trying out software such as HitFilm Express, VideoPad, DaVinci Resolve or VSDC, which offer all of the basics for free, and then purchasing additional features à la carte or simply upgrade as your experience and needs grow.
Basic features: The watchword with free apps is often which one offers the best combination of technically complex software for which you would otherwise have to shell out the big bucks. All video editors should, at the very least, have some combination of familiar features like a viewer or playback window, library, timeline, and access to transitions and effects.
Tech support and documentation: One of the big distinctions between paid and free software is the level of documentation and tech support; paid software has more-explicit and -detailed documentation and guides than the free versions. That said, many software packages post instructional videos of the most popular features to YouTube, and more-complex free packages may offer extensive documentation.
Many independent vendors, who are often sole proprietors in charge of the software, make themselves available to users via social media and email to assist with problems, troubleshoot, take suggestions and criticism, and otherwise oversee the software. Programs with intuitive interfaces and tool-tip hints, and even built-in tutorials to greet new users, make free software popular.
System requirements: Many free software packages technically serve most consumer hardware systems with integrated graphics, as opposed to more-powerful discrete graphics cards. If you have a consumer machine like a MacBook or a Windows laptop with integrated graphics, make sure your machine is powerful enough to run them efficiently.
Export options: Another area where free meets inconvenience may be at the tail end of the project, when you want to export your video, only to discover that the free version will not output to your desired format. Before you start using a free package, make sure that it will save your video to the platform and resolution you need, whether your video will eventually wind up on YouTube or on a Blu-ray disc.