Free software for editing PDFs is hard to come by, but there are some excellent tools around if you know where to look.
PDF documents are designed to look and behave exactly the same way on any device. That makes it a brilliant format for sharing, but editing them is another matter. Most office software and photo editors let you export documents in PDF format, but editing requires a dedicated tool. That’s because PDF was initially a proprietary format owned by Adobe, and it still owns some of the technologies associated with it. Other companies can license those technologies, but only for a fee that’s usually passed on to you – the user.
There aren’t many free PDF editors, and even fewer that won’t leave your documents with unsightly watermarks. That’s why we’ve rounded up the very best free PDF editing software that’s free to use and won’t add any unwanted extras to your work.
The best free tool for editing text in PDFs, with built-in OCR
Optical character recognition
Splits and extracts pages
If you need to edit the text in a PDF, PDF-XChange Editor is ideal. It lets you retype, delete, and reformat text, and adapts well if the document uses a font that isn’t installed on your PC. You can also attach comments, split PDFs, and extract pages.
One of PDF-Xchange Editor’s best features is the ability to use OCR to recognize text in scanned documents – ideal if you only have a printout rather than the original file (a handout from a lecture, for example).
Some of the features visible in the menus and toolbars are only available in the premium version of the software – hover your mouse pointer over an icon to find out if it’s included. If you go ahead and use a premium tool anyway (adding polygonal shapes or new text boxes, for example), your document will be watermarked. Look out for a warning message underneath the main toolbar before saving your work, just in case.
Lets you add new elements, including text boxes and images
Lets you add media
Free element is online-only
There are two versions of PDFescape: a free web app, and a premium desktop program. The web app lets you create new text boxes on the page, but not edit existing text – the opposite of PDF-XChange Editor.
You can create simple geometric shapes and, interestingly, add white rectangles to obscure parts of the document – handy if you’re working on a scanned form and need to hide personal information, for example.
The ability to add images is rare among free PDF editors, but PDFescape lets you select a picture from your PC, then drag a rectangle to insert it. You can insert text fields too, enabling you to create simple forms.
3. PDFsam Basic
A simple but well designed PDF editor for quick tasks
Supports splitting and merging
Lets you rotate pages
Some features are time-limited
The latter half of PDFsam’s name is short for ‘split and merge’, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the Basic edition.
You’ll be offered a free trial of the premium version (including full editing, object insertion, secure signing, and OCR), but once that expires you’ll be left with a simple but well designed tool for chopping large documents into manageable chunks, performing a PDF cut-and-shut, or extracting selected pages. You can also use PDFsam Basic to rotate pages, which is very handy if you’ve accidentally scanned a document upside down.
There are no tools for tweaking the actual content of the document, but all of PDFsam Basic’s page-management options are very clearly laid out, and it’s very clear which of the options shown in the main menu are only available in the premium edition.