If you want to edit a PDF or fill in a PDF form, you may be thinking that your only option is to print it out, fill it in with a pen and then scan it and send it back. Luckily it’s not necessary to go to such lengths. There are free apps that make it easy to edit text in a PDF, including adding your signature, adding comments, and redacting information. You can also combine lots of PDFs, rotate pages, reduce the size, and even convert PDFs to Word, Excel and other file types. Plus, it doesn’t have to cost a thing.

Here we look at a collection of PDF apps that are either completely free, or have a free trial version with a lot of the necessary functionality for a one-off PDF editing requirement.

We'll be covering the following:

  • Apple Preview (Free with macOS)
  • Adobe Reader DC (Limited free version)
  • PDFelement 7 Pro (Free Trial)
  • PDFExpert for Mac (Free Trial)
  • FindReader Pro for Mac (Free Trial)

Some of these apps do certain things better than others, so the best PDF editor for you will depend on what your particular needs. For example, if you want a PDF editor that can use OCR (optical character recognition) to read the text on a page you have scanned, and allow you to edit it, we have an option that can allow you to do that. Alternatively, if you are looking for a PDF editor that’s simple to use and flexible enough to let you fill in a form without pulling out your hair, we have one below. We have even found a PDF tool that will let you import a PDF into Word (or Pages) and edit it there.

We have looked at the following features and abilities of the PDF Editors reviewed here:

Import: How faithful to the original PDF is the PDF editor? Does it maintain fonts and spacing? Can you open the PDF in Word, Excel etc?

Editing: Can you select text from the original PDF? Is the new text added in a separate text box?How easy is it to edit and delete content from the PDF? Can you move content around? Does the text you add maintain the style and formatting of the original PDF? Can you add hyperlinks or attach documents? Can you add images?

Collaboration: What markup tools are available? Can you highlight, underline, or strikethrough text? Can you use freehand drawing tools and an eraser. Can you add stamps? Can you track who reads and edits?

Signing: Can you add a signature? Is this signature scanned, imported, or typed? How many signatures can you save?

Saving: Can you resize the PDF? Can you stitch pages from multiple docs? Can you delete pages? Can you rotate pages?

Find & Replace: Can the PDF editor search the PDF? Can you find and replace words? Can you redact words?

OCR: Can the PDF editor read a scanned page - and can you edit that?

Watermark: Does it add a watermark? Can you add your own watermark?

Don't forget that macOS comes with some PDF editing capabilities of its own in Preview, and you can read a bit more about how to work with it in tips for using Preview to edit a PDF on a Mac.

Preview

Preview

There is a free PDF editor already available on your Mac and it's pretty good. It’s got some limitations but it's likely to offer enough tools for you if you just need to fill in some responses to questions on a PDF.

You can use Preview to add text (in text boxes), you can change the size, colour and font you use. It can be a bit fiddly to get the text box to line up with the text on the page, but it’s not impossible.

You can also perform actions like strike-through - initially we used the line shape, but then we discovered that it is possible to select strike-through from the menu (Tools > Annotate). You can also underline text the same way. It turns out these options are also available from the highlighter palette.

Under Annotate in the menu are options for adding a speech bubble. You can also add comments in the form of sticky notes.

Our spellings were checked as we typed - indicated by the usual squiggly line.

It’s easy to add or delete pages from a Preview pdf. Just click on the bar on the left-hand side to shuffle pages. It is also easy to rotate pages, rearrange their order or combine two different PDFs into one document.  

You can export your PDF as a JPEG, TIFF, but there are no options for exporting to other apps, such as Word or Pages.

Adding a signature was simple, with three options for doing so: using a trackpad, iPhone or iPad, or by signing your name on a piece of paper and holding it up to the camera. You can save multiple signatures. We have a guide to adding a signature to a PDF here.

As we said above, Preview offers enough features if all you need to do is enter a bit of text and sign a PDF. So if you are trying to fill in an application form or filling in a few yes or no checkboxes, it’s likely to be sufficient. Those wanting a little more flexibility may find that Preview might not have enough features... in which case we have some options below that might prove more tempting.

Before you look at those, be sure to also read our full guide to using Preview on the Mac.

Acrobat Reader DC

Adobe Reader DC

Acrobat Reader is free but some of the features aren’t - to access them you would need to move to the Pro tier that comes with a monthly, annual or prepaid annual subscription (it’s £25.28/$24.99 a month if you don’t commit for the year, £15.17/$14.99 a month otherwise, and £181.10/$179.88 for the full year when you pay up front).

However, there are a lot of features that are available for free. You’ll find these in the Comment and Fill & Sign sections.

To add text to the PDF choose Fill & Sign. Here you will also find the options to add a tick or a cross, a circle, or a line. The signature option is here too, we’ll look at that in more detail below.

Comment options include the ability to add a speech bubble, highlight, underline, and strike-through words. In fact, you can strike-through and add a related comment. All your comments will appear in the sidebar on the right.

There are also tools here to draw and erase what you draw. A stamp tool with options like Approved, Revised, Confidential, Sign Here, and the option to import your own (these need to be in the PDF format, but it could be a way to add an image).

When adding a signature you have options to Type, Draw (using a mouse or trackpad), or Image. If you opt for the latter you could import a scan or photograph of your signature - you can import any image this way, but it will appear translucent, with the background appearing behind it as you can see from our illustration.

Acrobat Reader offers enough features to make it worth the download. It can be a tad annoying when it looks like you need to get a subscription to use features that it turns out can be performed without signing up, so beware of this before you spend.

PDFExpert for Mac

PDF Expert (macOS)

PDFExpert for Mac from Readdle also did a good job of maintaining the fonts, style and formatting of the original PDF.

There are two options for editing that you can find in the menu at the top of the page: Annotate and Edit. Under Annotate you will find the tool to easily add text to the PDF. You can choose the font and colour of the text here.

However, you will find the better editing tools under Edit. Here you have the option to edit text, add images, add hyperlinks, and redact sensitive information (you can choose to black out names, or you can search for a specific word and delete every occurrence of that.)

We were able to select text and move it around the page. But as we found with all the PDF editors here, it wasn’t possible to drag and drop text between pages (to get around this we were able to cut and paste though and still make a good-looking document).

Back to the Annotate tab. Here you will find options to highlight, underline, or strike-through text, as well as a pan tool that means you can draw freehand in any colour, as well as change the line width and opacity. There’s also a crop tool here. In Annotate you can also add sticky notes and stamps (e.g. an Approval). You’ll see a column of existing annotations on the left so its easy to see what edits have been made and when. These annotations can be exported as HTML, text or markdown.

Adding a signature is also done via the Annotate tab. You can add more than one signature and these are added via the keyboard, trackpad, or an image. To add the signature to your PDF just drag and drop from the signature pane. You an also add a watermark yourself, perhaps your company logo, rather than having one added for you as is the case with some of the other trials looked at here.

Resizing a large PDF was easy thanks to a High/Low slider that indicated the size of the resulting file. There was also the option to merge files, combine multiple documents into one PDF, or individual pages from multiple documents.

We had one PDF that was scanned on our iPhone via the Notes app (we explain how to scan a document with an iPhone here). Obviously such a document will only be recognised by the PDF editor if the editor has OCR abilities that are unlocked in the trial. PDFExpert couldn’t do this so we weren’t able to edit the text in the scanned document, although we were able to add hyperlinks to sections of that document. Obviously we couldn’t search the scanned document, or edit the text there.

We were able to search normal PDFs though, and we were able to search for a word and redact every occurrence of it either by blacking it out, or deleting it.

About the only thing we couldn’t do was export the PDF into Word or Excel, but the software was so intuitive that wasn’t really an issue here since the PDFExpert software is so easy to use.

Of course this is a seven-day trial, so if you need the software for longer than that and don’t want to pay up then you would have to look elsewhere. But if you need something long term this would be a good buy.

FineReader Pro for Mac

ABBYY FineReader Pro

This is the app to try if you want OCR (optical character recognition) capabilities. However, we nearly didn’t realise how deep the capabilities of this app went because the results can be a little hit-and-miss. Actually, the capabilities of the 30-day free trial version are pretty impressive, as long as you are willing to accept that it might not always do a great job of translating what it ‘sees’.

We discovered this when we imported our PDF and were greeted with a warning to “Please re-scan your document at a higher resolution”. Given the PDF we were imported hadn’t been scanned we were a little confused by this. Then when we exported the ‘scan’ to Word we saw a warning that some of the pages had not been recognised. The resulting Word document (actually we opened it in Pages) was a little muddled, some of the translations were laughable. But the general content had come through well enough for us to be able to correct the mistakes.

Now, this probably wouldn’t do for you if you wanted to edit a straightforward PDF - if that’s the case use one of the other apps. However, if you had scanned text from a book or a printout and you wanted to edit that then this is the app for you.

As we mentioned earlier, we had a scan we had taken with our iPhone camera via the Notes app and we were able to get FineReader to ‘read’ this and open it as a Word document, which we could then edit. Sure, there might be a few words that are wrong, but it’s got to be better than typing the whole thing out.

Once in Word (or Pages), you can edit the document as much as you like. We did see a warning that fonts were missing, and there was a strange case of paragraph formatting that caused the text to wrap to the next line as if it was in a box, but it was a good effort we thought.

As for collaboration and editing you have all the tools that are available in the app you end up opening the document in, be that Word, Pages, Excel, PowerPoint or something else.

It might not be spot on every time, but the fact that we were able to scan a document and export it to Word where we could edit it, was a real bonus.

PDFelement 7 Pro

PDFelement 7 Pro

Wondershare has recently updated its PDFelement app to version 7, bringing with it a streamlined interface and additional capabilities that make it a fine choice for those who want pro level features at an affordable price. 

With the software you can create new PDFs from scratch, convert Word, Excel or Powerpoint files, as well as quickly producing forms that can be used online, replete with dropdown menus. 

Editing is straightforward, with tools for adding text or comments, annotating images and documents, plus the standard option of inserting a signature created on the trackpad. There's also OCR capabilities that make it easy to scan in documents and have them converted into usable PDFs in minutes. 

PDFelement 7 is a comprehensive package with an interface that's simple and intuitive . To give it test run you can take advantage of the free trial but this is restricted by the inclusion of a watermark on all saved files, only able to open a maximum of three page PDFs, and no saves for files created via OCR.

To remove these you'll need the full Pro license which costs £60/$79 per year or £92/$119 for a perpetual license. 

For more tips, take a look at using PDFelement Pro on a Mac.