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Best free PDF editors 2020: edit PDF documents the easy way

The best free PDF editors
(Image credit: Shutterstock)
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The best free PDF editors can edit PDF documents the easy way.

A free PDF editor will let you modify images and text in PDF files without the need to convert them to a different format or pay for expensive dedicated software, and we've rounded up five of the very best options right here.

Whether you’re using them for business, school, or general use, PDF files are a fantastic way to share information. The great thing about PDF documents is that their content doesn’t change no matter what kind of program you use to open them or what device you’re viewing them on. This makes PDF documents ideal for important information that could be open to misinterpretation if the document’s style or formatting was changed.

The one problem is that there aren’t very many free PDF editors. This is because Adobe, the original creator of the PDF format, actually still owns some technologies associated with it. Adobe charges software manufacturers a fee for working with PDFs which is why most programs can save documents in the PDF format but can’t edit them. 

Because there aren’t all that many free PDF editors out there, it can be challenging to know which is the right one to use. That’s why we decided to put together the definitive list of the best free PDF editors, which you’ll find below. 

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The best PDF editor right now is: Adobe Acrobat Pro DC
It's not free, but if you need to edit and create PDFs professionally, Adobe Acrobat Pro DC is the software for you. It gives you total freedom to create new PDFs from scratch and edit existing documents without fuss, on desktop or mobile.

The best free PDF editors:

  1. SmallPDF
  2. PDF-XChange Editor
  3. PDFescape
  4. Sejda
  5. PDFsam Basic

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(Image credit: SmallPDF)

1. Smallpdf

A handy cloud-based free PDF editor

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux (in browser)

Powerful range of tools
Cloud-based
PDF to Word converter
Limited free trial

With Smallpdf’s Edit PDF tool, you get a simple user interface that allows you to add text and image content to your PDF files. This platform also offers simple e-signing, and the ability to add comments and highlights to information already stored in your PDFs. 

The Smallpdf system actually contains lots of other PDF modification tools too. Along with the editor function, there’s a variety of options to convert PDFs into easier-to-edit formats such as Word and Powerpoint files, and you can save space by merging individual PDF documents into a single file. 

But the best thing about Smallpdf is that it’s a cloud-based platform. In other words, you can access it from any supported device simply by visiting the Smallpdf website and dragging-and-dropping a PDF into your browser.

Don’t be thrown off by the prompts to begin a 'free trial' – you only have to do that if you want to install the Smallpdf Desktop program for offline editing.

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(Image credit: PDF-XChange)

2. PDF-XChange Editor

Another superb tool for editing text in PDFs, with built-in OCR

Operating system: Windows

Optical character recognition
Text editing
Splits and extracts pages
Watermarks documents

PDF-XChange Editor is a free PDF editing program for Windows computers developed by Tracker Software. The interface is a little more complex than that of the Smallpdf editing suite but gives you easy access to plenty of helpful features such as a stamp option for marking documents as 'Expired' or 'Approved'. 

 But for most users, the main reason to use PDF-XChange Editor is the fact that it comes with inbuilt Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This means that if your original PDF document is a photocopy, PDF-XChange will still recognize the text and allow you to edit it. Also, PDF-XChange Editor lets you reformat text, and even convert it into fonts that aren’t already loaded on your computer. 

And like Smallpdf, you can use this platform to merge or split individual PDF files. The only serious downside of this powerful editor is that, if you haven’t signed up to the Pro version, a small 'Created with PDF-XChange Editor' watermark will be added at the bottom of any PDF files that you export. 

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(Image credit: PDFescape)

3. PDFescape

Ideal for editing smaller PDF files

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux (in browser)

No account necessary
Easy document merging
10MB file size limit
Desktop editor is paid-only

With PDFescape, you can either edit online or through a desktop application. The desktop application is the more powerful of the two as it supports edits to pre-existing PDF content and allows you to scan paper documents. However, only the online version of PDFescape is free to use.  

All the same, you get plenty of useful PDF editing options with PDFescape online such as the ability to make freehand notes and a tool for adding clickable URL links to your documents. You’ll also find that it’s pleasingly easy to add, rotate, and annotate pages with the in-browser version of PDFescape.

The only major flaw of this free PDF editor is that you can’t upload documents that are larger than 10MB. A regular A4-size PDF page only takes up about 100KB of data though, so this shouldn’t cause a problem unless you’re editing a book-length document.

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(Image credit: Sejda)

4. Sejda

PDF editing with a slick interface in the cloud

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux (in browser)

No account necessary
Simple interface
File size limits
Premium is expensive

PDF files are a good way to store professional or financial information, which means that their contents are often sensitive. Sejda is a free online PDF editor that you can trust with important documents because all uploaded files are wiped from its servers after five hours. 

Aside from security, Sejda is a good choice if you are after a free PDF editor with a user-friendly interface. Sejda’s single menu bar makes it easy to find all the editing options necessary for adding text, links, images, and signatures to PDF documents. 

When you’re done editing a document in Sejda, you just need to click the 'Apply Changes' button and proceed to save the finished product in your Google Drive account, Dropbox system, or locally.

Sejda does come with some limits, but they aren’t restrictive enough to cause problems for casual users. You can only perform three tasks and upload 50MB, or 200 pages of information to the Sejda platform every hour.

(Image credit: PDFsam)

5. PDFSam Basic

If your needs are simple, this could be all you need

Operating system: Windows, macOS, Linux

Simple to use
No need to upload files
No ads
Limited feature set

Often, the only thing you need to do is split a PDF into multiple documents, merge several pages together, or change the orientation of pages. This is often the case if you're working with paper documents that have been scanned. If this sounds familiar PDFsam Basic is the perfect tool for the job. It's a lightweight desktop app that's well worth keeping installed for just such situations.

Unlike some of the tools here, it won't let you change the actual content of PDFs, but makes dividing and combining them a piece of cake. Just select the page range and away you go. There are no watermarks to worry about, and you don't have to entrust your (potentially sensitive) documents to an unknown third party.

During installation you'll be asked whether you want to install a trial of PDFsam Enhanced (a paid-for product) but you can decline this if you're not interested by unchecking the box provided.

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Which type of free PDF editor is best for you?

 When deciding which of the free PDF editors below to download and use, first consider which bits of your PDF file you need to change. If you’re just trying to add your information to a form digitally, you’ll just need a basic editor that supports text insertion.

However, if you need to change the content of a PDF substantially, you’ll require a more powerful PDF editor that can make modifications to text or images already stored in the file. In some cases, especially if you want to change almost all the content of your file, it may be better to use a PDF to Word converter program instead.