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Best free PDF reader 2022

A person using a free PDF reader on a laptop.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

The best free PDF readers make it simple and easy not just to read PDF files, but also include additional features such as editing, annotating and even esigning.

These days, PDF documents are being used everywhere. That’s because they can be opened on any opening system, are easy to attach to an email or a website, and have the advantage of not being easily altered. And, so everybody uses them at work, in schools, and even for digital copies of the manuals for your peripherals and devices.

While simply opening a PDF as a read-only file is straightforward – you can just do it using your favorite web browser – editing, altering or converting one will require a dedicated PDF reader. Luckily, the best free PDF readers out there are just as capable as their paid counterparts, and they won’t cost you a dime or force you into a monthly subscription. 

To help you find the best one for what you need, we’ve highlighted five of the best free PDF readers for Windows and Mac. We looked at their ability to handle large files, cloud storage functionality, OS compatibility, bonus features, and lots more.

These should see you through advanced tasks like signing or editing documents, combining PDF files, or converting between document formats. For more flexibility, take a look at our guide to the best free PDF editors, which make editing a PDF as straightforward as tweaking a Word document.

Need to do more with your PDFs? We've tested out the best PDF to PowerPoint converters.

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The best PDF editor right now is: Adobe Acrobat Pro DC (opens in new tab)
(opens in new tab)Need to edit a PDF, not just view it? It's not free, but for professional results, Adobe Acrobat Pro DC is the tool for you. It gives you total freedom to create PDFs from scratch and edit existing documents without fuss, on desktop or mobile.

Best free PDF readers of 2022 in full

Our top pick for the best all-rounder (Image credit: Adobe)

1. Adobe Acrobat Reader DC

Best free PDF reader overall

Reasons to buy

Multi-platform support
Handles large PDFs with ease
Tab view for multiple documents

Reasons to avoid

Relatively large
Regular 'upgrade to Pro' ads
Some tools paywalled

Adobe Acrobat Reader DC is a free PDF reader software for Windows and Mac (with Android and iOS PDF reader apps available, too). And it's our top choice for best free PDF reader overall - although we found features one massive downside.

The top PDF viewer is designed with two purposes in mind: the first is to enable you to read and interact with PDF files (including adding annotations and even signing a document). 

The second is to convince you to upgrade to the paid version of the software (which, you’ve guessed it, has many more features, including the ability to create and edit PDF files).

If it wasn’t for the latter, Acrobat Reader would be a decent addition to your software library. It’s simple, easy to use, and comes with all the basic features you need to interact with PDF files. In our review, we reckoned that “Adobe Acrobat Reader DC is one of the best free PDF readers for anyone looking to view documents and manipulate them in some way.”

Sadly, the adware side of things is pretty much everywhere: you get ‘try now’ buttons, you’re offered to use powerful tools but later are asked to pony up some cash in order to actually use them, there’s even a ‘7-day trial’ button. If you can overlook this, it’s a great tool, but there are less obtrusive ones out there.

Read our full Adobe Acrobat Reader DC review 

Best for going beyond the reader (Image credit: Foxit)

2. Foxit PDF Reader

Perfect if you want to do more than just read PDFs

Reasons to buy

Allows you to create PDFs
Safe mode disables Javascript
Lightweight download

Reasons to avoid

Some features require extensions

Foxit PDF Reader is more than just a free PDF reader – you can also create PDFs from scratch using this software. Integration with Microsoft Office allows you to easily turn documents you’re working on into PDFs. Or, you can scan a document or image and turn it into a PDF using Foxit Reader. The only thing that’s lacking in the free version is support for optical character recognition in scanned documents.

The software can be a little intimidating at first, but it’s relatively straightforward to navigate. That’s thanks to the fact that it uses the same ribbon-style menu as Microsoft Office. Tools for editing, signing, highlighting, and commenting are fairly easy to access. You can also merge or split PDFs by downloading free add-ons for the software. 

Another advantage to Foxit PDF Reader is that it offers security. There’s a Safe Reading mode that allows you to automatically disable Javascript embedded in downloaded PDFs.

Note that with the software's latest update, Foxit seems to have removed its PDF virtual printer driver, meaning you can no longer use the software to create PDFs.

Read our full Foxit PDF Reader review.

Best free and fast PDF reader (Image credit: Slim PDF)

3. Slim PDF

A PDF reader that's super fast and super lightweight

Reasons to buy

Small download size 
Loads extremely quickly
Can convert file types

Reasons to avoid

No editing features

Slim PDF is the best free PDF reader for you, if you’re looking for something incredibly lightweight. The software download is really small, so is the perfect choice if you’re limited by hard drive space. Plus, that means that it’s able to open and load your documents faster than most of its competitors.

The downside to this small size is that Slim PDF is pretty basic. You can search and rotate documents, but that’s about it. There are no tools for signing, filling, commenting, or highlighting, let alone multiple reading modes. While there is a menu option to convert a PDF to a Word document, doing this requires another software download.

As a result, Slim PDF is truly just a PDF reader. It does a good job at this, though, leaving out the toolbars that can distract you from what you’re reading. If you frequently need to print PDFs, Slim PDF is one of the fastest and most simple options available.

Read our full Slim PDF review.

Best free and feature-rich PDF reader  (Image credit: Nitro)

4. Nitro Reader

A feature-packed free PDF reader, full of handy tools

Reasons to buy

Touchscreen mode 
Plenty of annotation tools
Simple ribbon-style menu

Reasons to avoid

No document signing or filling

Nitro Reader is another powerful free PDF reader in the vein of Foxit Reader and Adobe Acrobat DC. What makes this tool different is that it has a touchscreen mode that’s perfect if you’re working on a tablet. Touchscreen mode is especially nice for reading e-books, since you can flick the pages rather than scroll or click on a button.

While you can’t fill and sign PDFs with Nitro Reader, the software does a nice job of enabling collaboration. You can annotate documents with underlining and strikethroughs in addition to highlighting. Comments are also supported, and they appear like sticky notes that are easy to spot as you read through a document. Helpfully, the software also allows you to convert between PDF and other document formats.

The software has a ribbon-style menu that will be familiar to Microsoft Office users. The menu is pretty easy to navigate since there aren’t all that many options available in Nitro Reader.

Read our full Nitro Reader review.

Best free PDF reader for OCR (Image credit: 1 for All Software)

5. PDF-XChange Editor

Perfect if you need a free PDF reader with built-in OCR

Reasons to buy

Optical character recognition
Text editing
Splits and extracts pages

Reasons to avoid

Watermarks documents

Rather than just being a free PDF reader, PDF-XChange Editor (opens in new tab) is also a free PDF editing program for Windows. The interface is a little more complex than some others but gives you easy access to plenty of helpful features. 

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. 

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. 

Read our full PDF-XChange Editor review.

What is a PDF reader?

A PDF reader is a program used to open, view, and print PDF (Portable Document Format) files. First introduced in the 1990s, PDF files are an excellent way to distribute documents containing text, images, and various other media types.

Many modern browsers can read PDF files, but the best free PDF readers still have their place. These dedicated programs give users more ways to interact with the file and offer greater control over how the document appears on the screen.

PDF files were designed to appear and function the same on any piece of hardware, so you'll find PDF readers for Android and other mobile devices too.

How to choose the best free PDF reader for you

When deciding which PDF reader is best to download and use, first consider which parts of your PDF file you need to change. If you’re just trying to add information to a form digitally, you’ll only 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 software program 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 fully functioning PDF Editor or even a PDF to Word converter instead.

How we test the best free PDF readers

We downloaded, installed, and used each of the best free PDF readers before creating this guide. Using a selection of large PDF files, we compared how each piece of software handles significant amounts of data. We also completed a series of everyday PDF tasks to see how intuitive each program is to use.

Many people still expect a basic level of editing from a PDF reader, so we explored what each program provides on that front. We also examined each product's documentation and online support, as these play a crucial role in the overall user experience. While price isn't a comparison point for free PDF readers, we did research the paid versions (where available) to discover what they offer over their free counterparts.

Read how we test, rate, and review products on TechRadar (opens in new tab).

Discover how to convert PDF to Excel with our best free Adobe PDF to Microsoft Excel converters.

Michael Graw is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Bellingham, Washington. His interests span a wide range from business technology to finance to creative media, with a focus on new technology and emerging trends. Michael's work has been published in TechRadar, Tom's Guide, Business Insider, Fast Company, Salon, and Harvard Business Review. 

With contributions from