Free PDF editor software and online tools enable you to comment and annotate PDF files, and even edit the text in a PDF file or replace it completely. Here's how to edit a PDF for free. Also see: How to convert PDF to Word.
Adobe invented the PDF (Portable Document Format) to solve a problem that dogged people for years: how to view and print documents without the original software or fonts. It wasn't meant to be a replacement for a word processor - it was a layout format for precise alignment of text and images.
It launched the Acrobat software which packaged documents into special PDF files. Adobe then made Acrobat Reader (now known as Adobe Reader DC) free to download and use so people could open, read and print the files.
In 2008 Adobe made the PDF file format an open standard and since then there has been an explosion of PDF-related software. Many programs can save documents in PDF format, but few can edit them directly.
What if you receive a document in PDF form and need to change it? Or you might save a file as a PDF but lose the original (editable) document through a disk or human error? In all of these situations you need a PDF editor.
However, here's the thing: free PDF editors generally do not allow you to edit text. What they offer is the ability to erase (or 'whiteout' text and replace it with new text. Matching the font, both size and colour, is tricky, but it's all you'll be able to do if you can't get hold of the original file which was used to create the PDF.
Some free PDF editors let you annotate PDFs and add or remove pages. The original content cannot be changed, but you can insert notes and comments, use a highlighter pen, strike through text, delete pages, fill out forms and so on.
Free PDF editor: Free software
AbleWord is the only free PDF editor we're aware of which will import a PDF and make it completely editable. It's best when importing PDF files that were created in Word, but will attempt to replicate all PDF files. The end result won't look identical to the original, but will be close.
Foxit Reader is a lightweight alternative to Adobe Reader and many people prefer it. It's more than just a PDF reader though and it has a wide range of powerful tools. You cannot edit the contents, but text can be struck through with a line and replaced by a pop-up note. You can also insert sticky notes, attach files to pages, click anywhere and add text, add text boxes and callouts, draw with a pencil, add rectangles, lines, arrows, polygons and clouds, and add stamps like Approved, Rejected, Draft and so on. It’s great if you have to comment and annotate PDFs.
PDF-XChange Viewer offers an almost identical set of features to Foxit Reader and it is useful for annotating PDFs in a similar manner. PDFCool Free Studio is buggy and can quit with an error message, but when it works, it has some useful features. For example, it can extract the text and images from a PDF and this would enable you to edit them elsewhere, such as in a Word document. Text can be typed onto the page and there are some basic drawing functions like lines, circles and rectangles. It’s not as good as Foxit Reader though.
LibreOffice, the free Office alternative, is worth considering if you want to edit the text in a PDF file. It loads PDFs and it can cope with very large documents with hundreds of pages. The only snag is that each line of text is text box, which makes it awkward to edit text large amounts of text.
Free PDF editor: Online tools
CutePDF Editor is another option, but it requires Adobe Flash, which isn't ideal. The editing facilities are very limited and not all PDFs will load, but if the document is relatively plain and all you need are basic facilities, then it's worth trying.
CutePDF Editor is essentially a page editor. You can delete pages, rearrange their order, insert blank ones, crop and resize them. The only editing features are the ability to add your own page headers and footers, such as titles, dates, page numbers and so on.
PDF To Word does exactly what the name says. You select a file on your PC, upload it to the site and it emails you the Word document a minute or two later. The advantage of this is that you can use Word or another word processor to edit the text and resave the document as a PDF (many word processors can save in PDF).
There is also a PDF to Excel service too. The resulting file is emailed to you and you can download it and load it into Excel for editing. The results weren’t as good as PDF to Word though.
PDF editors: Best alternatives to Adobe Acrobat DC Pro
Suppose you want to change the text in a PDF? There are a few tools that can do this, but they are less common.
Here are some PDF editors that are considerably cheaper than the £282 Adobe charges for Acrobat DC Pro, but also see our Best PDF editors roundup
Many suppliers of free PDF tools have 'professional' products which you have to pay for. Foxit offers PhantomPDF Standard ($89 - around £60) and Business ($129 - around £85), and Advanced PDF Editor ($99 - around £65). The Standard edition (below) has all the facilities of the free Reader, plus editing capabilities. It is possible to edit paragraphs and sometimes whole pages of text, although it doesn’t flow like a word processor document, which can be irritating. PDFs can be saved as Word and Excel documents and .rtf and .txt files though.
Nitro PDF has a free Nitro Reader and also Nitro Pro ($120 - around £80), which enables you to edit text, images, pages and documents. You can also annotate them with sticky notes, drawing tools, stamps and so on. Pages can be inserted and deleted, PDFs can be split, watermarks added, and headers and footers inserted.
Nitro Pro isn’t exactly cheap, but if you want to edit the contents of PDFs it's easier using this than in PhantomPDF. Nitro Pro isn't perfect, but it comes close and you can easily change the text, styles, fonts, colours and so on.
Microsoft Office does a reasonable job of both writing and reading PDF files. It is particularly good at opening Office files saved as PDFs and they can be edited and saved as Word files or PDFs again. Like the other pro tools, it isn’t perfect, but you do get an editable Word document. It isn't free, of course, but you may already have it and not realise that it can open PDFs so you can edit them.
One other tool we recently tested that does the job well is Nuance Power PDF 2.
Power PDF in't free either. It's a PDF editor and convertor that matches Acrobat Pro - pretty much feature-for-feature - while offering useful extras like a more flexible search and a more familiar Office interface. And at £79.99 inc VAT for the standard version it is well priced. Worth checking out.
How to edit PDFs: Conclusion
After trying many free and commercial tools it's clear that PDFs simply aren’t designed for someone else to edit with different software and even the best tools aren’t perfect. PDFs can be annotated with free tools and even split, merged and have pages inserted or deleted. However, even the pro tools can run into problems when it comes to editing the text and images. Microsoft Word and Nitro Pro are your best bets.