Tired of printing, signing and then scanning or faxing documents that need your signature? You don’t have to go through all of those time-consuming steps to attach an electronic signature to most documents. Some of the apps you're already using—like Word or Acrobat—can already attach a signature to a document for free. But if you need to sign digital documents on a regular basis or you're just looking for something a little simpler, there are apps for your computer, tablet and smartphone that can make signing digital documents even easier.
First off, let's clarify something: electronic signatures and digital signatures, for all that they sound alike, are two different things. An electronic signature is simply an image of your signature added to a document while a digital signature is encrypted data that proves the document came from you. For some purposes, a simple electronic will be fine, but for more important documents, a secure digital signature is highly recommended.
So how do you do it? We’ll start by walking you through how to sign documents electronically, using the apps you already have.
Capturing your signature
If you're adding your signature to a Word document or PDF, the first step is capturing an image of your signature which will go in your document in lieu of your actual signature. You can get your signature in several different ways:
- Write it in black ink on a piece of blank white paper, then scan or photograph it. Scanning will get you the best image, but if you don't have a scanner be sure you're photographing in a well-lit area and that no shadows fall over your signature.
- Draw it with your mouse or trackpad in a paint program like Paint for Windows or Paintbrush for Mac. Be warned, however, that it may take a few tries to get your signature to look right—if you're using your trackpad, we recommend a stylus.
- Write it on your smartphone or tablet using any graphics app or a signature capture app like Signature Saver (free in Google Play) or Autograph (free in iTunes). Again, using a stylus will help you make your signature look like your signature.
Once you have a graphics file, you’ll want to save it as a “.png” file. Paint and Paintbrush have that as a choice when you use “Save As” to save your file. The PNG format lets you save your signature with a transparent background so it won't cover up signature lines or other information underneath. Now you have an electronic copy of your signature.
Adding your signature to a Word document
Since so many documents are in Microsoft Word format, this seems like a good place to start. Word supports both electronic signatures and digital signatures, so you can use whichever works best for your purpose—though be warned, this is an expensive way to sign documents digitally.
If you're using a document that's set up with a special signature line, signing is straightforward: just double click the signature line and a Sign dialog box will pop up. Here, you can add a printed version of your signature by typing your name, add a handwritten signature on a tablet PC writing your name as usual, or insert an image of your signature by clicking "Select Image," finding your signature file, and then clicking "Select."
Digital signatures in Word are a bit more complicated, requiring you to purchase a third-party digital certificate to prove to anyone who reads the document that it came from you—which can cost several hundred dollars per year. While you can create your own digital signature, you'll only be able to verify its authenticity from your computer, which isn’t a good option for sending documents to others. If you need to send a lot of documents with a digital signature, buying a digital certificate might make sense, but if you aren't, we recommend using a simple electronic signature or one of the apps below. To go ahead with a digital signature, click on the Microsoft Office Button, then "Prepare," then "Add a Digital Signature," and click sign—you'll be prompted to create a digital ID from there.
If you're signing a document that hasn't been set up for Word's signature system, you'll find clicking on the signature line does nothing—but that's okay, because you can still insert your signature. Just place your cursor where you want to add your signature and choose “Insert” and then “Picture.” Select your signature file and you’ll see your signature appear in the document. Don’t worry if the picture has messed up the formatting of the document, you’re just about to fix that.
Now, click on your signature and drag the corners to resize your signature until it looks right. Then select “Page Layout," “Wrap Text” and then “Behind Text.” Now you can then use the arrow keys to fine tune the placement of your signature. When you have it just right, use “Save As” to save your signed document as a PDF file.
Adding your signature to a PDF document
Signing a PDF is even easier than signing a Word document! You’re likely already using Adobe's Acrobat Reader DC for desktop systems (free for both Mac and Windows) to read PDFs, and it offers an easy way to sign documents whether they have or haven't been configured to accept electronic signatures.
All you have to do is open your document, click "Tools," then click "Fill & Sign." Click the "Sign" button in the toolbar and you'll be prompted to type, draw or use an image of your signature. When you're done, click "Apply" and then drag the signature where you want it to go—if needed, you can resize your signature under options in the field toolbar. Acrobat will save your signature for future use, making it easy to sign your next document.
For Mac users, there's another option: the default Preview PDF viewer lets you easily insert signatures. Just open your document, click on the toolbox icon in the menu bar and then the signature icon. You can capture your signature using your trackpad or by signing your name on paper and then using your Mac's built-in camera. Just select whether you're using your trackpad or your camera, sign or photograph your signature, and drag it to where it belongs on the document. If it needs to be resized, just drag the corners of the signature box until it fits perfectly.
Signing documents with an app
If the above solutions don't work for you or you just want to sign using your smartphone or tablet, apps designed for document signing make it simple. All of the apps below use bank-level encryption and security as well as providing authenticated, legally binding digital signatures. For those who need an authenticated signature, this is probably where you want to look because these options are very economical, whether you're signing one document a month or a dozen.
Though it's geared towards businesses, with document templates audit logs, CudaSign isn't a bad choice for personal use, either. In fact, it's the lowest cost option if you need to sign more than three documents a month. CudaSign works on the web or your smartphone or tablet, with mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android, making it easy to sign documents no matter where you are.
Signing documents is simple: You can up upload them from email, your camera roll, cloud storage services like Dropbox or from your computer. Just sign using your finger on your smartphone or tablet, then send your signed document to anyone by email.
Price: $1 per user per month with a free one-week trial at CudaSign
Available on the web and on mobile for iPhone, iPad and Android, SignEasy is built around simplicity. Whether you're using it on the web or mobile, you import a document—from your device or email, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, OneDrive, Box and your mobile device’s camera roll. Gmail users can even sign documents without ever leaving Gmail!
Sign documents using your finger, mouse or trackpad, and then email it or save it wherever you'd like. You can also fill out text fields to add dates or your (printed) name. Pretty easy!
Price: Free for up to three signatures total, $39.99/year (that's $3.33/month) for unlimited signatures at SignEasy
If you only need to sign a few documents a month, but more than the total of three SignEasy offers, you'll want to look into HelloSign—available for iPhone, iPad, and Android. Like SignEasy, it's simple to import documents into HelloSign: you can pull them in from directly Google Drive, Dropbox, Evernote, Box or OneDrive, and it integrates with Gmail. You can also grab paper documents just by snapping a photo with your smartphone or tablet camera. No matter the source, you can edit or annotate documents from the app, sign them using your finger and then save, share or email them.
The good thing and the bad thing about HelloSign is the price. If you don't need to sign many documents, it's free for up to three signatures per month. But if you need more than that, it's pricier than SignEasy or CudaSign at $13 per month.
Price: Free for up to three signatures a month, $156/year (that's $13/month) for unlimited signatures at HelloSign
Updated on 3/9/2016 with corrected information on SignEasy and added HelloSign
[Image credit: digital signature via Shutterstock, Microsoft, CudaSign, SignEasy, HelloSign]