Tired of printing, signing and then scanning or faxing documents that need your signature? Creating an electronic signature and adding it to your Word, PDF and other documents is easy. And many programs also have built-in digital signing features that add an extra layer of convenience and security.
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 signature will be fine, but for more important documents, a secure digital signature is highly recommended.
Some of the apps you're already using—like Word or Acrobat—can 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.
Signing PDF documents and paper documents with your phone
For iPhone users, one of the easiest ways to sign a PDF document is to use the tools built into the Mail app. When you receive an attachment, tap to download it and then tap again to open it. You'll see a marker icon in the upper right. Tap it and you'll see tools appear at the bottom. Select the + to bring up text and signature options. When you're finished filling out the form, you select "Done" and you'll be able to send the form by "Reply All" or "New Message."
Another easy way to sign a PDF document is to use the Adobe Sign & Fill app (free for iOS and Android). For paper forms, you can snap a picture, add any required text and your signature, and save.
If you receive an email with a PDF email attachment on your iPhone, you tap the attachment to view it. Tap the share button and in bar that shows app icons, swipe left and select "More." Scroll down and select Adobe Sign & Fill. If you've already used the app, the document will automatically open. (If you haven't, you'll need to sign into your Adobe account or create one. You'll then see your document in a list of documents. Open it.) Once your document is open, tap on the toolbox in the lower right corner, and you'll see tool to add text and your signature to the document. When you first use the app, you'll be prompted to create a signature that you can then save for future documents. Once you've added the text and signature, you can select the share button to send as an email attachment or "Save to Files" to save the file to your iPhone. Then you can create or reply to an email in Mail. Press and hold to bring up the menu and tap on the right arrow to reveal an option to "Add Attachment." Select "On My iPhone" and open the "Adobe Acrobat" folder. You'll see your signed document in the folder. Tap it and the file will attach to your email.
If you have an Android phone, the process is similar. You tap on the email attachment to view it and it will open in Adobe Fill & Sign (you will have to select it as the app to open the document fi you've just installed the app). Tap anywhere in the document to add text and tap the pen icon to add your signature. When you're done, tap on the share icon. Select email, and the app will automatically save the document and create an email with the attachment. Or, if you want to reply to the email with the signed document, you can select "Save to Drive." Then you can reply to the message and tap the attachment paperclip and select the file from your Google Drive.
Creating your electronic 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 Draw Signature Pro ($2.49 in Google Play) or Autograph+ ($1.99 in App Store). With the paid versions of these apps, you'll have the option of saving your signature with a transparent background, which makes it a lot easier to add your signature. Again, using a stylus will help you make your signature look like your signature.
- For a basic stylus, try the Targus Slim Stylus Pen ($12.95, check price Amazon). It has a much thicker tip than a pen but is much easier than drawing with your fingertip.
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 “Pictures” (or "Picture" for Word online). You'll see a dropdown where you can select the location of your signature file. 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 “Layout," “Wrap Text” and from the pulldown menu select “Behind Text.” (If you're using Word online, you'll find "Wrap Text" in "Picture.") Now you can then use your mouse to place your signature (If you're using Word online, you can only resize the picture to fit). 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, SignNow 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. SignNow 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 (OneDrive, Google Drive and Box), or from your computer. Just sign using your finger on your smartphone or tablet, then send your signed document to anyone by email. Apps are available for iOS and Android.
Price: $8 per user per month if billed annually ($95.95 per year) at SignNow
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 iOS, and Android. Like SignNow, it's simple to import documents into HelloSign: you can pull them in directly from email and for iPhone, from Dropbox. 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 SignNow at $13.00 per month.
Price: Free for up to three signatures a month, $15.00 per month if billed annually for unlimited signatures at HelloSign
Updated on 4/14/2022 with new instructions for apps and current pricing for services.
[Image credit: digital signature on phone via Techlicious/Smartmockups, Adobe, Microsoft]