The best free PDF readers are ideal for viewing PDF files, as well as modifying, annotating, digitally signing your documents, and more.
If you just need to read a PDF, most modern browsers open these documents - and there’s no cost for that. However, if you want to do a little more with your files, PDF editors, free PDF editors, and dedicated PDF reader software are best.
These tools are ready-made for advanced tasks like eSigning, document conversion, optical character recognition, and minor editing. And you can do all that without subscription fees and one-off charges with the best free PDF readers.
To help you find the right tools for your workflow, we’ve reviewed the best free PDF readers for Windows and Mac. As part of our tests, we’ve studied a range of key measures, including performance with large files, cloud storage integration, and cross-platform compatibility. For platform-specific PDF viewers, we've been testing out the best PDF readers on Windows and the best PDF readers on Mac.
For more PDF tools when you’re working to a budget, we’ve also explored the best Adobe Acrobat alternatives.
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The best free PDF readers of 2022 in full
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.
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.
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.
Slim PDF is the best free PDF reader if you’re looking for something incredibly lightweight. The software obtain 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.
The Nitro PDF 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 PDF Reader review.
Rather than just being a free PDF reader, PDF-XChange Editor 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.
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How to choose the best free PDF reader for you
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When deciding which PDF reader is best to obtain 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.
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 supply 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.
Do I need a PDF editor or a PDF reader?
Deciding between a PDF editor and a PDF reader comes down to how you'll use the software. PDF readers are primarily designed to view documents - although many include online collaboration tools like commenting, highlighting, and annotating content. Altering a PDF file is often limited to small edits and manipulation. A PDF editor lets you design and create documents from scratch and make large changes. They almost always include powerful tools for power-users, like built-in OCR software and digital signature tools.
Are free PDF readers worth it?
The best free PDF readers feature plenty of tools for viewing and sharing PDF files - however, they're often slightly more limited compared to paid-for counterparts. In many cases, they offer a taste of how the software works, with upgrades and subscriptions that add more tools. If you're only reading PDFs on your computer or mobile device, a browser will likely meet your needs. If you're frequently in and out of documents, making minor edits, and sharing files, a full PDF reader will likely suit you best.
How we test the best free PDF readers
We test the best free PDF readers against the factors that users care about - from the interface and experience to performance and platform availability.
We also assess each tool against its use-case. Some want a lightweight reader, others need one packed with plenty of other PDF utilities for professional use - so we look at how well the free PDF readers deliver for their intended audience.
We also ensure that free means free - no hidden charges. Any subscriptions, lifetime licenses, and upgrade fees must be clearly signposted.