How to edit a pdf document in OS X

If you’ve ever been given a pdf file that you want to edit, or a pdf form that you need to complete and return electronically, you’ll realise that it’s not obvious how to edit a pdf file in OS X. You can make simple changes to a pdf file using the free built-in Preview App that comes free with OS X. Here’s how.

If you double-click on any pdf file in OS X it will open in an application called Preview.  Preview has a hidden “Annotations Toolbar’ that will allow you to edit the pdf file.  You can’t change what’s already in the pdf document.  But you can do minor changed like adding your own text and graphics, so this method will allow you to complete a form or make minor additions.

For full pdf editing capabilities (for example adding paragraphs of text, moving pictures around on a page etc) you need to get some fully blown pdf editing software like Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Acrobat Professional. But these cost hundreds of dollars. The good news is that ‘Preview’, the built-in OS X pdf reader app, has some basic pdf editing abilities built-in.

Here’s how to use the Annotations Toolbar.

Go up to the View menu and select the menu item called ‘Show Annotations Toolbar. This will give you a toolbar along the bottom of your preview window to help you edit the pdf file.

Note: In Yosemite and El Capitan the ‘Annotations Toolbar’ has been Renamed to ‘Markup Toolbar’  so that it looks like this:

After you select  the ‘View: Show Annotations Toolbar’ menu you will see a toolbar across the bottom of the preview window that looks like this:

These buttons will allow you to edit the pdf file. The left three buttons make an arrow, a circle or a rectangle. The fourth button along allows you to add text to the pdf.

If you click on the text box button – the 4th button across,  you can then go up to your document and add in a text box like this:

If you click on the text button you can add a text box to the pdf document like this.

This is a very easy way to fill in pdf files that are forms.

If you highlight the newly added text you can change the font by pressing Apple-T and the font window will appear.

You can’t delete what’s already in a document, but you can draw a rectangle over it to hide it and type something new over the top.

You can cover over existing text using a rectangle with a white border like this.

You’ll notice you can’t change the rectangle color from being black, but you can put a very fat white border around it so it looks like a white rectangle!

Please note, this is more of a hack than a proper way to edit. The original information that you have edited will still be there. It is just covered over. If someone deletes the box they will see the original document.

This is what led the the recent scandal in Australian Politics when all the private phone numbers of Australian politicians were accidentally leaked. The deleted the phone numbers from public documents by changing the colour from black to white. But they didn’t realise someone could still get the numbers out of the documents.

If you want to totally change the images and text on an existing pdf file you will need an application like Adobe Illustrator that can actually edit the content of pdf files. But if you only want to make small changes, the built-in preview app will do the job!

If you’d like to sign a PDF document with your handwritten signature I have a separate article on how to do that.


108 responses to “How to edit a pdf document in OS X”

  1. Nyasia Randell

    Preview is great app to make minor changes in the PDF file. And, it is free too. If you need more advanced features to to create, edit, convert and sign your PDFs, then you may consider tools like Nitro, Skim, PDFpen, etc. The one recommended here is pretty good too

  2. Merss

    PDFelement for Mac is a simple PDF Editor for Mac, acting as best alternative to PDF Expert.

    1. Thanks Merss but it would be a better endorsement if you didn’t work for the company!

  3. Abhay

    nice article !! but i found that microsoft world itself can edit pdfs and all changes can be made in it !!

    1. True – but this is a free solution.

      1. Judi

        Wayne, what is the free solution for editing a pdf doc?

  4. mike tuell

    My Mac X, El Capitan is 10.11.4 doesn’t have the same menu as your posting begins with. No, “PDF Display”, no “Automatically resize”, no “sidebar”. I’m looking for help after opening a few times a PDF document (w/ 77 pages), and once I’d hidden the sidebar, I can not longer get it to show again. I go to “View”, scroll down to “Show Toolbar”, and a menu bar appears top-of-page; I then click on the “view menu”, and “Hide Sidebar” is at the top of the list and is checked. I have tried clicking on it and the sidebar never reappears. I only could try to close and reopen that PDF document, AND a copy of it, but cannot access the sidebar management options at all.

  5. mike tuell

    My Q seemed not to have loaded, so I’m trying to post my question again.
    My El Capitan 10.11.4 has a different Preview menudropping down from “View”. But I am able to click on “show [or hide] toolbar”. Then I see, up top, a toolbar with “view menu”. The list that drops down begins with the problem. I lists “Hide Sidebar”as checked, but try as I may, I cannot UN-check it and see the sidebar as I had in viewing the PDF document just minutes before.

  6. Apple have re-named it. It is now called ‘Markup Toolbar’ not ‘Annotations Toolbar’. So you need to click ‘Show Markup Toolbar.’ Does that work?

  7. John ROLT

    HI all .. I’m trying to edit a large .pdf document, with 257 scanned B&W pages of music. The original comes in at 14MB – quite reasonable considering. My reduced copy is working out at 2MB per page! and lower res as well; I’m guessing that it’s creating the new document with full colour or something so each page is a much bigger piece of data. Seems to be the same whether I copy the original and cut it down, or create an empty .pdf and add pages from the original using drag and drop. Anyone else found this problem or suggest a solution? I’m happy to try another app as long as it won’t suffer the same issue!
    Thanks .. John


    Lol, i logged here just to thank you sir for the kind directions. I was able to find an annotation button to edit and simply put name and address and stuff like that in a form. I would gladly pay a small price to buy a software to do it, but they all cost outrageous money for Brazilians and it is a once in a while necessity (indeed very rare). this saved me from a big headache…

  9. Emme

    I have a late 2011 MacBook Pro OS Sierra 10.12.6 (I’m told that’s as far as I can get with this Mac). I have scanned documents into PDF & now need to convert them to editable Word documents. Which converter software is compatible with my Mac? It doesn’t have to be free, just compatible & easy to use. THANK YOU!

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