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HolidayBuyer's Guide

How to fill out a PDF form without software

Need to add text to a PDF that doesn't support editing? No problem -- and no extra software required.

Rick Broida/CNET

Not long ago, my wife called from work. "I have to get this form turned in before 5, but the printer's broken. It's a PDF. I can open it, but there's no way to fill it out. What do I do?"

Been there. PDFs are great for sharing documents, but not always for editing them. That's not too surprising when you consider that a PDF is really just an image, not raw text. And unless the file was generated in such a way as to allow editing (by which I mean the addition of text, like for a form), you often have little option but to print it, fill it out by hand, then scan or fax it wherever it needs to go.

Thankfully, there's a free and easy workaround. (Actually, there are several, but for today I'm focusing on one I've used successfully.) PDFescape is a Web-based PDF reader, editor and form-filler.

Because it's an online tool, it saves you from having to install any local software -- a plus for corporate users who aren't allowed to do so, and a plus for everyone else because it eliminates the risk of spyware or junkware piggybacking inside PDF-utility downloads.

Of course, your IT department may have policies when it comes to uploading company documents to unapproved sites, so if you're doing this from work, get permission first.

Although PDFescape offers only basic tools for free (a Premium account costs $20 annually), it's enough to let you fill out a form. Here's how:

Step 1: Head to PDFescape and click Start Using Unregistered in the upper-left corner.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Step 2: Click Continue to PDFescape, then Upload PDF to PDFescape. Click Choose File, navigate to the local folder containing your PDF, select it and then click Upload.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Step 3: In short order you should see the PDF. Depending on the document, it may have text fields already highlighted, in which case you can just click inside the ones you want and start typing. Alternately, click the Text button, then click anywhere on the page to place your cursor. Then start typing.

Click here to save and download your edited PDF. Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Step 4: When you're done editing, click the green Save & Download button in the toolbar on the left side of the screen.

And that's it! The entire process takes no more than a few minutes. Of course, if you've found a better way to complete PDF forms without software, name it in the comments!