What is a PDF/A file and how do I open, view and edit one?

The PDF/A format is designed for the long-term archiving of PDF files. In this guide, you’ll find out exactly what a PDF/A file is and how to create one, as well as the many advantages of this format.

What you’ll learn.





What is a PDF/A file?


PDF/An is the standard format used around the world for archiving electronic documents. It allows documents to be viewed in their original appearance across different software. A PDF/A file differs from a standard PDF file in that it forbids features that aren’t suitable for long-term archiving.


It is also self-contained, with all of the elements such as content, fonts and colour information embedded within the file. This means the document can be viewed and reproduced exactly as it was originally created, regardless of the device being used.


What does PDF/A stand for?


PDF stands for Portable Document Format and is used for the reliable presentation and exchange of documents in a standard format so they can be used across multiple platforms. The file extension ‘A’ stands for ‘archival’ as the PDF/ A format ensures that the content within the file can be preserved in its original form for decades to come.



History of the PDF/A file.


The PDF/A format was first published in October 2005 by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) as a new standard for the archiving of electronic files.


In May 2002, an initiative was launched by the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM), the National Printing Equipment Association (NPES) and the US Court’s administrative body, in order to create standardised formats for electronically archived files. 


After three years of collaboration between global companies and organisations, the PDF/ A format was published.


PDF/ An or ISO standard 19005, quickly became an internationally accepted standard for long-term archiving, built on PDF specifications.

Try Adobe's powerful online tools


Get better at editing your documents with Adobe's collection of handy online tools.


What are PDF/A files used for?


PDF/A files are used in the same way as standard PDF files but are a preferred option when documents need to be stored in a future-proof format. 


To keep the original format.


The PDF/A format is ideal if you want the original formatting to stay exactly the same for long-term use, as well as remaining easily accessible and uniform across different devices. 


For documents that need a digital signature.


PDF/An is a good option when it comes to digitally signed records and documents. The format allows embedded electronic signatures and specifies only minimum requirements for these. This means the records can be digitally signed using future technology as it develops. 


Research and scientific papers.


PDF/An is widely used in the academic sector due to its reliability when it comes to displaying special characters used in mathematical formulas as well as old languages, with all of these symbols embedded within the file. Some academic institutions now only accept theses and dissertations in PDF/A format. 


Discover more PDF file types with Adobe.



Advantages of PDF/A files.


There are various advantages of PDF/A format files that could make them useful for your next project.


  • Global integration. Information can be stored in any language, with the PDF/A format making sure that texts are correctly displayed on any device - including those in Arabic, Japanese and Cyrillic.
  • Long-term preservation. The nature of a PDF/A file is to archive digital information for a long period of time. This could be useful in libraries, banks and other archives.
  • Ability to reuse content. The specific format of this PDF file means that you can reuse the content easily. These files are also relatively straightforward to convert to Word, HTML and e-Books.



How to open a PDF/A file.


To open a PDF file on your desktop or within an application, just double-click the PDF icon in your file system. Mac users may need to choose File, then Open With, before selecting Acrobat.


To convert a PDF file to a PDF/A format, you will need to remove any features that are not compatible with PDF/A - like audio or video. If you’re using Adobe Acrobat, try using the Preflight function to convert your PDF to PDF/A.



How to create and edit a PDF/A file.


It’s simple to create a PDF/A file from within a word processing software. Just navigate to Print or Save and select PDF/An as your option. You will also need to change your PDF preference settings to PDF/A.


In order to edit a PDF/A file on Adobe Acrobat, follow these steps:

  1. Open your PDF/A file
  2. Navigate to the right-hand pane and select Edit PDF
  3. Use the editing tools to adjust the content. You may decide to add or edit text using the features in the Format list or move or resize images using the Objects list
  4. Name and Save your file.


PDF/A Versions.




The PDF/A format is based on the original PDF 1.4 version and it has two conformance levels for PDFs:


  • PDF/A-1a conforms with Level An and meets all requirements in its specification. It allows assistive software to improve accessibility for physically impaired users.
  • PDF/A-1b has a lower level of conformance with minimal compliance, focusing on ensuring the visual appearance of the file is preserved long-term.




Released in July 2011 as a new standard called ISO 32001-1, this standard includes all features of PDF versions up to 1.7 as well as new features. Its features include the support of JPEG2000 which is handy for scanned documents and specific requirements for customised XMP metadata.




This PDF/A format includes all of the requirements of Level 2. It also allows the embedding of additional file formats - like XML, CSV and word processing formats - into PDF/A conforming documents.



Learn more about similar file types to PDF/A.



Learn more about the original PDF format and what you may want to use it for. 



Find out what makes PDF-E different to other PDF files in this handy guide.



Read all about the PDF-X format and why it’s often the choice for professional printing.



Find out more about this PDF-VT format used for variable data printing.



Discover how the PDF-UA format differs from other PDF file types and how it is more accessible for people who use assistive technology.


Want to learn how it all started for this iconic file format? Check out our timeline of the history of the PDF.

Looking to edit, convert or share your DOCX?


Adobe Acrobat Online has all the tools you need to do more with your documents.




How can you view PDF/A files on a Mac?


It’s easy to view a PDF file on a Mac. Just open up the Preview app on your Mac and then open the PDF that you’d like to view. You can then adjust how you view the document. You can show thumbnails, view one page at a time and even show pages in a continuous scroll.


How can I convert PDFs to PDF/A?


Follow these steps to convert a PDF into a PDF/A file.

  1. Once you’ve finished making your PDF, select Tools and then PDF Standards
  2. Click Save as and choose PDF/An as your preference
  3. Choose where you would like to save the PDF/A file.

What is the difference between PDF/An and PDF/E file formats? 


While the PDF/A format ensures that the file is suitable for long-term archiving, PDF/E is concerned with making the file useful for engineering formats. PDF/E is the standard format for sharing engineering documents and is often used in construction and manufacturing workflows.


How can you find out if a PDF is a PDF/A file?


In Adobe Acrobat, you can find out the specific properties of your PDF file by following these steps:

  1. Navigate to File and Properties
  2. Select the Description Tab and then Additional Metadata
  3. Click Advanced to view the properties.

What is the main benefit of a PDF/ A file?


The main benefit of a PDF/ A format is its suitability for long-term archiving. This makes it a great format for users who need to store digital files for long periods of time. The types of places where this may be particularly useful include banks, libraries, insurance firms, government bodies and archives.



You might also be interested in…

A person sitting at a desk looking at their computer

How to Convert JPG to PDF on a Mac
DF files are designed to be readable on any device, making them a great way to share information. 

A person sitting at a desk looking at their computer

How to Post a PDF to Facebook
PDFs are a great way for your business to share information – for example menus, price lists, and reports. Displaying these on your Facebook Business page is an effective way of engaging with customers using social media.

A person sitting at a desk looking at their computer

How to convert a PDF for a Kindle

Adding a PDF for a Kindle can mean it’s easier to read – and for longer PDFs, much easier to navigate than a desktop. 

A person sitting at a desk looking at their computer

How to Save a PDF to an iPhone

Saving a PDF to your smartphone is a great way to access your important files and documents on the go.