How To Work with PDFs on the iPad

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PDF is a hugely popular document format, because this file type is so universally supported. The iPad offers good support for PDFs, partly via some built-in apps and features, and partly due to a wealth of good 3rd party apps that focus on handling PDFs.

If you need to work with PDFs on your iPad, here are some of the best ways to get them onto your iPad, view them, and edit them.

Ways to Get PDF Documents onto the iPad


The mail app on the iPad will let you view a PDF attachment, and will also let you use the ‘Open In’ feature to open an attachment in any installed app that supports the format. So you can always email yourself a PDF from your desktop, or have a work colleague send you one via email when needed. Of course, this can become a tedious and impractical method when you need access to a large number of PDF documents at once.

File Sharing:

One nicer solution for getting a number of PDF docs onto your iPad at once is to use File Sharing in iTunes. To do so, connect your iPad to your PC via its sync cable and go to the iTunes app on the PC. Look at the Devices section in the left-hand pane and click to select your iPad name underneath it. Then select the Apps tab at the top of the main window. Then scroll down the page a little and you’ll see the File Sharing section.


In the File Sharing section you’ll see a listing of installed iPad apps that can make use of this feature. You next need to select an app that handles PDFs. In my screenshot above I’ve selected PDF Expert, one of the leading apps for this purpose (more on this in a moment). Once you’ve selected an app you can use the ‘Add’ button and browse to select files to share to that app, and they will be shared to the iPad file system belonging to that app. Or you can just drag and drop files onto the document area on the right-hand side with your app selected.

Dropbox or Other File Sharing Services

The easiest way of all to share access to PDFs to the iPad is to use a good file sharing service like Dropbox. With Dropbox you get 2GB of data storage in the cloud and beautiful, effortless file sync and backup. Anything you want synced, you dump into the Dropbox folder on your PC and it does the rest. And of course Dropbox has a very nice iPad app, so anything PDF documents in your Dropbox folder are accessible within the iPad app.

In the Dropbox app you can view PDFs and you can use the ‘Open In’ feature to open them in an iPad editing app.


How To Get PDF Books into the iBooks App on the iPad

If you’ve got a PDF version of a book that you’d like to be able to read in the iBooks app on your iPad, you can simply add the book to your iTunes library on the PC and it will be available in the iBooks app once you have done a sync.

To add a book to the iTunes library you can use go to the File menu in the iTunes app and choose ‘Add to Library’ and then browse to select the file/files you want to add. Or you can just drag and drop files into the Library area of the iTunes app.


Once you’ve added files to the library and synced with the iPad, you’ll then see those PDF books in the Collections tab within the iBooks app.


A Couple Great Apps for Working with PDFs

Happily, there are a number of good iPad apps for viewing and editing PDFs. The two that are by far and away the best I’ve seen though are GoodReader for iPad and PDF Expert. Both offer a powerful set of features and very nice user interfaces for getting the most out of them.

GoodReader for iPad App Store link – Price: $4.99

PDF Expert for iPad App Store link – Price: $9.99

If any of you have suggestions for additional / better ways to work with PDFs on the iPad, please share them in the comments.

Patrick Jordan

Founder and Editor in Chief of iPad Insight. Husband, father to a lovely daughter, Commander of the Armies of the North, dog lover (especially Labs), Austinite, former Londoner, IT consultant, huge sports nut, iPad and mobile tech blogger, mobile apps junkie.

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15 thoughts on “How To Work with PDFs on the iPad”

  1. iAnnotate is MUCH better than GoodtReader or Expert, don’t be put off by the price tag it is the only app if you want complex annotation handling and syncing.

  2. This is a pretty superficial analysis. Yes Goodreader is probably the best all-around PDF program but for annotations there are much better apps. One is mentioned above but I prefer Note Taker HD and the (currently free) GoodNotes is also excellent although less features.

    1. I didn’t really intend the post to be a roundup or assessment of PDF handling apps. It was meant more as a guide just to how to get PDFs onto the iPad with a mention of a couple very capable apps to work with. PDF Expert stikes me as one, or the, most capable app for editing / adding to PDFs.

  3. Don’t forget about SignMyPad $3.99 and SignMyPad Pro 19.99 – if you need to put a signature on your PDFs. Both have the ability to send PDF’s out via email, dropbox, to an AirPrint compatible printer and to another app on your iPad.

  4. The best multipurpose app I’ve found is ReaddleDocs, which allows you to hook up to a huge number of Cloud accounts, transfer files between them, annotate PDFs, and write/edit text files; you can also view a huge number of file formats (e.g. MS Office etc) and open them in other apps. It’s my favourite Swiss Army knife app!

  5. iPDFs is my goto app for actually reading pdfs. I never need to annotate anything and have a lot of books in PDF format. It’s the only PDF app I have found with real page turning effects. I really enjoy it.

  6. The official Acrobat Reader from Adobe is surprisingly good at handling PDFs. And the best part is it’s free, which is impressive considering how much you can do with it.

  7. I’ve been trying to find a good app that can do several things with PDFs:

    Annotate on them
    Fill out form fields (important)
    Convert any doc-type file to pdf

    Additionally, I would like to be able to copy/paste text from an email or website and convert it into a PDF. I have 3 different apps for doing all these things (silly). Anything that can do all of the above?


  8. I am a music teacher, using an iPad. I get public domain piano scores from IMSLP that might be 60 pages–but I only want to email, say, one page (perhaps “page 11”) from the whole score. Which iPad email apps will let me do that? So far, I can only email an entire PDF, not just the one page I have onscreen. Please help!
    Regina R.

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