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Protecting your PDFs with a password is easier than you think, and you don't even have to pay

PDFs are the closest thing the internet has to a paper document. They’re standard, they look the same on every system regardless of what fonts you have installed, and typically aren’t something users can edit.

As with paper documents, some PDFs are intended to be confidential. And if you want to protect a PDF, there’s support for password-protected encryption built directly into the format. You can create encrypted PDFs with Adobe’s Acrobat software, which offers a 30-day trial if all you need to do is add a password to one document.

On a Mac, Preview offers similar support and PDF encryption. And Windows users who would rather not pay can check out PDFMate, a free program for the job. Here’s a quick rundown of all three methods.

Related: Edit, sign, append, and save with 9 of our favorite PDF editors

How to password protect a PDF in Windows

Password Protecting a PDF on a Windows machine isn’t as easy as you might expect. Although premium programs such as Microsoft Word and Adobe Acrobat can handle the task with ease, Windows doesn’t offer an out-of-the-box tool for doing so in the way Mac OS X and the forthcoming MacOS does. Fortunately, you can always opt for the 30-day trial of Adobe Acrobat, or utilize a third-party application such as PDFMate PDF Merger. The latter may not look pretty, but unlike Acrobat, it doesn’t cost $15 a month.

Let’s break down both methods, starting with the Acrobat free trial.

Password protecting a PDF with Adobe Acrobat

Step 1 — Navigate to the main Adobe Acrobat free trial page and click the blue Get started button. You’ll need to sign up for an Adobe Creative Cloud account, then fill in the form with your name, email address, and birthday. You’ll also need to create a password for your new Adobe account. This will allow you to download the trial version of Adobe Acrobat.

adobe-acrobat-sign-up

Step 2 — Launch Adobe Acrobat, click the File menu in the upper-left corner, and select Open. You will need to sign-in with the account you created in step one. Afterward, choose the PDF file you want to password protect from its respective save location and click the Open button.

Step 3 — Click the File menu again when viewing the open document, followed by Properties and Security.

adobe-acrobat-properties

Step 4 — Click the drop-down menu beside Security Method, then select Password Security from the list of resulting list of options.

adobe-acrobat-password

Step 5: A window should appear prompting you for a password. Check the box beside Require a password to open the document and enter your desired password in the corresponding text field. Considering you’re sending this password to others, it’s probably best to choose one that you don’t use for other services. Recent versions of Adobe will even rate how difficult your password will be to guess, so try to pick a password that gets a strong rating, one that includes a combination of lower-case letters, capitalization, and numbers.

adobe-password-generate

Restricting edits and printing with Adobe Acrobat

Password protecting a PDF document isn’t necessarily a catch-all. The Document Security menu of Adobe Acrobat, for instance, will additionally allow you to password protect certain tasks such as editing and printing. Below is a brief rundown on how you can enable said features in Adobe Acrobat.

Step 1 —  Open the PDF document as you would normally and access the Security panel as previously outlined.

Step 2 — Select Change Settings to access the Password Security menu. From there, check the box beside Restrict editing and printing… and enter a password in the box to the right of Change Permissions Password.

adobe-permissions

Here’s an overview of the available editing limitations.

  • Inserting, deleting, and rotating pages: This allows the person with access to the document to get rid of parts of the document, add pages, and flip the pages around.
  • Commenting, filling in form fields, and signing existing signature fields: This allows the person to leave comments on the document, fill in sections that have boxes to add text, and electronically sign the document.
  • Any edits except extracting pages: this allows others to make any necessary changes to the document except for cutting it down.

That’s it! Now your PDF is password protected. When opened, this password prompt will automatically appear.

adobe-acrobat-protected-file

Password protecting a PDF with PDFMate

Let’s face it, not everyone wants to throw down a healthy portion of their paycheck every time they want to password protect a document. Thankfully, there are alternatives to Adobe’s premium suite so long as you don’t mind opting for a third-party utility with barebones features and design aesthetics. Once installed, PDFMate Free PDF Merger allows you to combine specific pages and encrypt entire documents without the exuberant price tag. Additionally, it lets you set permission passwords in a similar manner to Adobe Acrobat and Reader — meaning you can set specific passcodes for tasks such as editing, copying, and printing — though, the interface is far less attractive.

Step 1 — Head over to the PDFMate Free PDF Merger website, click the green Free Download button near the top of the page, and follow the on-screen installation instructions. Then, launch the application when the installation process is complete.

PDFMate Download

Step 2 — Click the Add Files button with the addition sign in the upper-left corner and double click the PDF document you want to password protect.

pdf mate screenshot 1

Step 3 — The PDF you want to password protect will then automatically appear in the list of files. Check the box beside Open Password and enter your password into the corresponding text field. You can also check the box beside Permission Password, which will allow you to enable password protection for editing, copying, and printing by checking the appropriate tasks underneath.

pdfmate 3

Step 4 — Select Build in the bottom-right corner of the application window when you’re finished adding your password. Afterward, a folder will automatically open with your new Password protected PDF. Presto!

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