Types of PDF Files: Everything you Need to Know

By Author thumbnail image Emily Shaw | on

Created by Adobe in the early 1990s, the PDF has become the go-to choice for sharing and preserving documents across different operating systems and devices. As technology has advanced, so too have the capabilities and variations of PDF files, giving rise to many types tailored to diverse needs. From high-quality graphic design projects to accessible documents for those using assistive technology, PDFs have evolved beyond the static files of yesteryear. In this guide, we will look at the different types of PDF files, ranging from the widely known PDF/A and PDF/X standards to the more intricate PDF/VT and PDF/UA.

PDF file types

Source: Unsplash/Maarten van den Heuvel

As we navigate this landscape, we will look closely at each standard, shedding light on how PDFs have become more than just files. They are a truly dynamic medium that bridge different operating systems, devices, and content types such as web pages in a single standard. By using a PDF, one can combine the benefits of Adobe Acrobat, HTML, Mac, and various file formats into a single file. Throughout this guide we’ll look at layers of PDF functionality, from converting documents to high-quality PDFs, editing files seamlessly, to making content accessible through optical character recognition (OCR) and creating searchable PDFs.

5 Different Types of PDF Files

The universe of PDF files includes a variety of standards, each designed to cater to specific needs and functionalities. Let us look at several important types within the PDF ecosystem, unveiling their unique benefits and purposes.


Type 1: PDF/A - The Archivist's Ally

PDF/A, synonymous with archiving, is the most-used file format for the long-term preservation of electronic documents. Industries requiring stringent archival standards, such as libraries and government archives, typically use PDF/A. This type ensures that documents are self-contained, preserving fonts and graphics, making it indispensable for maintaining document integrity over time.

Type 2: PDF/X - Precision in Printing

Many graphic designers and print professionals claim that PDF/X is the gold standard for precision in reproducing documents for print. This is because it is designed to address color management issues and ensure font embedding. Thus PDF/X creates a standardized environment for printing, eliminating discrepancies between on-screen and printed content. It's the go-to choice for those seeking reliability and accuracy in printed materials.

Type 3: PDF/VT - Variable Data Printing Virtuoso

PDF/VT is a dedicated PDF format for variable data printing, offering personalized and data-driven printing solutions. Ideal for scenarios where individualized content is paramount, this type ensures flexibility and efficiency in managing diverse data sets, making it a favorite for industries relying on customized print materials.

Type 4: PDF/UA - Accessibility Unleashed

In an era where inclusivity is of utmost importance, PDF/UA caters to this need. Designed to ensure documents are accessible to individuals using assistive technology, this type sets the standard for creating universally accessible PDFs. It caters to diverse user needs, making information available to everyone, regardless of their abilities.

Type 5: PDF/E - Engineering Excellence

PDF/E caters to the unique demands of engineering professionals, providing a specialized format for the efficient exchange of engineering documents. Tailored for industries where precise technical information is critical, PDF/E ensures that complex data, including 3D models and schematics, is accurately conveyed and shared among stakeholders.

Exploring the Spectrum

Beyond these well-known standards, PDF files offer a spectrum of types that cater to diverse needs. Interactive PDFs bring a dynamic touch, allowing users to engage seamlessly with content. Each type, whether it is PDF/A for archival, PDF/X for printing precision, PDF/VT for variable data, PDF/UA for accessibility, or PDF/E for engineering excellence, showcases the adaptability of PDFs to meet the demands of an ever-evolving digital world.


History of PDF File Types

To understand the landscape of PDF file types we are reviewing, it is essential to learn the history of PDF that laid the foundation for this file format. Adobe invented the Portable Document Format (PDF) in the early 1990s as a solution to the growing challenge of sharing documents seamlessly across different operating systems and devices.


The early days: invention of the PDF and PDF/A

In 1993, the inaugural PDF file format emerged, aiming to encapsulate the look and feel of a document, regardless of the software or hardware used to view it. As the use of PDFs proliferated, so did the need for specialized standards to address diverse user requirements. The journey begins with the emergence of PDF/X in 2001, providing a standardized format for the print industry, catering to the exacting demands of graphic designers and print professionals. In 2005, PDF/A was launched, designed for long-term archiving, ensuring documents stand the test of time. PDF/A is an ISO standard (ISO 19005), specifically designed for long-term archiving of electronic documents.

Increasing specialization with PDF/E, PDF/VT, and PDF/UA

With technology advancing, PDF/E was introduced in 2008, tailored for the efficient exchange of engineering documents, accommodating the intricate needs of technical industries. Simultaneously, PDF/VT stepped onto the scene in 2010, addressing the realm of variable data printing and personalized content.

The story unfolds further with the advent of PDF/UA in 2012, answering the call for universal accessibility. This standard ensures that PDF documents are not only visually accurate but also accessible to individuals using assistive technology.


Enjoy all the Possibilities of PDF Format

Having investigated a range of PDF types, it is time to grasp the possibilities that the Portable Document Format (PDF) brings to the table. As we navigate the capabilities of the file format, it becomes evident that PDFs are more than just files: they are an experience and exceedingly reliable, offering a flexible range of tools for various needs. As you will learn, there are many PDF advantages that go beyond retaining the formatting across different devices.


Different PDF types offer different possibilities

Each type of PDF offers a unique benefit. For graphic designers, PDFs stand as a hallmark of high quality. The format preserves intricate details and maintains precision, ensuring that designs are faithfully replicated across different platforms. The ability to convert PDF seamlessly is especially important, providing a universal standard for sharing content without compromising on quality.

In the area of accessibility, PDFs shine as a format enabling assistive technology. With specific types catering to inclusivity, such as PDF/UA, these files ensure that information is accessible to all, regardless of physical abilities. From editable text for screen readers to ensuring the preservation of fonts and layout, PDFs are a powerful tool for making content universally available.

A searchable PDF enables a user to navigate vast documents effortlessly. The ability to edit PDF adds another layer of functionality, empowering users to tailor content according to their needs. Whether it is tweaking text, rearranging pages, or adding annotations, the PDF format provides a versatile canvas for customization.


Go beyond digital documents with the PDF format

So, embrace the many possibilities that PDFs offer. From the designs of graphic artists to the inclusivity championed by assistive technology, PDFs stand as a testament to the convergence of high quality, diverse functionalities, and the seamless preservation of content in a portable and universal format. With a simple PDF viewer, you can enjoy the full experience and unlock possibilities that go beyond sharing static information.

Author image

Emily Shaw is the founder of DocFly. As a software developer, she built the service from scratch and is responsible for its operations and continued growth. Previously, she studied engineering at the University of Hong Kong and mathematics at the University of Manchester.