Paperwork is now more of an abstract concept than something that requires a printer, a few sheets of paper, and a pen. A contract doesn't have to be physically signed to be legally binding, but there are still a few hoops you have to jump through to make sure your electronic signature will hold up in court. Using a dedicated eSignature app to sign documents online is the best way to go if you want your digital signature to stand up to legal scrutiny.
As a freelance tech writer, I've had to sign dozens of contracts, statements of work, W8-BEN-E forms, and other legal documents over the last decade just to do my job. It's reached the point now that I'm relieved to see a DocuSign or Dropbox Sign link in an email—and get stressed when it's a link from one of the many apps not on this list.
Whether you're looking for a way to electronically sign a document that you've just received or want to send documents out to be digitally signed by contractors and other business partners, I have recommendations for the right apps to use. I considered and tested almost 40 electronic signature apps, and these are the seven best—for everyone on both sides of the paperwork. (Seriously, if you hire freelance writers, please use one of these apps. Please.)
The best eSignature software
DocuSign for businesses that sign lots of things
Dropbox Sign for integration with cloud storage
Preview for occasionally signing documents on a Mac
Adobe Acrobat Reader for occasionally signing documents on a PC
eSignatures.io for a pay-as-you-go option
SignWell for a free document signing app
signNow for small teams
How to sign documents online: Digital signature vs. electronic signature
As with all things legal, definitions matter. When talking about online document signing, electronic signatures and digital signatures are slightly different things.
An electronic signature is just your typed, drawn, or otherwise computer-added signature on a document. You can make one with almost any app, from Microsoft Word to Adobe Photoshop. It's still legally binding, but because anyone could easily forge it, you might have a harder time enforcing its validity in a contentious court case. If the other side can convincingly argue that your erstwhile business partner left their iPad on their coffee table and a small child decided to draw a squiggle on the open document, then you might be out a lot of money.
A digital signature is a special kind of electronic signature that uses cryptography to protect the document and also embeds details like email addresses, when and where people signed any documents, and the serial number and identifying details of the device they use to do it. This creates both a "fingerprint" that makes the document unique and a paper trail that can be independently verified. If there ever was a court case, it would be a lot harder for anyone to claim they weren't the one to actually sign the document—the kid hardly squiggled in their email address. For official purposes, digital signatures are a lot more secure and legally recognized around the world—and you need a dedicated eSign app to add them.
We use the terms interchangeably—in common usage, they basically are—but it's worth keeping that distinction in mind as you do your research.
What makes a great electronic signature app?
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The problem with business app categories like this is that often the people paying for the app (or deciding which one to get) aren't the ones who have to use it every day. And while there are lots of eSignature apps out there, a lot of them are awful to use.
To make this list, the document signing software had to be nice to use but also provide all the features that businesses need. Any good eSignature app has to meet a few criteria:
The ability to add an electronic (or digital) signature to any document. Signing things is the whole point of these apps. But the simpler and easier it is to do, the more different kinds of documents and devices that are supported, and the deeper the integrations with other apps and software platforms, the better. While almost any app can simply add a signature or typed name, I was looking for ones that were great to use and could fit into a lot of different workflows, whether you were onboarding people internally or hiring external contractors.
The ability to send a document to someone else to have them sign it. This is a really important feature for a dedicated eSign app and, like when signing a document yourself, I wanted it to be easy and pleasant for the recipient. (Seriously, I've had to sign a lot of documents with awful apps.) The recipient also had to be able to do it without being forced to sign up for an account or install any apps. As much as I'm comparing apps here, I'm also ranking them against the ease of signing a sheet of paper.
Accessibility for small to mid-sized businesses. You can find plenty of eSign apps with expensive plans, contract lock-ins, seats for dozens of people, and a focus on enterprise clients—but not on this list. I looked for apps you could use to sign a few clients a month or onboard a hundred or so employees, but not manage a multinational corporation.
Security. Although I wasn't looking for a specific set of features, any app that could store sensitive documents like contracts needed to address it in some way. Things like encrypted or password-protected documents, U.S. or EU government compliance, and digital signature support were all enough to make the grade. (With that said, make sure that any app you use meets the compliance standards of your country or industry. They can vary quite a lot.)
A free trial (or free plan). This is a field crammed with different competitors, and telling the good from the bad just from their websites is nearly impossible (trust me, I know). A decent free trial—or better yet, a free plan—was needed to make this list. Priority was also given to apps that didn't collect credit card details. They're just not necessary.
I started out with a list of almost 40 eSignature apps. That was too many to meaningfully test, so I cut it down by checking out their websites and excluding any that obviously didn't meet the criteria, were clearly aimed at enterprise clients, had generally poor user reviews, or otherwise didn't look like a good fit.
For the remaining apps (which I've now tested three times over the past three years), I created an account, uploaded a Super Important Contract as a Word file and a PDF, and sent it to a second email address. I then signed the contract both as the sender and the recipient, which gave me a good sense of the overall workflow. Most apps that didn't make the list were cut at this stage, as the process for either the sender or the recipient wasn't up to my standards.
For those apps that passed, I spent more time exploring the interface, trying any headline features they claimed to have, and making sure they met the rest of the criteria. Based on all that, here are the seven best eSign apps.
Best electronic signature software for businesses that sign lots of things
DocuSign (Web, iOS, Android)
DocuSign is one of the most popular electronic signature apps available, and for good reason. It's great to use and hits all the features most people need in an eSignature app. Even if it's not the absolute best app for your particular needs, it's probably in the top three.
Getting started with DocuSign is pretty straightforward: sign up for a free trial, and almost immediately, it's prompting you to upload a document, prepare it for signatures, and send it to recipients. If you need someone to sign something on the hurry up, you'll be able to do it in a few minutes with DocuSign's free trial.
DocuSign is set up so that it's easy to keep track of lots of different documents at different stages in the signing process. In the Manage dashboard, there's a sidebar with an Inbox for any documents or "envelopes" you've received, a Sent box for the ones you've sent, and a Drafts tab for ones you're working on. There are also Quick View options, so you can, well, quickly see any documents that you need to do something to, the ones you're waiting on, any that are due to expire soon or where the recipient failed to sign, and all your completed documents.
DocuSign also has powerful templates and reporting features. If you're sending the same contracts over and over again, you can set up a template in the Templates dashboard. Simply upload a file (or use one you've already sent as a base), add all the signature and information fields, and save it—it's much the same process as sending out an individual document and really speeds things up.
If you're only sending a couple of envelopes a month, the report features aren't going to be much use—you know who has and hasn't signed their contract. But if you're managing dozens of contractors or freelancers, or require all your clients to sign contracts, then they can give you a useful overview of where your business stands. Click on the Reports tab, and you'll see things like how many envelopes you've sent, how quickly people sign them, and the number that are still unsigned.
DocuSign also integrates with Zapier, so you can do things like automatically upload DocuSign envelopes to the cloud or let your team know when one has been signed.
Send Slack channel messages for signed DocuSign envelopes
Upload newly-signed DocuSign envelopes to Google Drive
DocuSign price: From $15/month for a Personal plan with up to 5 envelopes sent per month. Unlimited documents with automatic reminders are available on the Standard plan at $45/user/month.
DocuSign isn't the only solid eSign app for businesses that need to handle a lot of documents. Both SignEasy (from $15/month) and Dropbox Sign (from $20/month) are great DocuSign alternatives—it just eked them out on a few specifics.
Best digital signature app for cloud users
Dropbox Sign (Web, iOS, Android)
Dropbox Sign, formerly HelloSign, is one of the best alternatives to DocuSign. It's one of the simplest-to-use electronic signature apps around, has a 30-day free trial, and offers unlimited signature requests per month on its starting paid plan. (It's worth noting, if you already have a Dropbox subscription, you can send three signature requests per month, and sign as many documents as you want to yourself.)
At the moment, Dropbox Sign is still firmly in the middle of a transition. While the app is great, expect to see plenty of "HelloSign"s around the place—especially in URLs. It doesn't break anything, except perhaps password managers, so just accept it and assume that by the time this list is updated next year, the integration will be much more seamless.
Dropbox Sign's simple user interface hides some pretty powerful features. Of all the apps I tested, it has the best integrations with cloud storage platforms. While you'd expect it to play nice with Dropbox, it also works well with Google Drive, Box, Microsoft SharePoint, Microsoft Word, OneDrive, and even Evernote.
Dropbox Sign doesn't hold back on the other features, either. It supports custom templates, and, on higher plans, custom branding, multiple users, and advanced team management. If you want to integrate Dropbox Sign with non-cloud storage apps, you can do it with Zapier. That way, you can do things like automatically send a contract when someone fills in a Typeform or log signature requests in Google Sheets.
Request signatures with Dropbox Sign for new Typeform entries
Log Dropbox Sign signature requests in Google Sheets
Dropbox Sign price: From $20/month for the Essentials plan with unlimited documents; free for 3 documents per month for existing Dropbox customers.
Deciding between Dropbox Sign and DocuSign? Read our showdown: HelloSign vs. DocuSign.
Best electronic signature app for occasionally signing documents on a Mac
If you've been sent a document to sign and nobody needs all the alarm bells and security whistles that come with one of our other picks, you have options. If you have a Mac, you don't need to worry about installing any software or signing up for any services. You can sign things straight from Preview.
Open the document you want to sign in Preview, go to Tools > Annotate > Signature > Manage Signatures, and click Create Signature. You can then create a signature using your trackpad, your iPhone, or by signing a piece of paper and holding it up to the camera.
Click Done, and then you can drag your new signature to where it needs to be. Save the document, send it back, and you're good to go. And your signature stays saved in Preview for future use.
Preview price: Included free with all Macs
Best electronic signature app for occasionally signing documents on a PC
Adobe Acrobat Reader DC (Windows)
Windows PCs don't have an awesome built-in option like Preview, but you can still quickly sign any document with the free Adobe Acrobat Reader DC app—something you probably already have installed. If you don't, download it from Adobe's website. (Adobe also offers a more robust app, called Acrobat Sign—formerly Adobe Sign—but it's more complicated.)
Open the document you want to sign in Adobe Reader, and in the right sidebar, select Fill & Sign. Click the Sign yourself button in the toolbar and then Add Signature.
There are a couple of ways you can create a signature: you can type your name and have Adobe Reader convert it into something that looks like a signature, draw one with your trackpad, or upload an image of your signature. Drawing is probably the easiest if you want something unique without too much hassle.
Drag your signature to where you want it to be, save the document, and send it back. And just like that, you're done.
Adobe Reader also has a paid plan that allows you to send a document off to be signed but, honestly, keeping track of what it's called, how it works, how you sign up, and how it's different from the other Adobe eSign apps has been a nightmare over the past few years. The situation is so chaotic that I really recommend you just check out a different app if you want to be able to send things off to be signed.
Adobe Reader DC price: Free
Best electronic signature app with a pay-as-you-go option
A lot of eSign apps limit the number of documents you can send per month without signing up for one of the more expensive plans. It's pretty inconvenient if your eSigning needs vary throughout the year, say, because you hire seasonal staff or your projects don't follow a predictable pattern. You either can't send all the documents you need to when you want to, or you have to overpay most months. eSignatures.io, with its exclusively pay-as-you-go option, bucks this trend entirely.
As soon as you sign up for a free account, eSignatures.io encourages you to send a sample contract to yourself so you can see how the service works. (The same demo is also built into the website homepage, which is pretty awesome.) After that, things are up to you—although the onboarding wizard helpfully guides you through.
Unlike other of the best eSignature services, eSignatures.io isn't really made for sending individual contracts to one-off recipients. You can do that if you like, but it's really designed for businesses looking to batch or automate their contracts using templates. (You set them up in the Templates tab. They're a bit less flexible than some of the other options, but the lack of lock-in makes up for it.)
Once you've got a credit card set up, eSignatures.io doesn't even need you to be hands-on to work. There's an API if you want to code your own integrations, and there's built-in Zapier support for everyone else. That means you can easily do things like have new signed contracts automatically uploaded to Google Docs or tracked in your CRM.
Upload your signed eSignatures.io documents to Google Docs
Keep track of new signed eSignatures.io documents in HubSpot
eSignatures.io price: $0.49/document.
Best electronic signature app for free document signing
Not every business needs to send or sign dozens of contracts a month. If that's the case, then SignWell (previously known as Docsketch), with its three documents per month free plan, might be the perfect fit.
As soon as you sign up, you're good to start sending contracts. Just click New Document on the dashboard. You can either upload a document to be signed or build a template (though you only get one on the free plan). Whichever option you take, you'll use SignWell's modern and, honestly, really nice-to-use web app to add any information and signature fields. If you turn on Suggest Fields, it will even help you place things on any blank lines or gaps in the document. Click Send, and it's on its way to be signed.
Now, don't worry—SignWell is on this list because it's a good, easy-to-use, and fully-featured electronic signature app. That it's got a great free plan is just a big bonus. If you need to send more documents some months, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend upgrading to a paid plan. The $10/month Personal plan gets you five templates and unlimited documents, while the $30/month Business plan has unlimited templates, up to three team members, custom branding, and a few other nice-to-have features like data validation.
If you like to automate your workflows, SignWell also integrates with Zapier. That way, you can do things like automatically get a Slack notification or upload a document to Google Drive when a document is completed in SignWell.
Send Slack channel messages for completed SignWell documents.
Upload newly sent SignWell documents to Google Drive
SignWell price: Free for up to 3 documents per month. From $10/month for the Personal plan with unlimited documents.
eversign is another great free eSign app. It allows you to send up to five documents per month, but the app isn't as easy to use. Also, there are no templates on the free plan. If you want to send four or five documents each month, however, it's worth checking out.
Best electronic signature app for small teams
signNow (Web, iOS, Android)
For many businesses, paperwork is a team effort. You may need people from different departments to collaborate on, or at least check out, documents before you send them off. Many electronic signature apps charge a significant per-user monthly fee. Adding two or three extra accounts doesn't just double or triple your costs; when compared to the single-user personal plans, it can easily quadruple or quintuple them.
That's why signNow is my favorite signature app for small teams—it doesn't even have a separate personal or individual plan. The Business plan starts at $20/user/month when paid monthly, which puts it at the more affordable end of the spectrum. And, if you pay annually, it's just $8/user/month. As long as you're prepared to commit to the platform and know you'll need to work on a lot of contracts with your team, that's as good value as it gets.
When you sign up, the first thing you'll need to do is invite your other team members. Click MyTeams in the bottom-left corner, then Create Team, and then add the email addresses of anyone you want to invite.
In addition to its team features, signNow ticks all the boxes of a great electronic signature app. Signing documents is easy for recipients, you get unlimited templates for different document types, and there are even mobile apps. You can also use Zapier to connect it to your other services, so you can automatically do things like request signatures from new Trainerize clients or based on new Google Sheets rows.
Request signatures in SignNow from new Trainerize clients
Request signatures in SignNow from new Google Sheets rows
signNow price: Starts at $20/user/month for the Business plan.
What's the best electronic signature app to sign documents online?
Honestly, the most important thing is that you're actually using any of these apps. They all take care of the basics—getting you a legal signature that you can track—but each one comes at it from a slightly different angle. If your team needs to sign documents online every day, be sure that the electronic signature app you choose feels easy to use and integrates with the other apps in your workflow.
Read more: The best document management software