Paperwork doesn't have to be done on paper to be legally binding, but if you want those documents to be a little more enforceable, there will be a few extra steps. Using a dedicated eSignature app to add a digital signature is the best way to go.
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 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, we've got recommendations for the right apps to use. I considered and tested almost 40 electronic signature apps, and these are the eight best—for everyone on both sides of the paperwork.
The best eSignature software
DocuSign for businesses that sign lots of things
HelloSign 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 eSign app
PandaDoc for collecting payments when people sign
signNow for small teams
Digital signature vs. electronic signature
As with all things legal, definitions matter. 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 in a contentious court case.
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. 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?
How we evaluate and test apps
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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, an eSignature app 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, we were looking for ones that were great to use and could fit into a lot of different workflows.
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, we 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.
Accessibility for small to mid-sized businesses. You can find plenty of eSign apps with expensive plans, crazy contract lock-ins, and a focus on enterprise clients—but not on this list.
Security. Although we weren'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 our 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 twice over the past two years), I created an account, uploaded a Super Important Contract as a Word file, 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 our 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 our criteria. Based on all that, here are the eight best eSign apps.
Best electronic signature software for businesses that sign lots of things
DocuSign (Web, iOS, Android, Windows)
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. 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.
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 send a contract to someone who fills in a Typeform or let your team on Slack know when one has been signed.
Send Slack channel messages for signed DocuSign envelopes
Create DocuSign signature requests for new entries in Typeform
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 HelloSign (from $20/month) are great DocuSign alternatives—it just eked them out on a few specifics.
Best electronic signature app for cloud users
HelloSign (Web, iOS, Android)
HelloSign, now owned by Dropbox, is one of the best alternatives to DocuSign. It's one of simplest-to-use electronic signature apps around, has a great free plan, and offers unlimited signature requests per month on its starting paid plan. As soon as you log in, you're presented with two options: send or sign something, or create a template (as long as you're on a paid plan). The things you're going to want to do aren't hidden away in deep sub-menus.
The simplicity of the user interface, however, hides some pretty powerful features. Of all the apps we tested, HelloSign 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, Evernote, and OneDrive.
To sign a file in your Dropbox, for example, you can head to HelloSign, click Sign or Send, then click on the Dropbox icon to bring up a file browser. Navigate to the file you want to sign, and click Choose to import it into HelloSign. Alternatively, you could open the file in Dropbox, select it, click on the Share dropdown, then click Send for Signatures. You've got similar options with Google Drive too. You can upload a file directly from HelloSign or, with the Chrome add-on, sign files through the Google Drive app.
And all this file handling works both ways. When someone signs a document and sends it back to you, it can get saved back to your cloud storage platform of choice.
HelloSign 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 HelloSign 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 get an SMS when someone signs.
Request signatures with HelloSign for new Typeform entries
Send SMS messages for new HelloSign signature requests
HelloSign price: Free for 3 documents/month with one user; from $20/month for the Essentials plan with unlimited documents.
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.
Open the document you want to sign in Adobe Reader, and in the right sidebar, select Fill & Sign. Click the Sign 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 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 PAYG 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.
To make a template, head to the Templates tab. You can build your own from scratch, use a sample one as a base, or extract one from an uploaded Word doc. Just fill in all the legal details, add all the placeholders you need, and click Save Template. (It's a little less flexible than some of the other options that support more file types, but eSignatures.io's lack of lock-in makes up for it.)
With a template set up, eSignatures.io is almost ready to use—you just need to add credit card details. Head to Account > Billing and add them. Then you can start sending out documents without worrying about monthly fees or usage limits.
To get started, select the template from the dashboard, and click New Contract. You can also upload an Excel spreadsheet of contacts, if you want, and bulk send everyone the same documents to sign. Just click the dropdown and then Bulk Send Contracts.
eSignatures.io doesn't even need you to be this 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 your Google Drive account or saved back to an Excel sheet.
Upload your signed eSignatures.io documents to Google Drive
Record your signed eSignatures.io documents in Excel
eSignatures.io price: $0.49/document.
Best free eSign app
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 update a Trello card when someone signs a contract.
Send Slack channel messages for completed SignWell documents.
Update cards in Trello when documents are completed in SignWell
SignWell price: Free for up to 3 documents per month. From $10/month for the Personal plan with unlimited documents.
Eversign is another eSignature app with a great free plan. 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 collecting payments
PandaDoc (Web, iOS, Android)
Everyone likes getting paid: PandaDoc makes it really easy to make it part of your contract signing workflow, even on the free plan. You can set things up so when someone signs whatever documents you send, they enter their credit card information, and get charged. If you're sending people contracts for a specific service or job, it's a great way to tie everything together. You get your legally binding agreement and the first installment in one go.
PandaDoc integrates with a couple of different payment gateways, including Stripe, Square, and PayPal. To set up payments, you'll need an account with whatever gateway you want to use, then head to Settings > Integrations > Payment Gateways and enable it. Getting started is certainly a little more involved than some of the other apps, but the Get Started wizard will walk you through everything.
Once you've got your payment gateway set up, you can add a credit card information form to any document—whether you've made it with PandaDoc's built-in editor or uploaded an existing contract.
PandaDoc isn't exclusively for collecting payments—it's got other neat features like allowing your clients to attach files to the document—and you can send contracts out to be signed without them. It's just clear from the user interface that they're a big part of its feature set. The dashboard, for example, lists the dollar value of the contracts at every stage of the signing process, and there are sections for Paid and Unpaid contracts. The three sample documents are also an invoice, a sales proposal, and a sales quote.
PandaDoc works with Zapier, although you'll need to sign up for the $59/user/month Business plan to use it. If you do, you'll be able to do things like integrating your invoices with QuickBooks or FreshBooks.
Create QuickBooks Online invoices for new PandaDoc documents
Create FreshBooks New invoices when new PandaDoc documents are completed
PandaDoc price: Free for unlimited documents and payments. From $29/user/month for the Essentials plan with templates and document analytics.
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 our favorite 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 Teams in the bottom left corner, give your team a name, and then add the email addresses of anyone you want to invite.
Creating a team adds a Shared Templates option to the left sidebar. This is where you'll want to store any templates that you want other team members to have input on or be able to use. You can also create a Shared Documents folder in the Team Settings; that way, every team member will be able to see any completed documents too.
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 track documents using Google Sheets or update original files in Google Drive as they're updated or signed.
Track signed and updated SignNow documents in new Google Sheets spreadsheet rows
Find and replace existing Google Drive files when SignNow documents are updated
signNow price: Starts at $20/user/month for the Business plan.
Originally published in April 2015 by Paula DuPont, this post has had previous contributions from Hannah Herman.