PDF vs PDFA (How It Works For Developers)

Updated June 27, 2023

Digital documents have revolutionized the way we share and store information. Of the many electronic document formats available, the Portable Document Format (PDF) is the most widely used. Recently, a newer version of PDF, known as PDFA, has emerged as a standard for archiving documents, and it is stirring quite a bit of discussion.

This article will delve into the difference between PDF and PDFA.

PDF, The Universal Electronic Document

The PDF document was created by Adobe to provide a standard format for presenting and exchanging documents reliably, independent of software, hardware, or operating systems. PDF files maintain their appearance irrespective of the device it is viewed on, providing consistency that no other file format could provide.

PDF files are versatile and can include text formatting, images, and vector graphics, in addition to interactive features like form fields, audio, and hypertext links. They also allow for the incorporation of digital signatures for added security. PDF documents are capable of being encrypted using third-party encryption algorithms, further increasing the security level of the document.

It is important to note that the PDF format can rely on external references for some of its content, such as fonts and images, which may change or become unavailable over time. Furthermore, PDF viewers may interpret the content of a PDF file in different ways, resulting in slight differences in how the document is displayed.

PDFA, The Archival-Grade PDF

PDFA, where 'A' stands for Archiving, is a version of PDF developed by the PDF Association specifically for the long-term preservation of digital documents. It differs from the standard PDF in a few key ways to ensure the document remains the same over an extended period.

PDFA files are self-contained, which means they do not rely on external font libraries or external color schemes. All the information needed to display the document, including fonts and images, is embedded within the file. This makes PDFA a better choice for long-term archiving, as it ensures the document will display in the same manner even after a long time.

PDFA also prohibits certain features unsuitable for long-term archiving, such as executable content and external links, which can make a document less stable and secure over time. These conformance levels vary from basic Level B Conformance to stricter levels.

In addition, PDFA documents also provide standards-based metadata, which includes information about the document (such as the author and creation date) and improves document management and retrieval. Another benefit is that PDFA files support Unicode mapping, which ensures that text can be searched and copied correctly.

However, creating a PDFA file from a normal PDF or other formats often requires careful visual checks and sometimes manual adjustment. The process of converting documents into PDFA is not as straightforward as saving a document in normal PDF format.

PDF vs PDFA The Key Differences

Understanding the differences between PDF and PDFA is key to deciding which format to use. Here are the main distinctions:

1. External References and Embedded Elements

In normal PDF files, certain elements like colors and fonts can reference external libraries. If the external color scheme or font is changed or deleted, it could affect how the document looks. PDFA solves this issue by embedding all necessary elements within the document, making it more resilient to changes over an extended period.

2. Executable Content and Encryption

While the standard PDF format supports executable files and third-party encryption algorithms, PDFA does not. The PDFA standard restricts features that could compromise how a document is displayed over time, such as JavaScript and encryption. This ensures conforming documents can be reliably opened and read in the future.

3. Long-Term Archiving

PDFA is designed specifically for long-term archiving. It is a standard PDF with added restrictions to ensure that documents remain the same over time. The use of PDFA ensures that documents are carefully visually checked and that they remain unchanged, making it ideal for preserving important documents for an extended period.

4. Converting Technologies

To convert a normal PDF to a PDFA file, specialized converting technologies are needed. These technologies ensure all necessary elements are embedded, non-essential or prohibited elements are removed, and that the document is compliant with the PDFA standard.

IronPDF Your Go-To Solution for PDF and PDFA

If you're dealing with PDF or PDFA files regularly, you need a reliable tool that can handle these formats effectively. IronPDF is recommended as a robust library for .NET developers to create, read, edit, and convert PDF files to PDFA files easily.

With IronPDF, you can not only convert normal PDFs into PDFA with a single line of code but also validate if your PDFA documents are conforming files. IronPDF supports generating PDFA documents from HTML, images, ASPX, and more.

using IronPdf;

// Create a PdfDocument object or open any PDF File
PdfDocument pdf = PdfDocument.FromFile("Invoice.pdf");
// Use the SaveAsPdfA method to save to file
pdf.SaveAsPdfA("pdf-a3-Invoice.pdf", PdfAVersions.PdfA3);
using IronPdf;

// Create a PdfDocument object or open any PDF File
PdfDocument pdf = PdfDocument.FromFile("Invoice.pdf");
// Use the SaveAsPdfA method to save to file
pdf.SaveAsPdfA("pdf-a3-Invoice.pdf", PdfAVersions.PdfA3);
Imports IronPdf

' Create a PdfDocument object or open any PDF File
Private pdf As PdfDocument = PdfDocument.FromFile("Invoice.pdf")
' Use the SaveAsPdfA method to save to file
pdf.SaveAsPdfA("pdf-a3-Invoice.pdf", PdfAVersions.PdfA3)
VB   C#

PDF vs PDFA (How It Works For Developers), Figure 1: The output PDF invoice file The output PDF invoice file

Whether you are working with normal PDFs, PDFA files, or even converting between the two, IronPDF ensures the process is as smooth and efficient as possible. It handles everything from embedding fonts and images to ensuring conformance with PDFA standards.


Choosing between PDF and PDFA comes down to your specific needs. If your main concern is the distribution and security of electronic documents, then the standard PDF format is likely your best option. However, if long-term archiving and preservation are what you are after, PDFA will serve you well.

IronPDF offers a free trial. During this period, you can explore the full functionality of the tool without any restrictions. After your trial period, obtaining a license is straightforward; the license starts at $749, which is a worthwhile investment given the robust features and the long-term benefits that IronPDF provides. Here are some of the important features include:

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