The importance of PDF/A for long-term digital archiving


PDF/A is a special type of PDF designed specifically for long-term digital archiving and preservation of electronic documents. In today's digital world, where paper documents are increasingly being replaced by digital files, it is crucial to have a method that ensures easy retrieval and display of documents over an extended period. In Europe, PDF/A is recommended or even legislated for long-term archiving in various organizations and governments, while in the U.S., recommendations exist in the fields of jurisdiction and libraries. The main goal of PDF/A is to limit and define technologies in a way that enables the files to be displayed accurately in the distant future, even when using different software.

What does PDF/A compliance entail? 

PDF/A compliance requires files to meet certain ISO requirements. Everything needed to accurately render the document must be contained within the file, including fonts, color profiles, images and other elements. While PDF files can be converted to PDF/A, not all features of the source PDF may be transferable, and PDF/A files cannot be encrypted. 

Tip: It is recommended to implement access control at the storage locations to keep the files secure. Additionally, digital signatures can be added to PDF/A files to prove authenticity and verify that the document has not been modified after signing.


What are the different variants of PDF/A?

PDF/A exists in different variants. Each of them have different PDF/A standards and conformance levels. The PDF/A standards define the features and image compression technologies, which help to preserve the content of a file. Moreover, the PDF/A standard supports a variety of conformance levels. Through these levels, the accessibility requirements that impact the understanding of the content are being controlled. By knowing the different options for PDF/A, you can improve the value of your documents for your viewing, printing, sharing and archiving purposes. 

 PDF/A-1: This is the original PDF/A standard and comes with some restrictions regarding the use of fonts, color, annotations and some other elements. It comes in level b (basic) and level a (accessible): 

  • PDF/A-1b predominantly focuses on the preservation of the visual appearance of a document.
  • PDF/A-1a adds features that improve the file's accessibility for physically impaired users. Its requirements include reliable text semantics and structure information to preserve the document’s natural reading order and logical structure.

PDF/A-2: This standard has several additions, such as JPEG 2000 compression and optional content layers as well as PDF packages. It also allows file attachments, as long as the attached documents themselves adhere to PDF/A-1 or PDF/A-2 standards. While PDF/A-2 also comes with level b and level a conformance, a new conformance - level u (unicode) - was introduced. It guarantees that the text can be reliably searched and copied.

PDF/A-3: This standard is almost identical to PDF/A-2. The only difference is that it allows arbitrary file formats to be embedded into PDF/A conforming files. These arbitrary file formats are CSV, CAD, XML, spreadsheet documents, word-processing documents and more.

Important to note: None of the different ISO standards replace their predecessor, and future developments to the PDF/A standard won't make current PDF/A versions obsolete. There is always a requirement for backward compatibility of PDF viewing applications, ensuring that older versions of PDF/A will still be displayed correctly.

How to create PDF/A documents using PDFCreator

In PDFCreator you can convert your files to PDF/A-1b, PDF/A-2b and PDF/A-3b. 

  1. Download and install PDFCreator (if not already installed)
  2. Select the output format in the print window


  1. Download and install PDFCreator (if not already installed)
  2. Go to the "Profiles" tab and click on "Convert"
  3. Select from the output formats PDF/A-1b, PDF/A-2b and PDF/A-3b
  4. Convert the PDF using the profile for which you selected the PDF/A format

With the option of setting up different profiles and printers, the selection of the right format for individual purposes can be automated and easily integrated into your workflow. If you are interested in finding out more about how to automate your PDF files, check out our article about PDF automation.

FAQs: Long-term archiving with PDF/A

What is PDF/A?

PDF/A is a standard for archiving electronic documents in PDF format. It is specifically designed for long-term preservation of documents without loss of information.

What is the purpose of PDF/A?

PDF/A ensures that documents can be preserved and retrieved in their original format, regardless of changes in technology or software, making it suitable for long-term archiving of electronic documents.

What are the main differences between PDF/A and regular PDF?

PDF/A has specific requirements designed to ensure document preservation, such as embedding of fonts, prohibiting encryption, and requiring certain metadata standards. Regular PDFs may not meet these requirements and are not optimized for long-term preservation.

How can I create PDF/A documents?

PDF/A documents can be created using specialized software or by converting existing PDF documents to PDF/A format using PDF conversion software. It's important to ensure that the resulting PDF/A document meets the requirements of the desired PDF/A version.

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