How To (Properly) Redact a PDF

Lorem ipsum text that has been redacted

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Redacting a PDF seems like it would be the easiest thing in the world. Just draw one of those black boxes over the text you need to have disappeared, and voila! Redacted! Except that your recipient can actually just place their cursor over that part of the document, copy, and paste it into a new document.

This is exactly what happened a few years ago in a patent infringement lawsuit involving Apple and Samsung. The judge’s decision contained redactions, but a simple copy and paste revealed everything beneath. If you want to make sure you’ve actually redacted something before sharing it, there are several methods—all of which are more secure than the black box.

Redacting Using Adobe Acrobat Pro

Redacting in Adobe Acrobat Pro is very simple. The main problem with this method is you need Adobe Acrobat Pro. It is not cheap.1

You can buy the desktop software (Mac or Windows) for $449, or you can subscribe to it for $14.99 a month if you agree to a year-long commitment. Acrobat Pro is $24.99 if you want to go month-to-month. The latter model is suboptimal, as you’re basically renting the software. But renting does get you access to Adobe’s Document Cloud service, which adds features like the ability to fill out, sign, and send forms from your tablet.

If redaction is a real rarity (as in a one-time thing), you can download a free 30-day trial of Adobe Acrobat Pro.

Adobe provides an overview of how to redact documents and remove sensitive information. It really only takes a few clicks.

First, open the document you wish to redact, go to the Tools menu, then select Redact.


Doing so will bring up the redaction tools when you hop back to your document. Select Mark for Redaction and Adobe will pop up a handy reminder that redacting is a two-step process.2


From there, just highlight the text you want to redact. Acrobat will outline it for you in bright red.


Click Apply to redact… but first, Acrobat will ask if you are really sure you want the material gone.


Click OK and your text will disappear forever. Acrobat will then ask you if you want to find and remove any other hidden information.


You should always say yes to this. Acrobat is asking if you want to remove the metadata, and you always want to remove the metadata. In this document, there’s nothing particularly secret, but the metadata does let you know I’m on a Mac and that I made this PDF with Microsoft Word originally.


Scrubbing the metadata ensures that any author information, revision information, or anything similar gets completely excised from the document. There is no reason to ever hand over a PDF before you’ve scrubbed the metadata.

Alternatives To Adobe Acrobat Pro

$449 for Acrobat Pro is a pretty steep price. Unfortunately, super-cheap PDF redacting is hard to come by. There are a few alternatives, though. If you are on a Windows machine, consider NitroPDF, which will run you $159. You can get a free two-week trial to check it out. Foxit makes Foxit Redactor, which is software solely to redact Microsoft Word documents. It’s an Office plug-in, so you access the redaction tools within Office itself, which is handy, and it’s only $39.95. However, Redactor only works on Windows and only works within Office, so it is limited to documents you create (or already have in an Office format), not PDFs you’ve received.

Old-School Redacting

Sometimes low-tech (or no tech at all) is the easiest-and cheapest-approach. Print out your PDF, black marker the heck out of it, scan it, and send it. Just remember you really do need to make a few passes with that black marker to completely obliterate things.

If you don’t feel like printing, marking, and scanning, you can do something similar via computer. Take your PDF and draw a black box in Acrobat Reader or Mac’s Preview or any similar PDF reader. After you do that, take a screenshot of your document. The resulting image is just that—an image—and therefore can’t be manipulated in Word or any other program. The problem with these two methods is that you are left with a document that isn’t searchable or conducive to redlining or commenting.

Bottom line: If you are in the type of practice that requires a good deal of document redacting, it is probably best to invest in a dedicated program, even though there will be some sticker shock.

  1. Sure, you already have Adobe’s Acrobat Reader, because everyone does, but you can’t perform redactions with it. 

  2. Nonsense text for this document courtesy of Office Ipsum


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  • Duke Vukadinovic

    Hey Lisa,

    While redacting a PDF seems the easiest thing in the world, it’s not. I agree with your suggestion that if someone is in the type of business that requires a good deal of document redacting, he should definitely invest in a dedicated program.

    Really enjoyed reading this post!

  • Brian Kurtyka

    Is it possible to uncover the so-called “black box” redactions if the pdf is password protected? All cut/copy/paste functions appear to be locked when I do that.

    • Well, it’s not redaction as required by the courts because the information is still in the document.

      Using a password will make it harder to get at that information, but I bet it’s still possible. It might not even be that difficult.

      • Brian Kurtyka

        You’re right. Simply uploading the pdf to opened a test document in about 5 seconds!

  • Phacetious Plebbe

    Using the feature of the black box/bar in Preview on the Mac is certainly an option, but then you can make it better by exporting it as a PDF so that the “screenshot” is actually a conversion of the entire document, not just what is on the screen at the time.

    • That doesn’t work. The black boxes are still exported as a layer separate from the image. If you OCR the resulting PDF, you can still get the underlying text.

      • Phacetious Plebbe

        Sam, thanks for letting me know. Good thing I don’t practice civil or commercial law! I would probably be dead in the water. In any event I have a copy of Adobe Acrobat X Pro, so I can use that for the redaction.

  • DJ

    You can redact for free using Foxit Reader. Just highlight the text OR draw a rectangle over the text (both options are in the Home menu). Right click on the text/rectangle, click properties, and set the two color boxes to black (two b/c the colors are for the border and the middle of the rectangle), and save those color selections as the default so you dont have to do that again.

    Now the blacked out part isnt technically redacted. If you save the file, the box/highlights can be removed. But if you print out a hard copy of the document, this method will obscure whatever text you put it over. Then you just need to re-scan the hard copy.

    • That is not redaction unless you print out the document with black rectangles and then re-scan the printed document. You’ll also want to carefully keep track of which version of the document is the redacted one and which one just has black rectangles.

      It’s basically the same thing as using a black marker, and just as clunky.

      The bottom line is that if you are regularly redacting documents, just get Adobe Acrobat Pro. It is the right tool for the job.

      • DJ

        You primary objection seems to be reiterating my last paragraph.

        I disagree that it is anything near as clunky as using a marker. This is a method I use several times a week on 1-2 pages. It is very fast and produces very professional looking results (unlike a marker). And best of all it is free and foolproof. You cant accidentally do it the wrong way and disclose confidential information.

        Acrobat is insanely overpriced. Even if you wanted an easier process than I described, that reductionist advice is unnecessary.

        • David K. Hiscock

          I’m with DJ on this one, Sam.

          My office rarely needs to redact document content, so Acrobat’s insane over-price is even _more_ of an obstacle.

          I highlight, change from yellow to black and “print” as a PDF, indicating “note marked changes”.

          I get a document that has blackouts where I want ’em.

          Physically printing and re-scanning or saving the file as an image, rahter than text may be yet more secure.

          • There’s no disagreement here. Your method and DJ’s absolutely works. The problem is that a lot of lawyers, courts, legislatures, etc.—including some in these comments—seem to think it works even if you don’t take the time to print out a hard copy of the document and then re-scan it.

            So I think it’s worth reiterating again and again that you cannot properly redact a document just by drawing black boxes. It only works if you print out a hard copy and then re-scan it.

  • anith

    Most e-discovery review software has the ability to redact documents and then produce the document. This way you still have access to the original content for your own review and search, but the produced documents are redacted for everyone else.

  • Diane

    Nice instructions! Thank you. Whatever program is used, it is often difficult to find good, clear instructions.

  • Amie Colbert

    Valuable suggestions

  • Bailey Coppage1

    I love it! Excellent article. I had a good experience filling forms online and happy to share it with you. Just look at the service Its pretty easy to use. I think you can get a free trial if you ask for it.

  • James

    Here’s my method. I believe it works in regular Acrobat, and older versions of Acrobat Pro that don’t have the redaction tool.
    1. Get yourself a .jpg that you will use as a redaction box. It can be a picture of a black rectangle, or whatever. (I know what you’re thinking, but keep reading)
    2. “Add Image” the .jpg into the document you want to redact. Adjust the size and position to cover up the text you want redacted.
    3. Use the “Remove Hidden Information” option. In Acrobat Pro IX, it’s under Tools–Protection–Remove Hidden Information. Among other things, it will detect “Hidden text”–whatever is under the redaction box. Make sure that checkbox is ticked, then click “Remove.”
    4. The text underneath the box is now erased. You can double check this by using the “Edit Text & Images” option to move the box and see for yourself. (Note that if it’s a document with editable or OCR text in the first place, you can just skip the box and just erase the text directly.)
    It’s a clunky method, but works for the occasional redaction without having to purchase new software beyond regular Acrobat.

  • Tiffany Patterson

    Thanks for this. I have this program but didn’t realize I could redact in it. We’ve been using the old school method. This article may change my life. Thanks.