The difference between PDF and DOCX files

Learn more about the two most popular office file formats, their applicability, and their features.

We are often faced with a variety of file formats when sharing and storing our documents. Two of the most commonly used ones are PDF and DOCX. Both formats have distinctive features and applications of their own, but what distinguishes them and when should you utilize one over the other? To answer these questions, we will take a closer look at the main differences between PDF and DOCX files. Whether you are a student, a professional, or a casual user, understanding the key distinctions between PDF and DOCX files is essential to effectively share, store, and manage your documents.

What is a PDF file?

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. It is the most used format for sending documents, especially ones not subjected to subsequent changes. The PDF format was developed by Adobe. It can present documents, text formatting and images in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems.

What is a DOCX file?

A file with the DOCX extension is a Microsoft Word Open XML Format Document file. DOCX files are stored in the Open XML format, which was introduced with Microsoft Word 2007 and is used by default in all later versions of MS Word. Earlier versions of Word use the DOC file extension. DOCX is one of the most popular formats for working with office documents.

The main differences between PDF and DOCX file

Editing capability

The level of editing capability between PDF and DOCX is one of their main differences. In general, PDF files are regarded as read-only, which means that once they have been produced, they cannot be edited or modified. As a result, PDFs are perfect for sharing or printing documents since they always maintain their original formatting and appearance.

On the other hand, DOCX files are editable and can be modified using a word processor such as Microsoft Word. This makes them useful for creating and editing documents that will be continuously revised and updated. However, this also means that DOCX files may not always maintain their original formatting when opened on different devices or software programs.

DOCX provides document creation and editing with a wide range of tools, in a more efficient and standardized way. You can format and align the text, insert complex images, equations, tables, charts, headers/footers, hyperlinks, comments, references, watermarks, etc. It is also easier to share and collaborate on DOCX documents compared to older file formats like DOC.

PDF is a better choice for documents that need to maintain a specific layout, such as contracts or forms, while DOCX is better for documents that need to be edited and formatted, such as reports or essays.

The level of compatibility

Another difference between PDF and DOCX is the level of compatibility. Almost every device, including PCs, smartphones, and tablets, can open and view PDF files. This makes them an excellent choice for documents that need to be shared with a large number of people, as there is a good chance that they will be able to open and view the file.

DOCX files, on the other hand, are primarily associated with Microsoft Word. While they can be opened and viewed on other devices, they may not retain their original formatting and may require the use of a compatible word processor in order to be edited. Apart from MS Word, other word processors, such as an open-source office suite LibreOffice Writer or OpenOffice can be used for editing .docx files. Google Docs or Microsoft Word Online can also be used to make necessary changes in Word documents.

File Security

Both formats come with security tools that protect content and restrict access to specific users. PDF and DOCX formats initially enable the following security features: password protection, digital signatures, watermarks, and limitations on copying and printing.

However, since DOCX also allows for co-editing, some phases of its life cycle call for additional security measures. To safeguard data from alteration or unauthorized access, users can be granted advanced sharing permissions, which vary depending on the processing software.

Security vulnerabilities can be found in any file type if they are not properly protected. In general, DOCX files are considered to be more susceptible to tampering, since they are editable and more vulnerable to being modified without authorization.

Image & graphic handling

PDF and DOCX files can handle images and graphics, but they are better suited for different purposes.

For images and graphics in documents intended for printing or electronic distribution, PDF files are a better choice. Since users cannot edit the information that has been converted to a PDF (PDFs are intended to be read-only documents), they are ideal for documents like brochures, flyers, and reports that need to be distributed widely. The images and graphics are embedded into the PDF – they will display correctly and maintain the quality when viewed on different devices.

DOCX files, on the other hand, are better for handling images and graphics when the document is intended for editing and collaboration. Since DOCX files are editable, they are preferable for creating documents that will be frequently updated and shared among a team, such as reports, proposals, and presentations.

File size

In general, PDF files tend to be smaller in size than DOCX files since they are optimized for viewing and printing rather than editing. You can choose to compress the PDF to reduce the file size. This can be especially useful if you need to share the PDF file online or through email, when file size may be a concern.

DOCX files are designed for editing and may contain more detailed information and formatting, which can make them larger in size. Note that you can always convert a DOCX file to a PDF file. This can often result in a smaller file size due to the optimization and compression of the PDF format.

Once you convert a document to a PDF file, you will not be able to do the reverse function unless you use special software tools with the OCR function. One such tool is PDF2Go's PDF to Word converter.


In summary, PDF and DOCX are both useful file formats for storing and sharing electronic documents. PDFs are better suited for documents that need to maintain a specific layout and be widely supported, while DOCX is better for documents that need to be edited and formatted. PDFs are considered to be more secure and better at preserving image quality, while DOCX files offer co-editing possibilities and can be easily modified.

What is important to emphasize is that you can easily convert both formats using a web-based service such as PDF2Go.