PDF/A – PDF file for long-term archiving

What is PDF/A?

PDF/A is an ISO standard for using the PDF format for long-term preservation and archiving of digital documents. The format offers a mechanism that represents electronic documents such that their visual appearance remains preserved for an extended period, independent of tools and systems for producing, saving, and reproducing them.

Since its publication in 2005, PDF/A has become the format of choice for archiving digital documents in a wide range of applications and industries. The letter ‘A’ in the name stands for ‘Archival’.

The different PDF/A standards

The PDF/A standards regulate how to create electronic documents to ensure they can be reliably reproduced for decades to come. There are four versions of the original ISO standard existing today:

PDF/A-1 - The first archiving standard appeared in 2001. It is based on PDF version 1.4. Features:

  • All resources (images, graphics, typographic characters) must be embedded within the PDF/A document itself.
  • Transparent elements, PDF layers, some forms of compression, and certain actions or JavaScript are forbidden.
  • A PDF/A file requires precise, platform-independent color data using ICC profiles, and XMP for the document metadata.
  • A PDF/A file must not be password-protected.
  • PDF/A-1 expressly supports embedded digital signatures and the use of hyperlinks.

PDF/A-2 was published in 2011. This version’s new features are:

  • PDF/A-2 allows JPEG2000 compression, transparent elements, and PDF layers.
  • PDF/A-2 also allows you to embed OpenType fonts and supports PAdES - PDF Advanced Electronic Signatures.
  • PDF/A files can be embedded within a PDF/A-2 document.

PDF/A-3 has been available since October 2012. A PDF/A-3 document allows you to embed any file format desired, not just PDF/A documents.

PDF/A-4 Part 4 of the standard, based on PDF 2.0, was published in late 2020.

How is PDF/A different from PDF?

PDF/A, as a subset of PDF format, firmly defines that all content and presentation of a document must be designed to ensure a self-sustaining presentation of the document independent of PDF viewers.

PDF/A realizes this through two key requirements:

  • prescribes the presentation attributes of the document that must be built into it - fonts, color profiles, etc.
  • prescribes contents that must not be embedded in the document - codes, rich contents, references to external content, encryption, etc.

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