When it comes to conveniently signing important documents, an electronic or digital signature is a must-have.
While plenty of people still use hard copies in order to sign their names on the dotted line, electronic methods for getting that ever-important signature will only continue to increase in popularity.
Have you only ever signed a document the old-fashioned way and are feeling intimidated by the modern way of doing things?
Have no fear—we’re covering everything you need to know about how to electronically sign a document.
Why You Want a Digital or Electronic Signature
Let’s face it—printing out a document, signing it, and then either mailing, hand-delivering, or scanning it back to the intended recipient isn’t a broken way of doing things.
In fact, it still works pretty well.
However, perhaps the biggest selling point of electronic signatures is their convenience.
There’s no printing or postage you need to worry about. Instead, you can quickly and painlessly provide a legal signature on a document with just a click or two of a button.
Another great perk of digital signatures?
The added security they offer.
Provided you’re using a true digital signature (as opposed to an electronic signature—we’ll talk more about the differences between those a little later!), your signature will use digital keys.
Like the pen and paper method, a digital signature attaches the identity of the signer to the document and records a binding commitment to the document,
-explains a fact sheet for DigiStamp,-
Compared to a handwritten signature, it is considered significantly more difficult to forge a digital signature, provided the keys used to create it are kept secure.
Digital Signatures vs. Electronic Signatures
You’ll hear the terms digital signature and electronic signature used interchangeably.
However, many people aren’t aware that there actually is a pretty significant difference between these two different types of methods.
Electronic signatures are far simpler.
In fact, they just involve a person’s electronic agreement to a document. This could be represented by an image of a signature, a cursive font, or even a mouse-drawn signature.
By inserting some sort of representation of your signed name, you’re authorizing that document as binding—like it would be if you were to have used pen to actually sign your name there.
In contrast, a digital signature if a bit more involved.
Digital signatures “cryptographically attach your identity to a document using a method that cannot be forged,” explains an article for Lifehacker.
In most personal use cases, you’ll only need an electronic signature—and, there are plenty of platforms that make that easy.
However, in some cases, a company or entity might require a digital signature to truly count that document as valid.
What to Consider Before Signing Documents Online
Signing documents digitally or electronically seems like it can take a lot of pain out of the process, right? However, there are some important considerations you should make before jumping right in.
1. Confirm Understanding of What You’re Signing
In any scenario, you never want to sign your name on a document until you’ve read it in its entirety.
You know that—but, when you’re attempting to breeze your way through, slap your signature in the designated space, and then submit it, it can be easy to forget.
In some ways, signing a document online feels far less formal than doing so on a hard copy. But, considering the fact that most platforms will require you to consent to do business electronically, that electronic or digital signature will be just as legally binding as any hard copy document you would have signed.
So, while the added convenience is a perk, don’t take that to mean that you don’t need to read the entirety of the document you’re signing.
Yes, even if it’s dozens of pages of jargon, you need to ensure that you understand what you’re agreeing to.
2. Record Retention
If you use a platform in order to sign a document (think something like Docsketch, DocuSign or HelloSign, for example), most are setup to deliver a signed copy to all necessary recipients after the document has been completed by all parties.
However, even so, record retention is still an important element you need to pay attention to. Whether the platform delivers a signed copy to your inbox (where you can file it away for safekeeping!) or you need to take the initiative to retrieve and then store a copy yourself, make sure you keep a copy of any important documents you’ve signed.
That’s important in case you should ever need to refer back to them to answer a question or resolve an issue.
3. Security Concerns
Digital signatures—remember, those are the ones that cryptographically attach your identity—are extremely secure.
However, the more simple electronic signatures are far more commonplace—and, unfortunately, not nearly as secure.
Many people are concerned that institutions like banks, for example, are more than willing to just accept a picture of someone’s signature as a legally-binding agreement.
While that definitely serves a purpose, it’d be incredibly easy for someone to just screenshot your autograph and insert it on any other documents of their choosing—without you having any knowledge of that happening.
Many institutions have mitigated this risk by implementing registration processes and authentication tools that require users to validate their identities.
But, when you’re signing anything—whether it’s online or in-person—you should make sure to ask any questions and inform yourself about any security concerns you have.
How to Sign a Document Online: Electronic Signatures
With all of that information under your belt, it’s time to get to the good stuff: how you can sign documents online yourself.
Again, there’s a big, important difference between electronic signatures and digital signatures. So, let’s start with the easier, far-more-common one first—electronic signatures.
Here are a couple of different methods you can use to sign documents electronically.
1. Utilize a Simple Image of Your Signature
When it comes to how to sign electronically, it can be as simple as uploading an image file of your hand-drawn signature and then inserting it on the necessary document (Macworld has a great tutorial on how you can use your own handwritten signature!).
We know—this seems overly simplified. However, with electronic signatures, you need to remember that it’s more about the intent than the actual action.
In order to constitute an electronic signature, the electronic mark must be 1) made by the person with 2) the intent to sign the record,
-explains Louisiana attorney Andrew Legrand in an article for PCWorld,-
It’s not much different from a handwritten signature. Essentially, it’s not the actual mark but the meaning behind the mark that’s important.
2. Use a Platform
While the simple photo of your signature will do the trick in a pinch, it’s typically easier, faster, and more secure to use an existing platform to sign your name on the dotted line.
Because e-signatures have been growing in popularity, plenty of apps and solutions have cropped up to help users sign documents without any hassle or headache.
In fact, some even allow you to just draw your signature with your computer mouse (yes, that still holds up as a legal signature—remember, it’s about the intent).
Curious about some different platforms you can use?
Here are a few popular ones:
Price: Free or $10 for premium features
Docsketch focuses on providing faster turnaround time with a simple and clean approach to electronically signing documents.
The free plan they provide is a great way to get started. You can get access to the paid premium features for $10 a month. All plans include document tracking, reminders, and flexible document workflows.
Every document signed with Docsketch receives an audit report that meets or exceeds U.S. and international e-signature law requirements.
Price: $10 per month for a personal plan
Like any of the other platforms, DocuSign is also extremely intuitive—but, it does come with features (like digital signatures—more on that in a moment!) that you won’t find elsewhere.
For an electronic signature, just upload your document and either insert a picture of your signature or choose from the numerous different cursive fonts to sign your name.
DocuSign does offer a 30-day free trial, but you’ll need to spend $10 per month for a personal plan after that.
Chances are, you’ve run into HelloSign a time or two already—it’s an extremely popular service for getting documents signed.
HelloSign offers tons of collaboration features, integrates with Google Drive, and provides status notifications about your documents.
There is a free plan, but you’ll only be able to send three documents per month. However, if you receive a document via HelloSign, you don’t need to have an account and there is no charge for you to sign a document.
If you’re looking for something that’s incredibly simple to use, SignNow will fit the bill. Simply upload the document that you need to sign. At that point, you can either upload your existing signature or draw in a new one.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are plenty of other electronic signature platforms out there, so do your research and find the one that best fits your needs!
How to Sign a Document Online: Digital Signatures
So, what about digital signatures? Those are far more advanced and involved. But, they also offer far more security—which means you just might want one for yourself.
Because a digital signature literally attaches your identity to your signature, it doesn’t look like the normal cursive writing you’ve likely grown used to seeing.
Instead, as this Washington Secretary of State fact sheet explains, a digital signature would look like this:
We know—this seems complicated. But, fortunately, technology exists to make this process a whole lot easier. In fact, you can use some of the platforms we mentioned above to obtain and use a digital signature.
DocuSign, in particular, offer capabilities based on digital signature technologies. As DocuSign explains, the platform provides “an interface for sending and signing documents online and work with the appropriate Certificate Authorities to provide trusted digital certificates.”
What exactly is a digital certificate?
As DocuSign continues, “a digital certificate is an electronic document issued by a Certificate Authority (CA). It contains the public key for a digital signature and specifies the identity associated with the key, such as the name of an organization.”
Yes, this all sounds complex and jargon-filled. That’s why it’s best to use a platform to create and use your own digital signature.
Any tool worth its weight in salt will walk you through all of the necessary steps to get your digital signature.
Over to You
There’s no denying that there’s a lot of information involved when it comes to using digital or electronic signatures. And, if you’re like most people, you didn’t even realize that there was a difference between those two categories before you dove into this article.
Remember, an electronic signature represents a broader category that just means to sign something online, rather than a hard copy.
A digital signature, however, is far more involved and secure, and thus requires certain steps to verify your identity.
You’ll hear digital signature and electronic signature used interchangeably, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right. Make sure that you do your research to understand what’s required and what tool you’d need to use in order to fulfill those signature requirements.
While the complexities and technology behind these different signatures might feel slightly overwhelming, signing something online is actually incredibly convenient and painless.
Knowledge is power.
So, use this information to your advantage and prepare to take the pain out of signing those important documents!
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.