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What's the Difference Between Digital & Electronic Signatures?

by Ayla El Assaad

You can also read this article in German, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.

Learn the difference between a digital and an electronic signature and how they impact the legality of contract signing.

As more of our workflows shift online, working with digital documents is becoming the norm. Not only are we writing and sharing documents online, but we are increasingly expected to sign documents online, too.

What Is an Electronic Signature?

An electronic or e-signature is a reproduction of your signature as an image on a digital document. This is usually a scan of your traditional signature placed on a document, or a freehand signature that you produce when you use a stylus pen or your finger. Think about every time you’ve signed a tablet or mobile device for a delivery—that’s an e-signature!

What Is a Digital Signature?

A digital signature is an advanced electronic signature that comes with added features for increased security. Digital signing uses a cryptographic process to generate a unique digital fingerprint for each signer. This is issued by an official certification authority and is used to authenticate the signer. This digital fingerprint or certification can be validated using most PDF readers. This process ensures that a digital signature can’t be forged.

Read our article on how to validate a digital signature to learn more.

Another common feature of digital signatures is Long Term Validation (LTV) timestamps. This feature marks the time a document was signed. Tampering with a document after signing invalidates the LTV making it hard to tamper with.

What Does This Mean for Legality?

Both digital and electronic signatures are legally binding. Laws do vary according to country, so it is essential to check local requirements.

Both digital and electronic signatures are great tools to speed up contract signing and create more efficient workflows. There are several signing softwares available on the market that offer both. If you’re interested in learning more or would like to trial your own digital signature, check out Smallpdf’s eSign tool.

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Ayla El Assaad
UX Writer @Smallpdf