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Papers are now more abstract concepts than something that requires a printer, a few sheets of paper and a pen. A contract does not have to be legally binding, but there are a few things that must be overcome in order for it to stand up in court. Using a dedicated e-signature application to add a digital signature is the best way to ensure that important contracts and other documents you send to your clients via email or online stand up to legal scrutiny.
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As a freelance technology writer, I’ve had to sign dozens of contracts, job applications, W8-BEN-E forms, and other legal documents to do my job over the past decade. Now it’s gotten to the point where I’m relieved when I see a link to the DocuSign or Dropbox badge in an email — and stressed when it’s a link to one of the many apps not on that list.
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Whether you’re looking for an electronic way to sign documents you’ve just received or need to send documents to be digitally signed by contractors and other business partners, I have recommendations for the right applications. I’ve reviewed and tested nearly 40 electronic signature apps, and these are the seven best—each for both sides of a document. (Seriously, if you’re hiring a freelance writer, use one of these apps. Please.)
As with all legal matters, definitions are important. When it comes to signing documents online, an electronic signature and a digital signature are slightly different things.
An electronic signature is simply a printed, drawn or computerized signature attached to your document. You can create it with almost any application, from Microsoft Word to Adobe Photoshop. It’s still legally binding, but because someone can easily falsify it, you may have a harder time enforcing it in a contested case. If the opposing party can convincingly claim that your former business partner left their iPad on the coffee table and the child decided to scribble on an open document, you could be out a lot of money.
A digital signature is a special electronic signature that uses cryptography to protect a document and also embeds details such as email addresses, when and where a person signed a document, and the serial number and details of the device used to sign it. It creates both a “fingerprint” that makes the document unique and a paper trail that can be verified independently. If there was ever a lawsuit, it would be very difficult for someone to claim that they didn’t actually sign the document – kids can barely understand their email addresses. For official purposes, digital signatures are more secure and legally recognized around the world – they require a dedicated e-signature application to add them.
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We use the terms interchangeably – in common usage they are basically the same – but the distinction is worth keeping in mind when doing research.
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The problem with these types of business apps is that the person paying for the app (or deciding which app to get) isn’t the person who should be using it every day. And while there are many e-signature apps out there, many of them are terrible to use.
To make this list, document signing software must be easy to use, but also provide all the features a business needs. All good e-signature applications must meet certain criteria:
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I started with a list of almost 40 e-signature apps. It’s too meaningful a test, so I narrowed it down by checking their website and excluding things that clearly don’t fit the criteria, are clearly targeting corporate customers with generally poor user reviews, or otherwise don’t seem like it. . Good fit.
For the rest of the apps (which I’ve now tested three times in the past three years), I create an account, upload the master agreements as Word and PDF files, and send them to a different email address. I then signed the contract as both sender and receiver, which gave a good overview of the overall workflow. Most of the apps that didn’t make the list were cut out at this stage because they didn’t meet my standards for either the sender or the receiver.
For the apps that passed, I spent more time looking for interfaces, trying out any theme features they claimed to have, and making sure they met the rest of the criteria. Based on all that, here are the seven best eSign apps.
DocuSign is one of the most popular electronic signature applications, and for good reason. It’s great to use and includes all the features most people want in an e-signature app. Even if it’s not the absolute best app for your specific needs, it’s probably in the top three.
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Getting started with DocuSign is very easy: sign up for a free trial and almost immediately it prompts you to upload documents, prepare them for signature, and send them to recipients. If you need to sign someone in quickly, you can do it in minutes with a free DocuSign trial.
DocuSign is set up to facilitate tracking multiple documents at different stages of the signing process. The management dashboard has a sidebar with an inbox for incoming documents or “envelopes”, an outbox for sent documents, and a drafts tab for documents you’re working on. There’s also a quick view option so you can see all the documents you need to do to get something done, the documents you’re waiting for, any that are about to expire or haven’t been signed by the recipient, and everything in between. Your finished document.
DocuSign also has powerful template and reporting features. If you send the same contract repeatedly, you can set up a template in the template dashboard. Simply upload the file (or use the file sent as a base), fill in the signature and all the fields and save it – it’s the same process as exporting individual documents and very fast.
If you’re only sending a few packages a month, the reporting feature isn’t much use – you’ll know who’s contracted and who’s not. However, if you manage dozens of contractors or freelancers, or require all of your clients to sign contracts, they can give you useful insight into the current state of your business. Click on the Reports tab and you can see things like how many letters you’ve sent, how quickly people signed and the number of unsigned letters.
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DocuSign also integrates with the app, so you can do things like automatically upload DocuSign packages to the cloud or notify your team when a package is signed.
DocuSign Pricing: Starting at $15 per month for individual plans that include up to 5 envelopes per month. The Standard plan offers unlimited documents with automatic reminders for $45 per user per month.
DocuSign isn’t the only solid eSign app for businesses that need to manage a lot of documents. Both SignEasy (starting at $15/month) and Dropbox Sign (starting at $20/month) are great DocuSign alternatives—it’s just that they stand out with a few special features.
Dropbox Sign, formerly HelloSign, is one of the best alternatives to DocuSign. It’s one of the easiest e-signature apps to use, offers a 30-day free trial, and offers unlimited signature requests per month in its paid basic package. (It’s worth noting that if you already have a Dropbox subscription, you can submit a Sign three times a month request and sign as many documents as possible.