NOTE: If you just want to create PDF documents, please see Creating PDF files for Free instead. Although you won't be able to make fillable forms, the process is quicker and much easier.

Until recently, the only tool to do this was Adobe Acrobat Professional, not be confused with Acrobat Reader which is free but only allows you to view PDF files. With a pretty hefty price tag, you do get good value. For example, only Acrobat version 8 or later can create fillable forms that can then be saved with the content and emailed back to you. With a little luck, you might be able to find a copy in places like eBay. If this is the first time you are purchasing a copy of Acrobat, be sure to look for the full version. Don’t get stuck with just an upgrade.

Today a good alternative to Acrobat Professional is Believe it or not, OpenOffice isn’t just an excellent free basic substitute for Microsoft Office but for Adobe Acrobat Professional as well. The rest of this article will describe how to create a PDF form using OpenOffice writer (equivalent to Microsoft Word) using the following steps:

  1. Create a form
  2. Add fields to the form
  3. Add a submit button
  4. Export the document as a PDF form

Creating a form

If you can create a form in Word, that’s about all you need to do for this step in OpenOffice Writer too. You need not actually put fields in at this point. Just make sure you leave enough room for them.

Adding fields to the form

First you will need to show the Form Controls toolbar. To do this in Writer, click the following options in Writer’s menu: View, Toolbars and then the Form Controls toolbar, but only if it doesn't already have a checkmark beside it. This will display a toolbar that contains the controls you can place on a form. The one you will probably use most often is the field control, which is a rectangular box with ABC in it.

Once you find the form controls, you will need to click the Designer Mode button, usually the second icon in the Form Controls toolbar, in order to be able to complete the following steps.

To place a control on your form, click on it once in the form controls toolbar, and then click down and drag to place and size the control on your page. You will also need to give a unique name to each of the controls on your form. To do this, right click on the control and select Control…, but only if it doesn’t already have a checkmark next to it. On the General tab, type the unique name for this control in the Name field. It's usually the first field at the top of the list.

Repeat this process for each additional field you would like to add to your form.

If you just want your clients to be able to enter their information into the PDF form and print it, you can skip over the next section and go directly to Exporting your form as a PDF.

Adding a Submit (or Send) button

This section will deal with how to email enable your form so that clients can email you back the information they inserted into the form.

Start by adding a button to your form from the Form Controls. This time however, it is not the Name that you should change in the properties but the Label to control the text that appears on the button. While you are there, scroll down the list to the Action field and set it to Submit form.

Next right click on the button and select Form… to display the properties for the form. The name of the form can be pretty much anything and is not relevant for our purpose… as long as there is a name. Here is how you should set the rest of the fields:

Name: email (for example) URL: (change for your email address) Submission encoding: URL Type of submission:   Get

Exporting your form as a PDF

We are down to the final steps of creating a PDF form.

To activate this toolbar, click the following menu options in OpenOffice Writer: View, Toolbars and then Form Design toolbar, but only if it doesn't already have a checkmark beside it.

To create the PDF file, click the following menu options in Writer:

  1. Click File, and then Export as PDF…
  2. Make sure the Create PDF Form checkbox is checked, and Submit format is set to FDF before you click the Export button at the bottom of the dialogue box.
  3. Enter the name of the PDF file, click Save and you are done!

Using your new PDF Form

Always be sure to test your PDF form before you start sending it out to clients.

Test your PDF form by double clicking on the PDF file and then typing the information in.

Make sure that pressing TAB will take the cursor from one field to the next. If they aren’t in the right order, you will need to use the Activation Order icon on the Form Design toolbar and the export to a PDF form again.

When you click the Submit button, your email application should open in a new message with a file attached. This is the part that won't work if you only use web mail such as Yahoo or GMail. Popular email applications include applications such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Eudora. There are of course many others. Anyway, click the send button and the email with the attachment should go. As long as you set your email address correctly and didn't forget to put "mailto:" in front of it, a few minutes later your message should arrive in your inbox. When it does, double click on the attachment.

When you receive and try to open the files that your clients will send you, Acrobat Reader may ask you to point it to the original PDF so don’t get rid of it. Since it is only the information and not the form itself (see limitations noted at the beginning), Acrobat will need the original file to plug the information back into it.

If you make changes to your PDF form down the road, be sure to keep old versions so you can still see the old information. Better yet, print the PDF into a new PDF including the information for your client to provide a more permanent solution. See the link below for more information on how to do that.

Related article(s):

Creating PDF’s for free from any application