The PDF/X-1a file format

PDF is a very versatile file format. Unfortunately, this also means that it is very easy to create PDF files that are completely useless in a prepress environment. The solution to this problem is to define a set of rules that forbid the use of certain PDF functions that are irrelevant for printing purposes and to enforce others that do improve its usefulness in prepress. This set of rules is called PDF/X, a series of well-defined subsets of the PDF standard that promise predictable and consistent PDF files.

PDF/X-1a is one such PDF/X flavor, albeit an outdated one that has meanwhile been superseded by PDF/X-4. This page covers:

  • What are PDF/x-1a files?
  • Which other PDF/X flavors exist?
  • PDF/X is just the starting point
  • How to create PDF/X-1a files

What is a PDF/X-1a file?

PDF/X-1a files are regular PDF 1.3 or PDF 1.4 files to which a number of restrictions apply:

  • All fonts must be embedded in the file.
  • All color data must be grayscale, CMYK, or named spot colors. The file should not contain any RGB, LAB,… data.
  • OPI is not allowed in PDF/X-1a files.
  • Compliant files cannot contain music, movies, or non-printable annotations.
  • If there are annotations (sticky notes) in the PDF, they should be located outside the bleed area.
  • The file should not contain forms or Javascript code.
  • Only a limited number of compression algorithms are supported.
  • Encryption cannot be used.
  • Transfer curves cannot be used.

Next to things that are not allowed, there is also some information that needs to be present in a PDF/X-1a file but that you may not find in regular PDF files:

  • There is a separate flag (meaning a switch that is either ON or OFF) that details whether the PDF/X-1a file has already been trapped.
  • PDF/X-1a files contain extra operators that define the bleed and trim area.
    • The MediaBox defines the size of the entire document
    • Either the ArtBox or the TrimBox define the extent of the printable area.
    • If the file is to be printed with bleed, a BleedBox must be defined. It must be larger than the TrimBox/ArtBox, but smaller than the MediaBox.
  • The file needs to contain an output intent that describes the intended printing condition. The output intent is either:
    • an ICC color profile. Profiles can be embedded or referenced.
    • an output condition identifier, which is simply a text description of the intended print specifications (e.g. FOGRA27).
  • There is a flag that indicates that the PDF file is a PDF/X file and which also details what type of PDF/X file it is.

In May 2000, PDF/X was first put to use when Time Inc. processed a Bayer ad that was delivered as a PDF/X-1 file. In the meantime, other organisations have also started getting involved in the definition of PDF/X standards.PDF/X-1a is now an official ISO standard: ISO 15930-1.


There are 2 different PDF/X-1a flavors

  • PDF/X-1a:2001 – such a file has to be a PDF 1.3 file.
  • PDF/X-1a:2003 – such a file has to be a PDF 1.4 file but it should not contain any transparency and JBIG2 compression should not be used to compress images.

Both flavors share all of the restrictions that apply to PDF/X-1a. The 2003 version simply came along because some newer software applications no longer supported the older PDF 1.3 file format.

Which other PDF/X flavors exist?

Below are all the PDF/X flavors that are either actively used in the market or may become popular in the future.

  • PDF/X-3
    • To print black&white, CMYK or spot color jobs
    • Files may contain RGB/LAB/… colors in which case the user’s color management system needs to convert these to CMYK.
    • This standard was developed in Germany and Switzerland. Its use also seems to be largely restricted to those countries.
  • PDF/X-4
    • An updated version of PDF/X-3 which adds among others support for transparency and spot colors.
  • PDF/X-5
    • Derived from PDF/X-4, allows external images.

PDF/X is just the starting point

If you think all of the above restrictions make sure that you get perfectly printable PDF files, think again. There are no rules in PDF/X that state that images need to have a certain resolution. A file with 50 dpi images can be a valid PDF/X file yet the printed result will be horrible if used for printing glossy magazines. PDF/X is meant to be a standard that is independent from the specific production requirements of a type of printing.

GWG is an industry organization that took the PDF/X standards and then added on top of that a set of rules to cover specific types of printing. There are standards for exchanging files for commercial printing, newspapers, packaging, and digital printing. Their current specifications are mainly based on PDF/X-1a.

If you want to get absolutely perfect PDF files for the type of jobs that you print, head over to the GWG site and check out their specifications. In a lot of countries, national trade organizations recommend the use of the GWG standards to exchange files.

How to create PDF/X-1a files

The cheapest solution is probably to purchase and use Adobe Acrobat 7 or later. From version 7 onwards, PDF/X-1a support is built right into Acrobat Distiller, the module that is used to create PDF files.

To convert an existing PDF file to a PDF/X-1a file, you can use a plug-in for Adobe Acrobat Professional. The two plug-ins that I have experience with are Enfocus PitStop and Apago PDF/X Checkup. These two plug-ins can also be used to check if an incoming PDF is a PDF/X-1a compliant file.


  • There is also PDF/X-1:1999 – the very first PDF/X standard that was published. It was based on PDF 1.2, didn’t support spot colors, and never had a big impact on the market. PDF/X-1a:2001 was the first standard that people actually started using.
  • In case you are wondering if there shouldn’t be a PDF/X-2 if there is a PDF/X-1 and a PDF/X-3: actually there is but as far as I know nobody ever used PDF/X-2. Things are already complicated enough as they are.

18 thoughts on “The PDF/X-1a file format

  1. Hi,

    According to my client, all new PDF files should be saved as PDF/X1a compliant PDFs. PDF versions up to 8.0 are suitable for backlist needs such as file retrieval, but must be converted to PDF/X1a for archiving.

    Which version should I use: PDF/X-1a:2001 (or) PDF/X-1a:2003. Please advise.


  2. hello, I have a code made with iTextSharp that produce PDF/A (PDFXConformance = PdfWriter.PDFA1B) but now I am developing with iTextSharp that not allowed that conformance and only produce PdfWriter.PDFX1A2001. My question is, this conformance are similar ? In otherwise, why iTextSharp not enabled for PDFA1B.
    Thanks in advance

  3. In windows xp when i make pdf x1 format file… black over print is not display in acrobat professional… and same thing shows in windows 7… why ?

  4. I have created this type of PDF with Serif PagePlus 5. When I view it in Adobe Acrobat Reader it appears to have extraneous stuff round about the text page – saying what program it was created by, showing a sort of colour scale, and other mark-up. Does that mean I have a mismatch between the page size of the original and the PDF page size, or is it to be expected?

  5. Hi, great job with the site.

    I was just wondering if anybody can tell me whether black and white PDFs with a greyscale icc profile set as output intent complies to PDF/X-1a:2001?

    I know greyscale images are allowed in PDF/X-1a but not sure about output intent. It looks like PDF/X-3 mentions black and white printing but not PDF/X-1a.

    Thanks in advance for any info,


  6. Wow, thank you so much. I am helping my partner self publish a book and they require this file format. You saved me loads of time and frustration!!

  7. Any FREE or inexpensive software out there that will convert to the PDFX-1a:2001 compliant file? I wasted my time and money on Acrobat X Pro. It does not work. Preflight in v. X does not work either.

    Also Quark v.9 says it creates PDFX-1a compliant files, but its pdf engines are flawed too, it does not work either. Wits end!

  8. Our Client says PDF/X-1a should not have Javascripts since it is not supported by some of PDF-Based ISO Standards. Is this True? where can i get this informations?.

    Thanks in Advance

    1. That is correct and it is even listed in the above specs: forms & Javascript code are not allowed in PDF/X-1a files.

  9. I am not sure you are correct when you state “If the file is to be printed with bleed, a BleedBox must be defined. It must be larger than the TrimBox/ArtBox, but smaller than the MediaBox.”

    If the Bleed box is the same exact size as the the media box, but larger than the trim or art box, the document is still a valid PDF/X1a, is it not?

    1. Hi Jessie,

      As I understand it, to be PDF/X-1a compliant, the file requires a bleed box defined even if the job itself does not require bleed i.e. bleed box should be equal to trim box in that scenario.

      I think the media box can be the same size as the bleed box though, just no smaller.

  10. It’s worth noting that Adobe is not the cheapest PDF/X-1a producer. That prize surely goes to Serif PagePlus, which is about £110 cheaper (£80 v. £190)

  11. Great job – except I disagree on one thing. PDF/X3. PDF/X3 is used more and more in digital printing where the conversion to CMYK is done at the RiP level. This is incredibly effective for wide format printing where the source RGB to destination CMYK is done at the RIP. We build both 1a and 3, now 4 with supports transparency. I was not aware of 5. Also thanks for the GWG site!

  12. Awesome.

    Where I work, dealing with advertisers submitting sub-spec files, many of the designers have misinformed or zero idea what a PDF/X1-a file really is and what it guarantees.

    This is a great quick resource for me to shoot out to designers, to bring them onto up to speed when they have questions or do not understand the format.


  13. hi,
    This site is very helpfull for my project….and im having doubt in FAT PDF file………What is FAT PDF file…and how can we view or identify this type of file….



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