[Discussion] 7 facts and myths about PDF invoices

September 23, 2011  |  Adoption, Electronic Invoicing

@einvoice 230x200 [Discussion] 7 facts and myths about PDF invoicesIt is! It’s not! Yes it is! No way! You’re a nutcase! You stop this nonsense NOW! That is quite likely what you get when trying to discuss whether a PDF invoice is or is not an e-invoice. In essence it is the discussion on the current path of e-invoicing adoption, versus the goal that adoption should ultimately reach: 100% advanced data exchange between business partners.

(The real abbreviation here is Pdf, but we use PDF for readability purposes)


There are digital and electronic invoices. In fact there is a difference between electronic and digital. But that distinction is different from what you’d think in the first place. Whereas ‘Electronic ‘ is a legal term, ‘Digital’ is a manifestation of an electronic invoice. Just as with signatures. An example:

”” The legal term is ‘ electronic signature ‘. A manifestation of an electronic signature is a digital signature. A digital signature can be a picture, which usually is not legally valid. A qualified digital certificate provides an advanced electronic signature: a signature which may be granted a great deal of legal guarantees. Validity is one of these guarantees.””

That distinction was and has never been made with regard to e-invoices. In short: a digital invoice is an e-invoice and vice versa.


An invoice that is not carried by a paper medium (read: a paper sheet), is an electronic invoice. A PDF invoice is not carried by a paper medium and therefore it is an electronic invoice.  See as an example the recent European e-invoice directive.


Statistically PDF and e-mail are used and mentioned most often throughout years as the primary means for e-invoicing throughout most of the business populations over the world.

Just imagine saying to those that the way they are e-invoicing isn’t really e-invoicing. Or rather that they are in fact e-invoicing, not in the real sense. Because that’s different. Or so. Because that’s what is actually the truth! Right?


A PDF is created by a PDF printer. A printer can only generate output if the input also is structured. A PDF is a visual reference of structured information. Despite it’s beautiful appearance, a PDF is build on top of structured data.

Myth and fact

PDF invoices are less advanced than data formats as UBL 2.0 … That is a myth. Because a PDF document is a representation of structured data, it can also be used for importing structured data.

There are many  examples that offer the ability of importing/processing PDF invoices directly into financial software. (Yes, it requires a few more mouse clicks than straight through processing. Has anyone calculated those costs for SME’s yet?)

The fact is that there are very little good while low-cost products implemented (especially for SME’s) to import PDF invoices (invoices and in other readable formats), directly into accounting software.


It sometimes seems like the PDF invoice aren’t getting the credits they deserve.  Yes, e-invoicing can get much more advanced than with PDF.

But as more and more companies and organizations transition to e-invoicing, massive numbers start with sending PDF.

So, aren’t PDF e-invoices a great starting point for (1) massive adoption of e-invoicing and (2) a transition to more efficient forms of e-invoicing?

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  1. I agree entirely with your conclusion. A pdf invoice cannot tick all of the boxes in the same way as a “pure” electronic invoice can but it ticks some important ones - especially if it’s handled well. And we should remember that “e” isn’t the objective - automation is.

  2. Hello Peter,

    Thank you for sharing your view. Your post is a great addon: http://purchasinginsight.com/the-significance-of-germanys-e-invoicing-move/

  3. I think that the technical format is rather insignificant even to argue about.

    Fact: you need to facilitate your customers needs even with invoicing. In doing so, you send the best possible presentation of your invoice in the medium available.

    Fact: you hopefully have more than one customers which means that your medium must support multiple recipients and not require any commercial 3rd party contracts to be made (i.e. support four-corner model - email is a great example of this, though technically it is more like Nth corner model).

    Simple as that. In order to best serve your customers, I’d guestimate that the preferred format is some kind of XML which has some undisputed advantages. On the other hand, business requirements vary by business and country so if PDF is an option, go for it.

    Fact: e-invoicing adoptation has many phases, of which the electronic presentation format is perhaps the first. This adoptation rate varies significantly within EU, so there can be no single answer to suit all needs.

  4. “There are many examples that offer the ability of importing/processing PDF invoices directly into financial software.”

    -> Can you direct me to some product that will allow me to automatically import a PDF into my accounting software? I suppose Shoeboxed sort-of does this, is that the kind of thing you are referring to? Or is there another category of product aimed SMEs who want to automate the processing of PDF invoices? (Shoeboxed is more about processing receipts for expense claims, rather than invoices)

  5. Bruce - I’m not aware of a program that does scan directly from PDF to accounts software, would be nice;) but if you can get the odd person who will take your pdf scans and convert them (data entry) to a excel spreadsheet for you on fiverr.com which you can then import into your accounts software.

  6. Hi Bruce.

    Output Management software like LaserNet is able to extract information from PDF invoices and convert/deliver these data directly to any ERP system or workflow solution.

    It have to be set up once though. Then it´s a 100% automated process.

  7. Hi Bruce - If you are looking for a service that converts PDF invoices into XML (and other document structures) which can then be ingested into your finance system, please have a look at our web site: http://www.cloudtradenetwork.com

    Our core Cloud Invoice service operates at the data level within the PDF - reading the data as the original billing system intended. We also have Cloud Invoice:OCR which converts scanned paper invoices. All our solutions are delivered as a services in the cloud, with zero software footprint.

    Feel free to contact me through the enquiry page on our site if you need more information. Regards, Richard

  8. Good article, but a PDF is not e-invoicing because it only removes the fax or snail mail aspect of sending it. The “e” really comes into play when you don’t have to key in the data and deal with errors etc.

    There are 2 good services out there that I’ve found in the last few years to bridge that gap to truly solve this issue. I have referred both of them to my clients (I’m an integration Consultant) for different reasons.

    One is EDI Link Connect which does a lot of shipping/logistics related PDF to XML conversion - http://ecdynamics.com/pdf-conversion.php

    The other is ChimpKey which does a lot of Invoice, Order conversion for Accounting & Distributor integration (Quickbooks,Great Plains, Navision etc) - http://chimpkey.com

    Both are very strong at converting PDFs to XML or other formats with 100% accuracy because they don’t use OCR at all.

    My 2 cents - Craig.

  9. In my opinion PDF invoice is semi-electronic because it is electronic only until it reaches its recipient inbox. From there on it can of course be sent to a converter program that were described here ( in that case I agree that PDF still remains electronic) or if the recipient has not yet implemented this converting software the PDF is printed out and it actually becomes a paper invoice.

    Yes PDF will reach its recipient faster than paper invoice via regular post but it does require the recipient either to print out the invoice and scan it or convert it so that it could be handled in the accounting program. Wheres “real” eInvoice is sent and received electronically and does not require any additional actions.

    I´m not saying that PDF-s should not be used and that XML invoice is the only way, but I do think that there is a lot of confusion at the moment because the differences between XML ( real eInvoice) and PDF ( semi-eInvoice) are not defined clearly.

    PDF compared to a paper invoice is of course a step further but let´s not get overly exited, still the usage of XML invoices should still be more encouraged and PDF-s should be accepted only if the higher form is not possible for some reason.