student writer preparing to cite a PDF

How to Cite a PDF

So you want to cite a PDF (or a Portable Document Format) file, but don’t know what citation format to use.

Citing PDFs can be a seemingly tricky part of writing a paper. Once you understand the process behind it, however, it becomes a very simple task.

The key to understanding how to cite a PDF is:

Always cite the PDF based on what the source in the file actually is.

A PDF, after all, is not really a source itself, but rather a file type and a way for displaying that source.

For example, if the source you wish to cite is a PDF of a newspaper article, cite the source as you would a newspaper.

Then, depending on the citation style you are using, you can add a short note to the citation that indicates that the source was in PDF format. Here is how you would do this in the three most popular citation styles:

  • In MLA formatting, you can change the medium description to “PDF file.”
  • In an APA citation, you can add “[PDF file]” after the title (separated by only space)
  • In Chicago style, after the title, you can add the same description without brackets (separated by a period).

 MLA Format

Fox, Morgan. “The Underground Railroad.” 2006. PDF file.

APA Format


United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2008). Indiana income limits [PDF file]. Retrieved from

Chicago Format


Reilly, Robert. Complicated Relationships. PDF file. September 20, 2017.