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I’ve came across the mysterious message “file does not begin %PDF” when trying to open pdf files. What seems to be an enigmatic message, is actually a very simple one. It isn’t complaining about the file name, but about the contents of the file. PDF files will always start with %PDF, on the very first line. The Acrobat message means, in effect: “this is not a PDF file” so there is no way to display it. There isn’t much more Acrobat can do, but you may be able to work out why this is happening.

- Check if the file is indeed a PDF file. Maybe it’s a different file saved with the pdf extension. Maybe Adobe Reader was mistakenly associated with a different file extension causing it to open a file of a different type. If the file isn’t a PDF file and Acrobat Reader is starting, (this can happen on both Mac and Windows) you will get the “file does not begin %PDF” message. Check whoever provided the file about it’s real content, don’t be fooled by the Acrobat icon.

- Is this a PDF file you viewed in Microsoft Internet Explorer? If so, be careful when using the “save as” function to save a copy of the file. In many cases Internet Explorer will not save a copy but something useless instead. To save a PDF file in Internet Explorer, look at the page with the link (before or after viewing the PDF). Right click on the link, a menu will appear and from it select “save target as”. On the Mac, press and hold the mouse instead of right clicking.

- Was this file e-mailed to you? Unfortunately, e-mail programs don’t always pass pdf file correctly. Sometimes attached PDF file are not sent correctly and a corrupted file is received. If you are using Windows, and the file was sent from a Mac, the file may be “binhexed”. You may try to play with your mail setting or ask the sender to compress the PDF document before sending it again.

One of the solutions above should solve this issue. Essentially, this is a very simple message, Acrobat Reader is letting you know the file it’s trying to open, does not start with %PDF, which indicates a PDF file. If nothing of the above worked, you can try opening the file in a text editor and view the first few characters of the file yourself, it should look like this:

PDF header

PDF header

If the file does start with %PDF and you still get the “file does not begin %PDF” error message, it might be a problem on the Adobe Acrobat side.