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How to sign documents online: the basics of e-signature

Feb 10, 2023 · 6 min read

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Rumor has it, you used to have a Jordan Belfort wannabe peddle you a pen when you needed to put a signature on a piece of paper. Thankfully, you can keep that paper to yourself now, seeing as documents are mostly managed online these days.

You can even have them all prepped and ready for you by a third party but the signature still has to come from you. Does that sound like a problem with no pens around? Fret not: it barely is, and here’s all you need to know.

What is an Electronic Signature?

The term is basically self-explanatory: it is the same as an actual wet signature, except it’s electronic. In other words, it’s meant to indicate a person’s intent to agree to the content of whatever the signature relates to. Much like its ink-based counterpart, an e-signature is a legal concept capturing your intent to be bound by the terms of the signed document.

E-signatures (or eSignatures) were first recognized in European legislation through the eSignature directive in 1999 and are governed by the eIDAS since 2016. The US followed in the year 2000 with the E-Sign Act.

Why is it so popular all of a sudden?

You might’ve guessed right: the C-word-19 is kind of the one to blame, or rather to have hastened the inevitable. The need for physical meetings and in-person interactions (such as the signing of contracts) has been replaced by a necessity to keep the business floating while staying as far away from each other as possible. Over the past three years, enterprises all over the globe have adopted their workflows to suit “the new normal” where a big chunk of employees choose to stay at home most days of the week even post-crisis.

Types of Electronic Signatures

There are three levels of electronic signature, as defined by The eIDAS Regulation:

  • A “simple” e-signature such as a scanned handwritten signature or simply your name under an email.
  • An advanced e-signature which is linked directly to you and the document in a secure way that makes all subsequent changes detectable using certificates and cryptographic keys.
  • A qualified electronic signature which is all of the above, but it can only be created by a qualified device (such as SIM cards, for instance) and is based on a qualified certificate from providers who deliver the corresponding encrypted private key. In the Netherlands, these providers and certificates are checked by the Dutch Authority for Digital Infrastructure (Rijksinspectie Digitale Infrastructuur).

While there are situations where simple or advanced e-signatures work best, it’s only the qualified ones that have the equivalent legal effect of hand-written signatures in the EU. In the Netherlands, there is no legal difference between electronic signatures as long as the method you use is sufficiently secure.

There’s also the matter of a digital signature, sometimes referred to as “sealing a document”, whose purpose is different entirely. It’s not a signature in the legal sense, but rather a unique fingerprint to identify a specific document by and to verify its authenticity in case of a dispute. It goes without saying that no two documents can have the same digital signature.

In most cases, both electronic and digital signatures are used at the same time to ensure legitimacy and legal effect of a document.

What are the use cases?

Qualified e-signatures are used primarily for contracts, transactions, insurance and medical forms, and other documents that require concrete proof of identity. In the EU, it’s even possible to sign legislative acts and judiciary documents this way!

Basically, the same principles apply in the US, with the exception of a few types of documents such as wills, which still cannot be signed electronically in some states.

Well, nothing can replace good old pen and paper, can it?

If you like the smell of ink on your fingertips, absolutely not. But otherwise, it’s actually a pretty nice change that surpasses the traditional way in several aspects. Apart from being legally binding, they’re instant, easily accessible, and environmentally friendly. No more waiting for the mail to come in or dropping it off at the office, no more printers and fax machines, for crying out loud. And no more pens.

Also, keep in mind that with enough practice even the most complicated of handwritten signatures can be reproduced well enough to look indistinguishable to an average eye. All the while, forging a signature, whose authenticity is exceeded only by the sophistication of the algorithms securing it, is — let’s put it this way — a task doomed to fail.

Electronic Signatures and where to sign them

As we mentioned above, the pandemic gave one hell of a boost to the industry and paved the way for an abundance of trusted certificate providers you can use to create your own e-signature depending on your preference:

Creating and signing a document step by step:

  1. Join Enty
  2. Choose a template for a contract you need (available in English and Dutch)
  3. Answer simple questions
  4. Download your contract for free
  5. E-sign your document using a service of your liking

Aaand you’re all set! It’s really, really as simple as that.
Our templates are created by qualified professionals and comply with European standards, so that you could put your mind at ease without thinking of all the intricacies of European law. We’ll do what we do best on our end, while e-signatures can be your final step to getting rid of that burden and concentrating on what you do best.
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