A section on a website has a list of links to PDF files (containing end user content).

When a user clicks on one of these links should it open in a new tab on the browser? Or should it open in the current tab/window?

I notice that when you click on external links on Twitter or Facebook they open in a new tab, but I am unsure about best practices for internal links to PDF documents.


7 Answers 7


One thing to keep in mind is to see if the browsers have the ability to render/open the document in itself (built-in feature or via 3rd party plugins (Adobe Reader or Foxit PDF Reader) without having to engage an external application on the host operating system.

If the browsers can open the document in itself, then you have access to the back button which will take them back to the previous page, which is good UX. If the document opens in a new tab, then there's a risk that it might get blocked if the browser deems it to be a pop-up.

Also, if the user wants to view multiple documents, it could get a little annoying with all those extra tabs that will crowd the browser. Or else, the user will have to close every tab after she is done with it, which could also be tad bit cumbersome when compared to just hitting back on the current tab.

My recommendation would be to open it in the current tab.

  • 1
    I'm concerned about not breaking the back button. A window with a PDF forgets that it's a browser window in Mozilla and starts behaving like a PDF application. This is not so in Chrome. I believe that soon all browsers will go the Chrome way (well, there might be one exception ...).
    – Juan Lanus
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 21:33
  • Thank you for your suggestions. The more you think about it the more it seems that breaking the back button is a very bad idea.
    – Jon Cox
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 9:42
  • I'd love to see this topic updated, not only here, but also from Nielsen/Norman nngroup.com/articles/open-new-windows-for-pdfs
    – themack
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 15:13

I would normally avoid opening new windows on a user's machine (depending on context) but this is one situation where I think it's beneficial. PDFs can take a while to open so it can be handy to let this happen in another tab while keeping the original web page open and accessible.

Even more important than this however is making it explicitly clear to the user that they are about to open an external file, rather than a normal web page. Links to PDFs and other files should indicate the format and file size (e.g. "Our Downloadable Document (PDF, 1024kb)"). You should also avoid mixing links to downloadable documents within links to web pages, particularly within main navigation.

  • Thanks for the ideas, whilst I'm probably not going to open it in a new tab/window now, I am looking into explicitly letting the user know they are about to click on a PDF (something I had previously overlooked).
    – Jon Cox
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 9:43
  • @Jonathan Good stuff. That at least gives them fair warning and the opportunity open/download it without leaving the original page.
    – Matt Obee
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 9:46
  • 1
    I like @MattObee point. Maybe an improvement could be to have the normal link (the file name?) and next to it another link to open the file in new window/tab ("Open in new window"). Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 14:35
  • 1
    Another benefit with this approach is that if the pdf is heavy modern browsers such as Chrome is build around the sandbox principle. Each tab behaves essentially like a separate browser. So if the pdf is heavy and crash it shouldn't affect the viewing of site it came from. Commented Sep 18, 2013 at 9:39

Some points to consider:

  • you can't open pages in new tabs. You can only create new windows. It's up to the end user and their browser whether or not they open in a tab.

  • you can not force a PDF to load in a page. It's up to the end user and their browser as to whether or not they open the PDF in the browser or download it.

So, in conclusion, no, you should not create new browser windows for PDFs. It's a file. Let the user know it's a PDF file and let them handle it as they see fit.

  • Thanks, this very much fits into the "let the use think they're in control" philosophy :)
    – Jon Cox
    Commented Oct 23, 2012 at 9:44
  • This answer has been overtaken by events. Most browsers now default to opening _blank links in new tabs, not new windows (and it's not easy to get a new window if that's not the default). Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 8:06
  • @AndrewLeach true, though the question tends to blur them via 'tab/window'.
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 17, 2013 at 8:20

let me update a scenario...

We use http://support.openview.hp.com/selfsolve/documents for getting the OpenView software manuals, which are usually big - around 300 pages easily.

Little ago(i think around one year before), the site allowed us to do "Right click" and "Save document as". this is what we wanted, right. We need to download the document and read it or refer it.

but, now, they have changed the site design and the pdf document window opens on the same page. i was visiting this site after some six months and i felt "what the hell???". now, 1. i search for the document 2. open the document on a separate window or new tap. 3. i have to click once again a new button to save the document.

"1 step" became "THREE STEPS". Maybe, this gives you some ideas, i hope.


Adding to the scenarios: if you are dealing with an older population, opening in a tab, or opening in the same tab can be very confusing to the user. They may not know when their browser is controlling a function. A method for forcing PDFs to open in a new window is practical for that audience.

Techs designing for average users need user feedback.


Here are a couple of articles from Nielsen:




Just the two cents of my own experience: Before there was in-browser-rendering of PDFs I got very used to PDFs opening up in Reader or whatever other desktop window. When I was done with reading the PDF, naturally, I would close it.

In consequence, I get frequently annoyed when a PDF opens in the same tab as the current page, because before conscious thinking has the time to kick in I just close the tab after reading - and with it also the page I just wanted to return to. This is of course the opposite expectation of what users would have who got used to returning to the previous page via the back button, so it would be hard to balance... but one more thing to take it into consideration aside from the above mentioned.

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