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Wet Signatures vs Electronic Signatures: What's the Difference?

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Learn how these two eSignatures types differ, plus how they can boost efficiency, increase security and save costs for your organization.

If your company relies solely on pen-to-paper signatures—i.e., wet signatures—you know the struggle of slow turnaround times. You print the document, order the pages, scan or mail it, wait for the signer to return it, etc. And that's if your printer works when you need it and your documents don't get lost in the mail.

The good news is there's a faster way to obtain signed documents, and that's with electronic signatures.

In this guide, you'll see how electronic signatures differ from wet signatures and how they can speed up your signing process, increase security and reduce costs.

What Is a Wet Signature?

A wet signature is a mark a person makes on a physical piece of paper to signify their participation in a contract or agreement. It’s called “wet” because it typically uses ink, with the signer using a pen or a seal.

While businesses have used this signing method for hundreds of years, electronic signatures can have the same legally binding authority in most countries and scenarios.

What Is an Electronic Signature?

An electronic signature, or eSignature, is a computerized and legally-binding method for signing electronic documents quickly. It's secure and verifiable, helping you speed up workflows that previously required hardcopy documentation.

The use of electronic signatures delivers many advantages, including greater efficiency, an improved user experience, legal compliance, security and a positive impact on sustainability.

Want to learn more about the benefits for your organization? Check out our Ultimate Guide to eSignatures.

What Are the Disadvantages of Wet Signatures vs. Electronic Signatures?

Even for those who revere established business practices, wet signatures are passing out of favor due to many disadvantages vs eSigning:

  • Slow turnaround time: Obtaining a wet signature simply takes more time when compared to electronic signatures.
  • Higher costs: Paper, printer ink, shipping supplies and delivery service expenses can add up quickly, especially if you’re in an industry like real estate or healthcare that manages high volumes of documents.
  • Increased security risk: A packet of paper moving from one office to another is vulnerable to being lost, damaged or stolen. A digital file sent through a secure system with an electronic signature is a much safer option, especially if sensitive data is involved.
  • Inability to scale: Consider all the disadvantages of a wet signature and multiply them by the hundreds or more signatures your business requires monthly. It simply isn't practical, given the technology available today.
  • Cumbersome record-keeping: You can fill entire warehouses with filing boxes of signed documents, and when you need to access a record, you have to dig into the physical archive to find them.
  • Negative environmental impact: Hundreds or thousands of multi-page documents generated yearly equals many dead trees. In the 21st century, businesses can do better, preserve natural resources and still get the job done with electronic signatures.
  • Decreased visibility around signature status: When you use wet signatures, you may not know where a document is in the signing process. In contrast, electronic signatures provide an audit trail so you always know a document's status.

The drawbacks of wet signatures are many, but so are the advantages of replacing them with electronic signatures.

When Can I Use an Electronic Signature Instead of a Wet Signature?

If you’re concerned that electronic signatures might not work for you or your business needs, you needn’t be. Electronic signatures have the same legally binding impact as wet signatures in virtually every industrialized country.

Thanks to the U.S.'s Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN), electronic signatures are legally valid in the U.S. and anywhere federal laws apply. Similarly, the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) establishes the legal uniformity of electronic and hand-signed records to remove barriers to U.S. digital commerce.

In the European Union (EU), the Electronic Identification, Authentication and Trust Services (eIDAS) regulation establishes the legality of electronic signatures. Some EU countries go even further and require a digital signature—an encrypted code that a signer can use to verify a message's integrity and authenticity, among other differences compared to electronic signatures.

While you can legally use electronic signatures in place of wet signatures in many places in the world and most scenarios, there are a few exceptions.

When Should I Still Use a Wet Signature vs. An Electronic Signature?

The rules governing where wet signatures are required vary.

Under eIDAS, a wet signature is required on the following documents:

  • Documents related to family law and inheritance, such as separation agreements or last wills and testaments
  • Legal actions or documents requiring notarization of court authorization
  • Legal documents for securing a property guarantee for bail
  • Instances where a special law forbids eSigning

U.S. law also requires a wet signature on:

  • Notarized documents
  • Mortgages or evictions
  • Deeds of trust
  • Promissory notes

In Australia, electronic signatures are not valid in cases of citizenship and migration.

Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) doesn’t cover some family law (wills, trusts, divorce) and real estate transactions.

The best practice to be sure is to research the guidelines in the particular countries relevant to your transaction.

Can I Use Nitro Sign for a Wet Signature?

While companies typically use Nitro Sign to manage electronic and digital signatures, it can also help accelerate the collection of wet signatures.

Nitro Sign allows you to add a wet signature to a digital document in several ways, including uploading a signature from a scan or “writing” a signature using a cursor.

Streamline Your Workflows and Boost Productivity With Nitro Sign

To increase productivity, you must cut out wasted time and resources. Knowing the unique characteristics, benefits and drawbacks of wet vs. electronic signatures and their advantages allows you to make the best decisions about what you need to operate efficiently and how to make it happen.

Nitro Sign offers the easiest method of creating, sending and tracking electronic signatures while integrating with your other digital processes.

Get in touch with our product experts to experience Nitro Sign’s electronic signature capabilities in action with a personal demonstration.