In a digital world, printing documents is done less frequently, but with programs and products being international, Americans have more choices than ever before when it comes to choosing paper sizes for printing jobs. Anyone who has queued a document for a print job may find himself staring at the options on the screen and wondering about paper sizes.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
A4 paper is the most common paper size used outside of North America, measuring about 8.3 by 11.7 inches.
What Is A4 Paper?
Whether printing from a graphics program, Microsoft Word, Google or other sources, a few standard sizes will pop up on your settings page. Generally, you’ll see options like “page setup” and “orientation” and then “page size.” Clicking on "page size" typically produces a drop-down menu with choices like:
These are the most standard options available. However, they’re not standard for everyone, because the “word” names are for North American paper products, while the rest of the world goes by the letter-number group of products.
The two most-common sizes are “letter” for North America and "A4" for the rest of the world. Although very close to the same size, A4 paper is slightly longer but also slightly narrower, at roughly 8.3 by 11.7 inches in dimension.
Understanding American Paper Sizes
The most commonly used paper size in North America is letter size. This is 8.5 by 11 inches and is what one uses for everything from standard, school-size binders to writing business letters. Legal is less common, but it’s the same width, 8.5 inches, while being 14 inches long. As its name suggests, it’s largely used for legal documents and is the mainstay of law firms and other legal entities.
Tabloid, or ledger, is larger at 11 by 17 inches. Where the names differ is in the way the paper is oriented. When used as a vertical sheet, called portrait orientation, it’s considered “ledger paper.” If used lengthwise, or as a landscape orientation, it’s “tabloid paper.”
Less common is statement-size paper. Statement can also be listed as “half-letter” size since that’s a perfect description – it’s 5.5 by 11 inches. You’ll find this size used for things like invitations, greeting cards and even invoices, though the latter are more frequently done on letter-size paper now.
International Standardization and the ISO 216
Much like how most of the world uses metric while America uses imperial measurements, the same is true of paper sizes. The world turns to the ISO, International Organization for Standardization, for its standardizations for paper, designated by the classes of A0 through A10. While there is a somewhat divisible-by-two method applied to American paper sizes, the square root of two serves as the aspect ratio for all ISO paper sizes, which is fantastic for print shops since it makes it easy to resize any document to scale up or down to other paper sizes.
For sizing, A0 is the largest and is actually one square meter in surface area. Fold that in half, and you get the A1 size. Fold it again, and it’s A2, and then fold the A2 in half, and you get A3 and so on. Each size folded in half creates the next size down.
ISO does have other classes of sizes, the B and C series, which are used more infrequently. These A-class measurements are rounded up and are approximate. The original measurements use much more precise millimeters.
- A0 = 33.1 x 46.8 inches.
- A1 = 23.4 x 33.1 inches.
- A2 = 16.5 x 23.4 inches.
- A3 = 11.7 x 16.5 inches.
- A4 = 8.3 x 11.7 inches (technically 8.27 x 11.69 inches).
- A5 = 5.8 x 8.3 inches.
- A6 = 4.1 x 5.8 inches (used for postcards).
- A7 = 2.9 x 4.1 inches.
- A8 = 2.0 x 2.9 inches.
- A9 = 1.5 x 2.0 inches.
- A10 = 1.0 x 1.5 inches.
So, when wondering what the popular A4 paper size is for your printing specifications, it’s what is closest to the American “letter” size but just a bit longer.
America’s Standardized Size: ANSI
For a little over two decades, the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, has had its hands in the paper sizes debate too. While the American “letter” class of paper was accepted as an industry standard in 1921 in an effort to reduce waste, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the American government formally recognized the dimensions. It was nearly a decade later in 1992 when the American Society of Mechanical Engineers created a standardized list of sizes, which would later be accepted by ANSI and used as the foundation for their list.
ANSI A is the same as letter paper, 8.5 by 11 inches. ANSI B is tabloid size at 11 by 17 inches and ledger size at 17 by 11 inches. ANSI C, D and E all escalate in size, with ANSI E being the largest at 34 by 44 inches.
The Other Size: Architecture Paper
The last major category of paper sizes belongs to architects, who turn to architectural paper for their large-format drawings and blueprints. They mostly occur in a 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio except for the largest one, ARCH E1, which is a 7:5 ratio. Their sizes include:
- ARCH A = 9 x 12 inches
- ARCH B = 12 x 18 inches
- ARCH C = 18 x 24 inches
- ARCH D = 24 x 36 inches
- ARCH E = 36 x 48 inches
- ARCH E1 = 30 x 42 inches
Considerations When Printing Multiple Sizes
When printing for business purposes, you may have a printer and plan to do the work yourself, or you may be working with a print shop. While the ANSI and traditional American dimensions are likely more common to find in your work, they do not lend themselves well to scaling print jobs through different sizes.
That’s the beauty of the ISO 216 size formatting – it’s designed to be a one-size-fits-all dimensional solution. If you plan to print some midsize posters plus some smaller ones for an event, then choosing to print in A2 and A4 simply means either reducing the design by 50 percent from A2 to A4 or increasing it 100 percent from A4 to A2. There is an easy-reference chart you can use to see by what to increase or reduce a document in order to scale it up or down through all 10 sizes on the ISO 216 chart.
Choosing the Right Paper Weight
In the end, paper offers myriad choices. There are weights, embossing and even finishes like matte and glossy. Textures are common too. Picking the right paper for the right job isn’t that complicated for standard office purposes, but when it comes to special occasions, it can make all the difference.
For resumes, for instance, picking a higher-weight paper means a thicker sheet that may have a richer feel, standing out from the crowd. For typical letter-sized papers, weights come in 16, 20, 24, 28, 32 and 36 pound. The weight class comes from what a ream of paper weighs – that is, a box of 500 sheets.
For faxes, photocopying and low-importance printing, 16- to 20-pound paper works well. Midweight, 24 to 28 pounds, is ideal for all kinds of documents, proposals and some double-sided printing. Heavy-weight paper like the 32- and 36-pound varieties are perfect for diplomas, signs, fliers, double-sided printing and resumes.
Steffani Cameron is a professional writer who has written for the Washington Post, Culture, Yahoo!, Canadian Traveller, and many other platforms. Some writing projects have included ghost-writing for CEOs and doing strategy white papers. She frequently writes for corporate clients representing Fortune 500 brands on subjects that include marketing, business, and social media trends.