Free fonts, paid-for fonts, and font licensing

Everyone who loves typography would say there’s no such thing as too many fonts. Even if you have a hundred Bodoni clones in your library, you still want more. Not to mention the many gorgeous new fonts coming out. So here are some listings of the best resources for all you typography-loving folks.

Free fonts

Here’s a list of some of the best places to get free fonts (free, shareware, donation-ware; personal and commercial licenses). I’ve commented on the interface because when you are browsing for fonts, the easier it is to find the type and style you want, the better. See my note on licensing (below) for information on when you can use free fonts.

  • 1001 Fonts. Nice interface. Font licenses are clearly indicated when browsing.  You can browse by category. They offer the Ultimate Font Download: a bundle of 10,000 fonts that are normally free, shareware, or donation ware, but in buying the bundle, you get the commercial rights to them all. Quality varies.
  • DaFont. Clean interface. Licensing info clear when browsing. You can browse by category.
  • FontSpace. Attractive interface. The Browse page makes browsing easier with many, many categories. License are indicated only on the individual fonts’ pages. This makes it harder to pick out the fonts with the licensing you want.
  • Font Zone. Tons o’ free fonts. Interface is okay; license details are only on the individual fonts’ pages.
  • Font Squirrel. My favorite source for free fonts. Specializes in fonts that are free for commercial use (see my note below about licensing). Beautiful interface; licensing info clear when browsing.. You can download most fonts from the site directly, but some links are to offsite sources, where the font might not be free.
  • Simply the Best Fonts. A nice interface; the landing page has a list of categories to make browsing easier. Licensing info clear when browsing a category.
  • Urban Fonts. This site has paid-for fonts as well; this is the link to their free fonts. Free, shareware, linkware. Includes trial versions of paid-for fonts that you have to buy a commercial license to use.

Added July 9, 2016: it’s unusual, but possible, to discover a well-made font that is also free. As in many areas of life, you get what you paid for. Free fonts are fun and useful in a lot of ways, but the powerhouses are the paid-for fonts.

Paid-for fonts

The heavy lifters. The quality of fonts you purchase from the following should be top-end, with many many glyphs and alternates that font-savvy programs like InDesign can use.

  • Adobe. You used to be able to purchase perpetual licenses for fonts from Adobe. They split their font services into two:
    • A subscription-based service called  Adobe TypeKit. As long as you subscribe you can use any font on TypeKit. But if you drop your subscription, the fonts are gone.
    • Perpetual licenses for Adobe fonts through their partner, FontSpring. (To purchase fonts with other currencies and languages, visit
  • Linotype. Linotype has some great fonts, but I’ve been unhappy with their customer service and the quality of some of the fonts I bought from them.
  • MyFonts. My favorite source for paid fonts. Offers fonts from many foundries, ranging from the monoliths to small one-person design houses. Some fonts are free. Watch their sales; you can sometimes get a font family for 90% off. This is great for the expensive fonts. Also, if you are trying to identify a font, use their “What the font” identifier. Some member of the active forum will usually identify your font within a half hour to an hour. If you want to find a font similar to one you want to use (but can’t, for some reason), you can use the My Fonts tool for that, too.
  • Monotype. Fonts are excellent quality, but seldom cheap. Monotype sometimes has awesome sales, and also has a subscription service like TypeKit.
  • T26. If you sign up for their email, you’ll get a monthly font showcase–kind of like a bakery sending you images of their best cakes, cupcakes, and cookies.

A recommended font manager

If you have a lot of fonts, you’re going to want to use a font manager. I’m particularly fond of High-Logic’s Main Type. Their free version is just right if you have 2,500 fonts or fewer. If you have more than 2,500 fonts, buy the standard version.

The only reason to get the pro version (as far as my needs go) is that the pro version will automatically activate fonts for InDesign and other such products. For example, if you open an InDesign file and the fonts you used for that file aren’t installed, Main Type installs the fonts for you.

A note about font licensing

Many free fonts are free to use for any use—commercial or personal. And if you intend to use your font for personal use (homemade greeting cards you are sending to your family and friends, flyers and posters for your own use, and so on), that’s all you need to know.

But if you are using a font for a commercial use (that is, if you are selling something that uses the font, or advertising something using that font), make sure the license is for commercial use. For example, if you are creating a template for someone’s book, and you are being paid to create that template, that’s commercial use and requires a commercial license. Or if you are selling t-shirts with a quotation on them that uses that font, that’s also commercial use and requires a commercial license. When you purchase a font, the license almost always includes commercial use.

Free fonts fall into the following categories when it comes to commercial use:

  • Free for commercial use. Sometimes a donation is encouraged, but no payment is required.
  • Donation-ware: can be licensed for commercial use with a small payment to the font creator.
  • Strictly personal use; cannot be used commercially. If you really love a font and want to use it, track down the font creator and get permission to use it in writing. If you can’t get permission, use another font. Period. Don’t use a personal-use-only font for commercial use, even if you think you’ll never be caught. It’s just not right.

If it is a free font and you don’t know what the licensing terms are, don’t use it for commercial use.

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