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How to print without using a printer

Home printers and scanners are going the way of the fax machine, and we can help you make the transition

Printer paper flying away.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post; iStock)

What if you didn’t need to own a fussy, undependable piece of technology that cost more money than it saved?

It’s now entirely possible, even preferable, for regular people to live without home printers. Many of the reasons we hung on to printers are outdated. Boarding passes, document signing and even filing taxes can all be done digitally. Even the medical industry, which famously loves a fax machine, is slowly transitioning away from paper.

Before you scroll down to the comments to angrily say how much you use your printer: there are many exceptions. Maybe you work from home and need to print things for work, ship a lot of packages and need labels, or you have kids and print off mazes or coloring sheets to buy yourself a few minutes of quiet. Then there are people who just don’t trust technology as much as a sheet of paper they can hold in their hand. We have help for you too, including recommendations on two printers that aren’t as terrible.

For the rest of us who are ready to move on from the inky grasp of “Big Printer,” here’s what to do instead.

Yes, you will need or want to print the occasional document. Use one of these resources for your occasional print jobs, but be careful printing anything sensitive. Many companies have concerning, opaque privacy polices and may keep copies of your documents.

Public library: Most public libraries offer free or low-cost printing, sometimes to people without a library card. They also have computers where you can download any files you need to print out. For any sizable print job, double check your local library’s website to see what they charge — many are free for a small amount of black and white pages — and compare it to the local FedEx or UPS Store. Similarly, if you have a community center nearby, ask if they offer printing services. Of all the third-party options, public libraries may offer the most default privacy.

Professional print shop: FedEx, UPS Store, Office Depot, Staples or local print shops are the main options. You’re going to pay per-page, and prices have gone up over the years, but a professional printing shop will yield the best results with the fewest hiccups. If you’re printing anything where looks matter, especially if it’s color or requires something extra like double-sided prints, try one of these. You can usually bring in a laptop with the file on it, a thumb or other drive, upload it on their site, or email a file to their unique branch email address for printing. If it’s a sensitive document, check their privacy policy.

Cafe: If you want to print and enjoy an espresso at the same time, check to see if there are any local cafes with printers nearby. A company called PrintWithMe has more than 3,000 printers in the cafes, convenience stores and private shared areas like apartment complex common areas in the United States. Other cafes have their own printers as a way to appeal to remote workers. Use the same caution when printing private documents.

Your job: This option can vary widely depending on where you work and what rules they have, but many offices allow a small amount of personal printing. In the age of remote work, it’s one of the few perks to coming in. Office printers tend to be higher volume and more equipped to print out multiple copies. However, many offices can track what is printed so do not use the office printer for anything that you would not want people in the office, or your employer, to know about.

Security tip: Avoid printing sensitive information like bank account numbers at public printers.

Printing photos at home can be an exercise in heartbreak. A few will come out perfectly but usually you’ll struggle with streaks, low colors (looking at you, cyan) and other expensive issues. Instead, you can outsource it by mail or even get it the same day.

Use an app: There are tons of apps on iOS and Android you can use to order a single photo or make something more elaborate like a book, cards or physical goods. Some even have automated layout options and will choose the best pictures from a cluttered camera roll. For just a print by mail, you can stick with the classics like Shutterfly or Google Photos. For more options like books and cards, check out the wealth of other services and apps: Mimeo, Mixbook, Popsa, Picta and Snapfish.

Local grocery and drugstores: Many of the same locations that used to develop film on the side have moved onto photo printing. You can fill out requests online and upload your image or do it in person at a variety of printing kiosks. Try CVS, Walmart, Walgreens or your other popular local chain. There are also still a number of real photo labs that are still in business, many locally owned, so check Yelp to find options where you live.

Many people hold on to their home printers because they double as a scanner. If you need the counter space there are alternatives for that as well.

Scan with your phone: Your phone camera is powerful enough to work just like a scanner, whether its photos or documents. For photographs try Google’s PhotoScan, Photomyne (which has multiple apps), Pic Scanner, the Polaroid app for instant photos or the Kodak Mobile Film Scanner for negatives. If you’re scanning documents, many work apps have tools built in to turn them directly into PDFs like Microsoft Lens and Google Drive. If you have an iPhone, there’s a “scan documents” option hidden in the Notes app.

Send to a scanning service: Dealing with a pile or even boxes of old photographs? Consider mailing them out to be scanned by a company like ScanMyPhotos, DigMyPics, Memories Renewed or through your local photo lab.

There is a chance you are printing things that no longer need to be paper-based. If you haven’t taken the leap yet, consider trusting your phone with the various tickets and confirmations you keep committing to paper. There are real concerns about a smartphone dying, leaving you unable to board a train or get into a conference. If your smartphone battery is dying that quickly and often, it might be time to get a new battery.

Tickets and passes: You can get digital version of boarding passes, concert tickets, transit passes and more on smartphones. Some are built-in to the Android and iOS wallet apps and others are just emails with QR or bar codes you scan in person. In fact, you can move almost your entire wallet onto a smartphone with a few exceptions.

Paperwork: You can sign a lot without a pen. Digital signatures on official documents have gone mainstream and are accepted by many institutions. Each will have their own legal requirements but may use DocuSign, Dropbox Sign or Acrobat Sign. For something less serious you can use built-in signatures in apps like Apple Preview. It’s even possible to get things notarized digitally now, using video chat.

Return labels: This one is hard to work around. If you’re ordering and returning a large volume of things, you may find yourself printing out tons of printing labels. However, check the sites you order from to see if they have alternative drop-off options. For example, most stores will let you return something you got in the mail to a brick-and-mortar location. Amazon returns can be taken to a UPS Store or Whole Foods where you show a QR code, no printing necessary.

Get rid of your printer the right way

If you are ready to ditch the printer, do it responsibly. You can sell it, donate it or recycle it instead of dumping it into the trash. If you do throw it out, make sure you use your local e-waste services to keep dangerous chemicals out of landfills. There is a another option, depending on your level of anger toward your printer. Some cities and towns have “rage rooms” where you can use a sledgehammer to destroy inanimate objects. Printers are, unsurprisingly, a very popular choice.

correction

A previous version of this article misstated the name of a digitization company and a signing software. They are Memories Renewed, not MemoryRenewed, and Acrobat Sign, not Adobe Sign. The article has been corrected.

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