When it comes to word processing, most people—and most businesses—still think of Microsoft Word. Whether it's a résumé or an essay, it's most likely to come as a .docx file, the universally recognized default file format used by Word, and whomever you're working with probably wants one in return.

There's just one problem—you need to pay a one-time fee or a recurring subscription to use Microsoft Word as part of a Microsoft 365 subscription ... or do you? 

Word on the Web

Word on the web offers plenty of features.

Microsoft via David Nield

Microsoft makes a free version of Microsoft Word available for anyone to use on the web. You have to register a Microsoft account, but that's free too. As the app works entirely inside a web browser, you can access it from any computer, and your files are always synced and saved in the cloud. There are some limitations, but for a lot of users, Word on the web might be all they ever need.

Collaborating with other people on documents is very straightforward, as you would expect from a web app, and you get all of the basic formatting options offered by the desktop version of Word. It's possible to put together some relatively complex layouts using Word on the web, and you can check out the free templates that Microsoft provides for some inspiration.

This online version of Word isn't as powerful or as versatile as the desktop software for Windows and macOS. For example, you don't get alignment guides or live layout options, you can't create citations and a bibliography, and you don't get any of the advanced proofing and reference tools. Plus, you need an active web connection to use the online version. These won't be dealbreakers for everyone, and Word on the web is a perfectly capable application.

Word Apps on Mobile

Viewing a document on Word for Android.

Microsoft via David Nield

You can install Microsoft Word for Android and iOS, free of charge. As with the web version, you just need a Microsoft account and you're good to go, but there is a caveat: If you want to use the mobile app version of Word on an Android device with a screen size of fewer than 10.1 inches or on an iPad, you need to pay for a Microsoft 365 subscription. With the free edition, you're limited to cell phones.

That means you're not exactly going to be hooking up a keyboard and bashing out several thousand words of a report—unless you type very fast on your phone's keyboard (or you particularly love portable Bluetooth keyboards). As you would expect on mobile, these apps are also limited in other ways, both in terms of the smaller screen size and in terms of the formatting and layout options for the documents you create.

That said, they're still great for quick edits and for viewing documents. If, for example, someone has sent you a Word document that you need to look at, and you don't want to pay for the full version of the software, then you can easily get at it using your phone. Alternatively, if you just need something to create simple and short Word documents, with basic formatting, the mobile phone app will work just fine.

Get a Family Member to Pay

Family subscriptions can be shared with up to six people.

Microsoft via David Nield

You can get deals on family plans just about everywhere, from Apple to Spotify. The same is true for a Microsoft 365 subscription, so if you're keen to get all of the benefits of Word (and Excel and PowerPoint) free of charge, then you might consider asking someone else in your family to pay for the software.

Check the Microsoft 365 plans page for the latest pricing. At the time of writing you could get an individual subscription for $69.99 per year or a family subscription for $99.99 per year. That family subscription covers up to six people, who can each install the Office apps on up to five devices.

You may have to use your powers of persuasion to the absolute maximum to get a relative to pay for you to access Microsoft Office without paying anything—but you might have a particularly generous family around you, or you may be able to return the favor in some other way. At the very least, it means you're getting Microsoft Word for significantly less money if you split the $100-a-year fee six different ways.

Use an Alternative

Google Docs can save documents in Word format.

Google via David Nield

It may seem like cheating to tell you to use an alternative in a guide to how to use Microsoft Word for free, but bear in mind that a lot of these alternatives are now perfectly comfortable handling the same .docx file format that Word does, and anyone you're sending to or getting files from doesn't have to know you're not using Word. That means you don't miss out if the rest of your colleagues use Word and you don't.

There is of course Google Docs, which is completely free to use and runs inside a web browser as well as on mobile in app form. While it doesn't quite have the reach and range of features that Microsoft Word does—particularly when it comes to some layout formats and options for longer documents—you can access it from any computer, and sharing documents is very straightforward.

When it comes to desktop software, there's the venerable OpenOffice, which includes a word processor as well as multiple other applications that you don't have to pay for. The office suite is available for both Windows and macOS. If you're on a Mac, there's also Pages to consider, which is Apple's free word processor.