How to find any file on Windows

While a lot of our files are stored in the cloud, there are still many ones and zeros that get stored locally. But as the capacity of the drives used by our desktops and laptops has increased, finding files has gotten that much harder. How many photos and videos do you have stacked up in your computer? How many documents and downloads?

Personally, I tend to neglect file management because there’s so much storage space available. But when I do need a file, especially one I haven’t used for a while, the old phrase about finding a needle in a haystack comes to mind. It’s even worse if I don’t remember much about what it was called.

Don’t despair. Windows has the tools you need to track down what you’re after. And if the built-in options aren’t enough, there are third-party programs you can turn to as well.

By default, Windows only indexes the files in four areas of your PC: Documents, Pictures, Music, and Desktop folders, plus any subfolders branching off of them. If you want it to search in other places as well, you can change this.

  • Open Settings from the Start menu, then go to Privacy & security > Searching Windows.
  • Under Find my files, you will probably find that the Classic type of search has been automatically selected. With Classic chosen, you can then click Customize search locations > Modify to add folders to the list of indexed locations by checking the appropriate boxes. 
  • Alternatively, you can choose Enhanced instead of Classic to have your entire PC included in queries. Microsoft says this may affect CPU usage and battery life, so you may not find it worth the tradeoff.

Farther down the same screen, you’re able to exclude certain folders from search. If there are folders you know you’re not going to need to search, excluding them can speed up the indexing and searching processes.

When you’ve decided which folders you want Windows to index, you’re ready to actually do some searching.

There’s a search box or icon right there on the taskbar, just to the right of the Start menu button, which you can use to start your file search. Just type as much of the file name as you remember, and results appear as you type. If you prefer, you can also use the search box that you get when you open up the Start menu.

When you start to type, Windows will bring up a dialog that shows you what it considers the best match, and then more matches below that. Above the best match, you’ll find a series of tabs with various categories, including Documents, Photos, or Folders, which you can use to narrow down your search if you don’t immediately find a match. Depending on your search words, Windows may prioritize results from the web and / or the Start menu ahead of files, so you may need these extra filters.

If all you want to get to is a recently installed app or recently opened file, you may not need to do any searching at all. Click on the Start menu button on the taskbar, and under the Recommended heading, you’ll see apps and files you’ve recently accessed.

For more advanced searches, open up File Explorer and use the search box that’s up in the top-right corner. Here are a few tips:

  • Note that your location in File Explorer matters: the search will run on the folder you’re currently viewing, along with any subfolders. If you want to search your entire PC, first click This PC in the navigation pane on the left. Type out the name of the file you’re looking for in the search box and hit Enter. Matches will then fill up on-screen as they’re found.
  • If you’re not sure of the full file name, you can use an asterisk as a wild card that represents any combination of characters. So searching for am* could return files named “amstrad,” “america,” and “am8811!g.” 
  • You can also use a question mark as a single-letter wild card. Searching for am? would give you files named “amy,” “amd,” and “am3.”
  • Another trick is to add the file extension, if you know it. Run a search for *.jpg, and you’ll get back all the JPEG files in the current folder, along with its subfolders. You can apply the same wild cards to the extension after the period if you need to.
  • Boolean operators are supported as well. For example, use “samsung or google” to get matches for both, “samsung and google” to find files where both words are included or “samsung not google” to get files that have Samsung in the name but not Google.
  • If you want to filter your search even more, look for Search Options up at the top of the File Explorer window. (You may need to click on the three dots on the right side to find it.) Click on that to get a list of various search variables you can use. For example, you can limit your search based on file size or when the file was last edited (which can be very useful if you’re getting overwhelmed with results). There’s also a File contents option, which you can use if you want Windows to look inside your files for matches — it’s a lot more thorough, but it obviously takes more time.

There are numerous third-party utilities out there, ready and willing to lend a hand with your searches. While the features they offer are pretty similar to what you’ll find in File Explorer, they’re presented in a way that you might find more intuitive.

  • Agent Ransack is a speedy and slimline file searcher for Windows, which lets you search for matches in file names and in file contents at the same time. It’s really easy to pick search locations, and wild cards and Boolean operators are supported, too.
  • Then there’s Everything, which is the most lightweight and straightforward file search tool for Windows that I’ve found. (It can be run as a portable app, too, right from a USB drive.) It also has its own set of advanced features, including options for matching upper and lower case in file names and being able to save searches for future use.
  • SearchMyFiles is another free third-party search utility worth a look. As well as displaying results super quickly, it offers a convenient search options panel, where you can limit your file matches based on file size, file date, and file attributes (such as read only). It’ll even help you hunt down duplicate files.
  • Last but not least, PowerToys Run from Microsoft can give you a search experience similar to Spotlight on macOS. Hit Alt + Space to bring up the search box in the center of the screen, then type out the name of the file you’re looking for. It’s useful to have on hand for those times you need to get to a specific file as quickly as possible.


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