What Is an EXE File?

How to open, edit, & convert EXE files

What to Know

  • An EXE file is an executable file.
  • Operating systems like Windows open the file automatically, no special software needed.
  • Convert to MSI with MSI Wrapper.

This article explains what an EXE file is and how to safely use one on your computer.

What Is an EXE File?

A file with the EXE file extension is an executable file used in operating systems like Windows, MS-DOS, OpenVMS, and ReactOS for opening software programs.

Software installers are usually named something like setup.exe or install.exe, but application files go by unique names, usually relative to the software program's name. For example, when you download the Firefox web browser, the installer is named something like Firefox Setup.exe, but once installed, the program opens with the firefox.exe file located in the program's installation directory.

several EXE files in Windows 11

Some EXE files may instead be self-extracting files that extract their contents to a specific folder when opened, like for quickly unzipping a collection of files or for installing a portable program.

EXE files oftentimes reference associated DLL files. Examples of important EXE files in Windows include svchost.exe, conhost.exe, and winload.exe. If the executable file is compressed, it might use the EX_ file extension instead.

Although EXE files, such as setup.exe, can be called application files, they are not the same as files that end in .APPLICATION.

EXE Files Can Be Dangerous

Lots of malicious software is transported by way of EXE files, usually in the background of a program that appears to be safe. This infection occurs when a program you think is authentic launches damaging computer code that runs without your knowledge. The program may, in fact, be real but will also hold a virus, or the software might be entirely fake and just have a familiar, non-threatening name.

Therefore, like other executable file extensions, be careful when opening EXE files that you download from the internet or receive directly from someone else. They have such a potential for being destructive that most email providers won't allow them to be sent, and some won't even let you put one in a ZIP archive to send that way. Always make sure you trust the sender of the executable file before opening it.

Something else to remember about this file format: it's only ever used to launch an application. So if you've downloaded what you thought is a video file, for example, but it has an .EXE file extension, you should immediately delete it. Videos you download from the internet are normally in the MP4, MKV, or AVI file format, but never EXE. The same rule applies to images, documents, and all other types of files—each of them uses their own set of file extensions.

An important step in mitigating any damage done by malicious EXE files is to keep your antivirus software running and up to date. 

How to Open an EXE File

EXE files don't require a program to open because Windows knows how to handle them. Just double-click the file to start using it.

However, they sometimes become unusable due to a registry error or virus infection. When this happens, Windows is tricked into using a different program, like Notepad, to open the file, which of course won't work. Fixing this glitch involves restoring the registry's correct association with EXE files—see Winhelponline's easy solution to this problem.

Some EXE files are self-extracting archives. These files might automatically extract to a specific location or even the same folder that the file is opened from. Others may ask you where you want to decompress the contents.

If you want to open a self-extracting EXE file without dumping its files, use a file unzipper like 7-Zip, PeaZip, or jZip. If you're using 7-Zip, for example, just right-click the EXE file and choose to open it with that program to view the EXE file like an archive.

A program like 7-Zip can also create self-extracting archives in the EXE format. This can be done by choosing 7z as the archive format and enabling the Create SFX archive option.

How to Open EXE Files on a Mac

Your best bet when you have a program you want to use on your Mac that's only available as an EXE installer/program is to see if there's a regular Mac version of the program.

Assuming that's not available, which is often the case, another popular option is to run Windows itself from within your macOS computer, using something called an emulator or virtual machine.

These sorts of programs emulate (thus the name) a Windows PC—hardware and all—which allow them to have EXE Windows-based programs installed.

Some popular Windows emulators include Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion, but there are several others. Apple's Boot Camp is another option.

The free WineBottler program is yet another way to tackle this problem of Windows programs on a Mac. No emulators or virtual machines required with this tool.

How to Convert an EXE File

EXE files are built with a specific operating system in mind. Decompiling one that's used in Windows would result in many Windows-only compatible files, so converting an EXE file to a format that makes it usable on a different platform like a Mac, would be a tedious task.

Instead of looking for an EXE converter, look for another version of the software that's available for the operating system you're wanting to use it on. CCleaner is one example of a program that you can download for Windows as an EXE or on a Mac as a DMG file.

One exception is if you need to convert EXE to MSI, something much more doable because both formats are used in Windows already. MSI Wrapper might be able to help with this type of conversion.

FAQ
  • How do I run an EXE file in the command prompt?

    Open the Command prompt by typing cmd in the Windows search bar, then enter cd path_name. Once you're in the correct directory, run the file by typing start file_name.exe.

  • Where is the Minecraft EXE file located?

    For the Java edition of Minecraft, check the location where you downloaded the game. If you're unable to find the location, use the AppData folder on Windows. To find the EXE file in macOS, open a Finder window and type ~/Library/Application Support/minecraft.

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