Network File Sharing in Microsoft Windows

Learn the different options in Windows to share files with others

Microsoft Windows 8 on a tablet

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Each major version of the Windows operating system released since 2006 has incorporated some different and improved features for sharing files between computers over a network. While the newer features are powerful, they can’t always be used when sharing with devices running older versions of Windows (or non-Windows devices).

Instructions in this article apply to Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows Vista.

Share Files in the Cloud With OneDrive

The Microsoft OneDrive service provides Windows computers with personal cloud storage from which files can be shared with others. Windows support for OneDrive varies depending on the version of Windows:

OneDrive requires registering an account with Microsoft for file storage. A free account provides a limited amount of storage space, but the storage limit can be increased for a recurring fee.

Set up a Home Network for Sharing With HomeGroup

Introduced first in Windows 7, HomeGroup makes it possible for a local group of computers running Windows 7 or newer to associate with each other for sharing. Each local network can be set up with one homegroup that computers join by knowing the group’s name and password. Users control which files and folders they wish to share with the homegroup, and they can also share local printers. Microsoft recommends using HomeGroup for sharing on home networks unless some home PCs are running Windows XP or Windows Vista.

HomeGroup has been removed from Windows 10 (Version 1803).

Use Windows Public Folder Sharing

Introduced first in Windows Vista, Public is an operating system folder specially configured for file sharing. Users can copy files and folders to this location and, in turn, share them with other Windows (Vista or newer) computers on the local network. Users can also allow others to update these files or post new ones to the same location.

Public folder sharing can be enabled or disabled from the Windows Advanced Sharing Settings page (go to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Advanced sharing settings).

Turn on file and printer sharing in Windows

Understand Windows File Sharing Permissions

Windows 7 and newer Windows computers offer two basic permission levels for sharing files:

  • Read: Recipients can open the file and view its contents but cannot change the file without making a separate copy.
  • Read/Write: Recipients can both view and change the file contents and save (overwrite) the file at its current location.

Windows 7 and newer has the option to restrict sharing to specific people — either a specific list of people (network account names) or a Windows HomeGroup — or to anyone on the local network.

Remove access menu item in Windows

On all versions of Windows, Advanced Security options also exist, configurable under the Share menu of the file or folder properties. Advanced Security supports three permission types:

  • Read: Recipients can open the file and view its contents but cannot change the file without making a separate copy.
  • Change: Recipients can both view and change the file contents and save (overwrite) the file at its current location.
  • Full Control: Allows setting an extra level of advanced permissions for systems running the NT file system (NTFS), used mostly on legacy business networks.
Full control access to a given folder in Windows

Mechanics of Windows File Sharing

With the exception of Public folders that involve moving or copying a file to a new location, sharing files in Windows involves taking specific action in the context of the given file or folder. In Windows 10, right-click on a file or folder in File Explorer, for example, to reveal a Give access to option.

File-sharing can fail due to permissions issues, network outages, and other technical glitches. Use the troubleshooting wizards in the Control Panel (under Network and Sharing Center) to diagnose problems with network connections, shared folders, or the HomeGroup.

Non-Windows and Third-Party Sharing Solutions

Besides the sharing facilities built into Microsoft Windows, some third-party software systems such as Dropbox also support file sharing between Windows computers plus other non-Windows devices on the network. Consult the documentation for these third-party packages for additional details.

How to Turn off Windows File Sharing

Users can turn off file and printer sharing on a computer from the Windows Advanced Sharing Settings page. If the computer had previously joined a homegroup, leave that group through Control Panel. Any files in the Public folder should also be removed to prevent that form of sharing. Finally, uninstall any third-party sharing software that may be present on the device.