What Does Case Sensitive Mean?

Definition of case sensitive, case sensitive passwords, and more

Anything that's case sensitive discriminates between uppercase and lowercase letters. In other words, it means two words that appear or sound identical, but are using different letter cases, are not considered equal.

For example, if a password field is case sensitive, then you must enter each letter case as you did when the password was created. Any tool that supports text input might support case-sensitive input.

Lifewire / Alex Dos Diaz 

Where Is Case Sensitivity Used?

Examples of computer-related data that is often, but not always, case sensitive include commands, usernames, file names, programming language tags, variables, and passwords.

For example, because Windows passwords are case sensitive, the password HappyApple$ is only valid if it's entered in that exact way. You can't use HAPPYAPPLE$ or even happyApple$, where just a single letter is in the wrong case. Since every letter can be uppercase or lowercase, each version of the password that uses either case is really an entirely different password.

Email passwords are often case sensitive, too (although email addresses rarely are). So, if you're logging into something like your Google or Microsoft account, you must be sure to enter the password in exactly the same way you did when it was created.

These aren't the only areas where text can be distinguished by letter case. Programs and websites with a search function, like the Notepad++ text editor and the Firefox browser, have an option to run case-sensitive searches so only words of the proper case entered into the search box will be found. The Everything PC search tool supports case-sensitive searches, too.

Match case checkbox in Notepad++ Find prompt
Notepad++ 'match case' option.

When you're making a user account for the first time, or are logging into that account, you might find a note somewhere around the password field that explicitly says the password is case sensitive, in which case it does matter how you enter the letter cases to log in.

Another place to watch out for case-sensitive input is when performing Google Boolean searches. You must use all uppercase letters to force the search engine to understand the words as a search operator and not just a regular word.

If a command, program, website, etc., does not discriminate between uppercase and lowercase letters, it could be referred to as case insensitive or case-independent, but will probably not even mention it if so.

Website URLs are usually case insensitive. This means you can, most of the time, enter a URL into Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers using a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, and it will still load the page normally. That said, there are instances, depending on how the site has set up its web pages, where you'll run into URL errors if the wrong case is used.

Security Behind Case Sensitive Passwords

A password that must be entered with the proper letter cases is much more secure than one that doesn't, so most user accounts are case sensitive.

Using the example from above, you can see that even those two incorrect passwords alone provide three total passwords someone would have to guess to get access to the Windows account. Plus, because that password has a special character and several letters, all of which could be uppercase or lowercase, finding the right combination wouldn't be quick or easy.

Imagine something simpler, though, like HOME. Someone would have to try all combinations of that word to land on the version where all the letters are capitalized. They'd have to try HOMe, HOme, Home, home, hoMe, HoMe, hOme, etc.—you get the idea. If this password was case insensitive, though, every one of those attempts would work, plus, a simple dictionary attack would reach this password rather easily once the word home was tried.

With every additional letter added to a case-sensitive password, the likelihood that it can be guessed within a reasonable amount of time is drastically reduced, and the security is amplified even more when special characters—like $, %, @, ^—are included.

Tips and More Information

Because most passwords are case sensitive, the letter case you used is one of the first things to look at if your password is said to be wrong when trying to log in to a website. However, since most passwords are hidden behind asterisks, making it impossible to see whether you used the letter casing inappropriately, check that Caps Lock isn't enabled on your keyboard.

The Windows Command Prompt is case insensitive, meaning you can enter commands like dir as DIR, DiR, dIr, etc.—there really isn't any reason to do that, but if you happen to have typed it incorrectly, you don't have to worry about fixing it for the command to work.

The same is true when referring to folder paths from the command line in Windows. For example, cd downloads is the same as cd Downloads and cd DOwnLOADs.

cd downloads and dir commands in Windows 10 command prompt

Linux commands, however, are case sensitive. You have to enter them exactly as they appear or you'll get an error.

dir command not found error in Ubuntu

Entering cd downloads when the folder is actually spelled "Downloads," will result in an error like "No such file or directory." Commands entered in the wrong case will return a "command not found" error.

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