What Does It Mean When a File Is Read-Only?

Definition of a read-only file and why some files use the attribute

A read-only file is any file with the read-only file attribute turned on. It can be opened and viewed like any other file, but writing to it (saving changes) isn't possible. In other words, the file can only be read from, not written to.

A file marked as read-only usually implies that it shouldn't be altered or that great caution should be taken before making changes to it.

Other things besides files can also be read-only, like particularly configured flash drives and other solid state storage devices like SD cards. Certain areas of your computer memory may also be set as read-only.

Illustration of a man's hand and arm holding a red Do Not Enter sign
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What Types of Files Are Usually Read-Only?

Aside from the rare situation where you, or someone else, has manually set a read-only flag on a file, most of these types of files you'll find are important ones that your operating system needs to start properly or, when changed or removed, might cause your computer to crash.

Some files that are read-only by default in Windows include bootmgr, hiberfil.sys, pagefile.sys, and swapfile.sys, and that's just in the root directory! A number of files in the C:\Windows\ folder and its subfolders are read-only by default.

In older versions of Windows, some common ones include boot.ini, io.sys, and msdos.sys.

Most Windows files that are read-only are also usually marked as hidden files.

How to Change Read-Only Files

Read-only files may be read-only on a file level or a folder level, meaning there might be two ways to handle editing one of these files, depending on what level it's been marked as read-only.

If just one file has a read-only attribute, the best way to edit it is to uncheck the appropriate attribute in the file's properties (to toggle it off) and then make changes to it. Then, once the editing is done, re-enable the attribute.

windows.shell.manifest read-only option

However, if a folder is marked as read-only, it usually means all the files in the folder are read-only as well. The difference in this and a file-based attribute is that you must make a change to the folder's permissions as a whole to edit the file, not just the single file.

In this scenario, you may not want to change the read-only attribute for a collection of files, only to edit one or two. To edit this type of read-only file, you'd want to edit the file in a folder that does allow editing, and then move the newly created file into the original file's folder, overwriting the original.

For example, consider a situation where you want to edit the hosts file in the System32\drivers\etc\ folder. Instead of editing and saving the file directly back to the "etc" folder, which isn't permitted, you have to do all the work elsewhere, like on the Desktop, and then copy it back over.

Specifically, in the case of the hosts file, it would go like this:

  1. Copy hosts from the etc folder to the Desktop.

  2. Make the changes to the hosts file that's on the Desktop.

  3. Copy the hosts file on the Desktop to the etc folder.

  4. Confirm the file overwrite.

Editing read-only files work this way because you're not actually editing the same file, you're making a new one and replacing the old one.

How to Make a File Read Only

It's simple: Right-click the file, go to Properties in the menu that pops up, and then select Read-only at the bottom of the General tab.

read-only file attribute checked

Another way is through the command line with the attrib command. If you follow that article, you'll find an example that shows how to apply the read-only attribute using the +r option.

  • Why is my Excel file read-only?

    Several scenarios might lead to an Excel spreadsheet opening as read-only. For instance, if the file is password-protected or was shared as a copy, it might open as read-only. Right-click the file and choose Properties to see if the Read-only attribute is checked. If so, clear the checkbox to edit the file.

  • Why is my QuickBooks backup read-only?

    QuickBooks files might open as read-only if stored on a DVD or CD, in which case you can copy the file to your computer's hard drive before opening it. In addition, some files are read-only to protect from accidental edits, which you can resolve by running QuickBooks as an administrator. First, right-click the QuickBooks icon and select Properties > Compatibility > Run this program as an administrator, then attempt to open or restore the company file.

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