What Is System32 in Windows?

The reasons you should never delete it

System32 is the name of a folder used by the Windows operating system. The directory holds important files that are crucial for the normal functioning of Windows, so it should never be deleted.

All the files and subfolders that make up the system32 folder are copied to the hard drive during the initial Windows installation, usually to C:\Windows\System32\. This is true for both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows.

Some of the system32 files are programs you might be used to using, but most are application files used for various purposes but never actually opened manually by you.

Because many of the important Windows system files are in system32, error messages often pertain to files in this folder, particularly DLL errors.

What’s in System32?

Windows 11 system32 folder

The system32 folder can be as large as several gigabytes, so it has far too many items to list here. However, you might be surprised to know some of the things it holds. There are hundreds of EXE files, thousands of DLL files, and other things like Control Panel applets, MS-DOS applications, DAT files, and more.

For example, when you open Command Prompt, you’re really running cmd.exe from the system32 folder. This means you could actually go into this folder and open various programs like this, such as System Restore via rstrui.exe, Notepad with notepad.exe, etc.

Most computers have their system drive assigned with the letter C, but yours might be different. Another way to open the system32 folder regardless of the drive's letter is by executing %WINDIR%\system32.

What Runs in System32?

Other common programs run from this folder, too, like Control Panel, Computer Management, Disk Management, Calculator, PowerShell, Task Manager, and a disk defragmenter. These are applications that come with Windows that we view as being part of the operating system because they’re stored in the system32 folder.

The MS-DOS applications stored in system32 — like diskcomp.com, diskcopy.com, format.com, and more.com — are used for backwards compatibility with older software.

Important services and processes are kept in system32, too, like conhost.exe, svchost.exe, lsass.exe, and dashost.exe. Even third-party programs can put files in system32, like the Dropbox service DbxSvc.exe.

Some of the subfolders you can find in system32 include config which holds various Windows Registry files, drivers that stores device drivers and the hosts file, and oobe for Windows activation files.

What Happens If You Delete System32?

Don’t delete it should be the only answer you need! If somebody told you to remove system32 to fix something or because it's a virus folder, or for whatever reason, know that many things will stop working if you do so.

System32 is a crucial folder that stores lots of files, some of which are always active and running to make various things operate smoothly. This means many of the files are locked and can’t be deleted normally.

Folder Access Denied message on the System32 folder in Windows 10

The only surefire way to delete system32 would be from outside of Windows, like from a rescue/repair boot disc. FalconFour's Ultimate Boot CD is one example of a tool that can remove security restrictions on system32 and let you delete every single file.

However, even if you could easily delete the entire Windows system32 folder, your computer would not work like it’s supposed to. Windows might start a repair process after attempting to load the missing files, or it might ask you if you want to run advanced repair tools. What follows would be a long line of system errors as your computer slowly falls apart.

Windows 10 automatic repair screen

Cascading Complications From a Missing System32

For starters, assuming Windows lets you log in, you’d encounter basic “\windows\system32\” related file errors explaining that certain things can’t run or communicate properly because they can’t be found. Many of these would be “not found” or “missing” DLL errors.

For example, missing drivers would make it impossible for Windows to communicate with computer hardware. This might include your keyboard and mouse, monitor, hard drive, etc. It’s hard to do much on your computer when the hardware that you need to interact with Windows can’t be identified.

Since various important system processes would be deleted along with system32, normal operations would cease to function. Your access to the internet might be affected, the desktop might not display things properly, and you might find that something as simple as shutting off the computer won't work as it should....and those are just a few examples.

Many files in Windows rely on other files, so if even only a portion of system32 were deleted, other data inside and outside that folder that require those deleted items will stop working and probably lead to error messages.

All of the above is assuming that Windows would be able to load at all. The registry, which you would have deleted with system32, holds lots of instructions for how things work, so with that data gone, coupled with the missing DLLs and operating system files (and the now-deleted winlogon.exe process that's used to log you in), it's very unlikely you'll ever see the login screen.

Hal DLL error in Windows XP
Hal.dll Error in Windows XP.

On top of those problems is the major issue of the missing winload.exe file used by most versions of Windows. BOOTMGR needs to load that file to open other things that the OS needs to function, like ntoskrnl.exe, another vital system file used to manage things like memory and processes. By the way, ntoskrnl.exe would also be removed if system32 got deleted.

It should be clear by now: deleting system32 is absolutely not recommended and should not be performed. Even if you think system32 is infected with malware, a more realistic cleaning method would be to run a malware scan or repair Windows.

If the system32 folder does manage to become partially or fully deleted, or too infected for repair, the best course of action is to reinstall Windows.

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