Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It's very easy to have Windows locate a file on your machine, but it's also easy to overlook a setting that will allow it to miss some as well.

I'm looking for [... some filename ...] on my machine. I know it's here, but I can't track it down. What am I missing? How to I find the file?

As you might guess that's a composite question - it reflects many different people asking roughly the same question in different ways.

How do I find a file?

There are a couple of ways, and there are a couple of "gotcha's" as well, so let's look at how to track down that file you're looking for.

The traditional way to locate a file in Windows is the Search item on the Start menu.

Except that it's not always visible.

If you don't see Search on your start menu, then right click on Start and select properties. In the resulting dialog:

Start Menu Properties Dialog

Click on Customize, then on the Advanced tab, and then in Start menu items scroll down until you see Search:

Start Menu Properties Dialog Search item

Make sure that's checked, and then OK your way back out.

To search for a file, click on Start, then Search and then For Files or Folders...:

Search Results Window

Now, one might think that searching for a file is as simple as entering it's name into the All or part of the file name: field, and most of the time that is, in fact, enough.

But that's not always the case so we're going to change a couple of search options.

Click on More advanced options:

More Advanced Options for Windows Search

Make sure that Search system folders, Search hidden files and folders, and Search subfolders are all checked. Many times the files that people are looking for, like email files, are in fact kept in hidden folders, and are not found unless these options are checked.

"What's important here is simply to remember to include hidden and system files and folders in your search to make sure you're really searching everything and everywhere."

Now enter the filename and press Search, and if the file is on your hard drive(s), then it should show up.

Now, personally, I find Windows' built-in search cumbersome. Since I'm kind of a old school command line kinda guy it's the Windows Command Prompt that I turn to.

Fire up a Windows Command Prompt (it's typically in Start, All Programs, Accessories). Enter:

cd \

to make the current directory the root of the drive. Now enter:

dir /s /a filename

Where "filename" is the full name of the file you're looking for. "/s" means "check all subfolders", and "a" means "show all files, including hidden and system files".

For example:

A command line search for lsass.exe

If you only know the part of the filename, you can specify "*" as a wildcard. For example let's say we know there's a file that begins with "pers", and it's a ".pst" file, we can search for "pers*.pst":

A command line search for pers*.pst

Personally I find the command line version quicker and easier, but it's a matter of personal preference. (The downside, by the way, is that the command line search will look at only one drive at a time. If you have another drive type that drive, such as "D:", followed by ENTER, and then repeat your search.)

What's important here is simply to remember to include hidden and system files and folders in your search to make sure you're really searching everything and everywhere.

Article C3009 - April 30, 2007 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

dave b
April 30, 2007 6:44 PM

With Vista the Search world turns all upside down. The Search engine runs in the background all of the time as a low-level processes. It searches not only file names, but inside of files and e-mail too. For example, I recently wanted to find a PDF version of my wife's resume. I tapped the Windows key once, then typed "resume". Vista showed me all of the files in the machine that included "resume" in their file name, inside a document, or even in my Outlook e-mail. One whack at the Enter key launched to complete results in a new windows. Pretty nifty... can I say, "nifty?" Is that out of vogue? I suppose it's better than, "far out!"

May 5, 2007 12:25 AM

Could install a desktop search utilty from Google, Copernic or the like, which takes up resources, but for an instant search I also use File Seeker
which is blazingly fast.

Bernard Hausman
May 5, 2007 2:43 PM

A concise page with the instructions would help me, and I assume others. It would allow us to make a file of helpful hints to refer to when the problems discussed come up on our computers.

Albert Stefanik
February 20, 2008 9:31 PM

I'm a 75 year old NEW user. My buddy, who's much more experienced at this stuff ran a couple of "System Restores" after I managed to screw things up. Now every time I download something from M/S of Hp,and they have to shut down and restart, I get an error message that this thing can't locate 3 (or 4) DLL's. It seems to have renamed them amd I have no idea what the hell a Dll is, or how to locate them. I was able to print where they are and what their new names are. I just click OK, and go from there. I also get another Error message telling me that Vista some damn thing or another can't be located. I'm not running Vista. I have Win XP Svc. Pack 2. I've heard too many horror stories about Vista that has been loaded on a computer that's been running XP. This thing was "Vista Ready" when I bought it back in Nov. '06. Some people tell me that if Vista is alreaqdy installed on a new computer, it works fine. Any help you can give me with those DLL's will be greatly appredciated. I'll spring for a case of your favorite breakfast food. (How the hell does Pay Pal work? Is it reliable, secure etc?) I read the article and it sounds like this may be the answer to my problem, but I'd hate like to hell to completely destroy my OS. My "buddy" was suposed to show me how to make a set of backup discs, but hasn't had the time. I've been trying to get a set from HP, but so far all I get is the runaround and no positive answers. Any help will be GREATLY appreciated. Thank you. Your humble petitioner, Al. )Don't let the techie talk confuse you. I know Jack Shit, bit I've got a halfway decent memeory.)

August 8, 2009 8:16 AM

Excellent tip!
i had to use the "Windows Command Prompt" search to find my files...
Thx a lot!

October 2, 2009 5:54 PM

How can locate system applications thru Search as there is no Search button on Vista?

October 3, 2009 8:25 AM

Sylvia - Yes, there is although it's kind of hidden. When you click on the start button look right above your pointer. There is a search box right there. (You'll see a blinking cursor and "Start Search" in there.)

October 26, 2009 9:00 AM

when I try to send an email I get this error message
Quit outlook and use the inbox repair tool kit?? I cannot find it anywhere? I found my outlook pst but it will not open it tries to use the web to locate a program to open the file? so confused?

September 13, 2011 8:17 AM

My issue is that my Windows Admin profile folder is corrupted and cannot be accessed. I want to find my emails and remove them from this hard-drive so I can put them in the new computer. Once I FIND the file, how do I copy it? Is there a way to put that file into the Shared folder so I can access it from another account/profile. Or copy to a flash drive?

I actually learned how to do this YEARS ago, but I've forgotten most of it.

Thanks for being AWESOME and creating this site for us!

Just use Windows Explorer to drag-n-drop it to a flash drive - that would be simplest. Can't say where the files would be though since you haven't indicated what email program you use.

September 14, 2011 9:58 AM

I'm using Outlook 2003 and any time I try to access the files under that profile, I'm prompted to enter the password of the admin account, but since that folder has something wrong with it, it isn't even accepting the password.

Is there a backdoor to this file that I can sneak into?

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