.EXE File Extension

Windows Executable File

Developer Microsoft
4.1  |  6064 Votes

What is an EXE file?

An EXE file is an executable program you can run in Microsoft Windows. Most EXE files contain either Windows applications or application installers. However, EXE files can also store malware distributed by cybercriminals, so you should not open an EXE file unless you trust the file's source. To run the program an EXE file contains, double-click the file.

More Information

Screenshot of a .exe file in Microsoft Windows 11
EXE file open in Microsoft Windows 11

EXE is the primary format software developers use to package and deliver Windows programs. Each EXE file contains data that Windows uses to recognize, read, and run the program the file contains. This data is saved in a compiled, binary format sometimes referred to as machine code. EXE files also often contain additional program resources, such as the program's icon and its GUI graphics assets.

When you double-click an EXE file in Windows, Windows runs the program the file contains. If the file contains an application installer, the installer will open and start the installation process. If the file contains an application, the application will open. If the file contains a different kind of program (e.g. malware), that program will run.

Developers typically name EXE files such that you can tell whether they contain an installer or application. For example, EXE files that contain an installer are often named setup.exe, while EXE files that launch an app usually include the app's name (e.g. msedge.exe for Microsoft Edge).

Difference between EXE files and MSI files

Developers may save Windows application installers as .MSI files instead of EXE files. MSI files are similar to EXE files, except they always contain application installers. They never contain Windows applications or other programs. Windows always uses Windows Installer (a utility included with Windows) to open MSI files and install the program they contain.

Common EXE Filenames

setup.exe - A common name for application installers. When opened, it begins the installation process.

install.exe - Another popular name for app installers.

cmd.exe - The shell program used by Windows 2000 and later, replacing COMMAND.COM.

How to open an EXE file

In Windows, you can run the program an EXE file contains by double-clicking the file. However, do not double-click the file unless you can verify its legitimacy.

Advanced users can also extract an EXE file's contents without running the program it contains, using archive expansion tools like 7-Zip or RARLAB WinRAR.

How to run an EXE file outside Windows

The EXE file format is designed specifically for use with Windows. Non-Windows operating systems (OS), such as macOS and Linux, cannot natively run programs saved as EXE files. However, macOS, Linux, and other non-Windows users can run Windows programs on their PCs by creating a Windows virtual machine.

In macOS, you can use a Windows virtual machine created by Parallels Desktop or VMware Fusion to run the program an EXE file contains. You can also install Windows on a Mac with the Boot Camp utility bundled with the OS.

In Linux, you can use a Windows virtual machine created by Oracle VM VirtualBox to run the program an EXE file contains. You can also use Wine, an application designed specifically to allow users to run Windows applications without installing Windows.

In Android, you can use the Android version of Wine to run Windows applications. However, Wine for Android is limited by Android devices' architecture, and it can run only some Windows programs. In iOS, you can use the iOS version of Turing Software UTM to run Windows applications.


EXE files are typically legitimate Windows applications, but they can also be used to distribute and execute malware attacks. To protect against malicious Windows executable attacks, do not double-click an EXE file you have downloaded or received via email unless you trust the file's source.

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Programs that open EXE files

PortableApps.com Application

Developer Rare Ideas
3.5  |  751 Votes

An EXE file that uses the .paf.exe extension is a portable application installer created by the PortableApps.com Platform. It is used to install a Windows application that you can run from a USB flash drive or other external drive. When run, the .paf.exe file creates the application's executable file and directories that store app history and settings.

More Information

You can use the PortableApps.com Platform to download and run portable versions of Windows applications. These portable versions are initially stored in AppNamePortable_x.x.paf.exe files.

When you double-click a .paf.exe file, the file begins installing the portable app it contains. If the installer detects an existing PortableApps directory on a connected drive, it will install the app in that directory. Otherwise, it will install the app in your current directory.

After installation, the directory you installed to will contain an AppNamePortable directory. This directory contains the portable app's EXE file, as well as subdirectories used to store app data.

How to open an EXE file

You can run a .paf.exe file using the PortableApps.com Platform or by double-clicking the file. Doing so will open an app installer, used to install the portable app your .paf.exe file contains.

Programs that open EXE files

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