How to Use File Explorer in Windows 11

File Explorer is an application whose name is quite descriptive, but at the same time it only gives you a taste of what it can be used for.

Windows stalwarts may well remember when the app was officially called Windows Explorer, but since Windows 10 it’s been File Explorer – although almost everyone just calls it Explorer.

Windows 11 has improved the app even further, more recently introducing tabs, saving you from having multiple windows open at once.

At its core, the app lets you navigate the contents of your hard drive, accessing and managing files and folders as you go. But there’s more to it, and there’s a lot of customization possibilities. In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know.

1. Launch File Explorer

File Explorer in Windows 11 Step 1

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There are different ways to launch File Explorer, starting with clicking the shortcut on the taskbar – it’s the yellow folder icon. However, you can also find a shortcut in the Start menu, or you have the option of using the the Windows + E keyboard shortcut.

There are several application window components worth noting – there’s the main toolbar at the very top, and below that are the navigation buttons, address bar, and bar area. In many ways, File Explorer is like a web browser. On the left is the navigation pane, and the large main section on the right displays the contents of the currently selected folder or location.

File Explorer in Windows 11 Step 2

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There are many ways to get around File Explorer when you want to browse your files and folders. If you click on the This PC icon in the navigation pane, the right pane will show various system folders as well as the drives you have connected to your computer.

If you hover over This PC, a small arrow will appear and if you click on it, the contents of This PC will expand in the navigation pane. Alternatively, you can simply double-click This PC for the same effect.

3. Expand Folders

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The left and right panes are used slightly differently, but both allow you to browse your files.

Just as you clicked This PC to view its contents, you can do the same with your C: drive – or you can double-click it, or hover over and click the arrow to expand it in the Navigation Pane.

With your C: drive selected, you’ll see the contents in the right pane – there will be folders such as Windows, Users and Program Files – and you can explore the subfolders.

4. Customizing Views

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While browsing, you can use the back and forward arrows in the navigation bar as you would in a web browser to move back and forth, while the up button takes you to the parent of the current folder.

There are many ways to customize the view of files and folders, starting with using kind button. You can select the criteria to use to sort files and folders – such as name, size, date created, etc. – and indicate whether you want to use ascending or descending sorting.

You can also use the By group sub-menu to further customize things.

5. Changing display options

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Other options are available through the To see where you can choose icons of different sizes and decide whether you want to see information such as file size next to individual items.

The View menu also allows you to toggle Compact see start and stop. You may want to experiment to see what works best for you. the Show the submenu lets you show or hide various optional components like the handy Preview Pane or the equally useful Details pane.

Also worth pointing out are the two small buttons on the far right of the File Explorer status bar that allow you to quickly switch between Retail and Big Icon views.

6. Use Different Actions in Explorer

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One of the most common things you’ll want to do with files and folders is to simply open them – something you can do with a quick double-click.

But there are many other actions you can perform, such as dragging and dropping a file into a folder to move it around, or using the options available in the toolbar and context menu.

In the toolbar, the New allows you to quickly create a number of different document types, while the other buttons are, in order, Cut, copy, paste, rename, share and To delete.

File Explorer in Windows 11 Step 7

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If you right-click on a file or folder, you’ll see a context menu containing these same toolbar options in a row above the other options.

What you see in the rest of the context menu depends on whether you right-clicked a file or a folder. In the case of files, you will see a To open option that allows you to open the document in the default associated application.

You can also use the Open with sub-menu to choose an alternative application. Options such as Properties, Compress to Zip file and Copy as path appear in both context menus.

8. Right click on a folder

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There are a few options specific to right-clicking on a folder. the Open in a new window The option comes in handy if you want to have two instances of File Explorer side by side for easy comparison or copying.

Pin to quick access gives you a way to bookmark frequently used folders so they are easily accessible from the Quick access section of the left navigation pane. Another bookmarking option is Pin to start which adds the selected folder to the To start up menu as a shortcut.

In the case of files and folders that you right-click, you will see Show more options at the bottom, which will display the context menu inherited from earlier versions of Windows.

9. Using the Search Bar in Explorer

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Although Windows 11 has a system-wide search function that you can access from the To start up menu, File Explorer offers its own search option. You can type a search term in the box at the top right of the application window and press Enter to start the search.

By default, File Explorer will search the current folder as well as subfolders, but you can limit this by clicking the button Search Options in the toolbar and selecting Current folder.

In this menu you will find many ways to further limit the search to files of a particular size or type. Results will be displayed in the main right pane as they are found.

10. Using Advanced Options in Explorer

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In File Explorer, there are different options that you can access and configure by clicking the button in the toolbar, then selecting Choice.

In the first option on the General , you can choose whether File Explorer should start with This PC or Quick Access selected by default. Below you can choose to open files and folders with a single click rather than a double click, while in the Privacy section you can opt to have the Quick Access section automatically populated with files. and recently used folders.

Additional options are available on the To see and Research tabs, and you may need to spend some time figuring out which setting works best for the way you work. The number of options, however, means that there is a huge amount of customization possible.

11. Using Tabs in File Explorer

Tabs in File Explorer

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A recent update, announced at a productivity event in April 2022, added tabs to File Explorer, similar to those in a web browser.

You can use CTRL+T to open a new tab, or you can right-click and select Open in New Tab.

This can be very useful if you need to keep a folder open while you navigate to your cloud storage folder to find something to drop into that folder. While this is a feature that should have been here years ago in Windows, we’re glad it’s here now.

Getting the most out of File Explorer

Windows 11’s File Explorer got a major makeover, but Microsoft still isn’t done. As mentioned, we recently saw the appearance of tabs included in a feature update in April 2022.

It’s another example of Microsoft’s commitment to improving long-discontinued aspects of Windows 11, and with the advice above, you’ll be wondering how you handled your files in its previous design.


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Steven L. Nielsen