What is an EXE File?

How to Open, Edit, & Convert EXE Files

Picture of the default EXE file icon in Windows
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A file with the EXE file extension (pronounced as ee-ex-ee) is an Executable file used in operating systems like Windows, MS-DOS, OpenVMS, and ReactOS for opening software programs.

Software installers are usually named something like setup.exe or install.exe, but application files go by completely unique names, usually relative to the software program's name. For example, when you download the Firefox web browser, the installer is named something like Firefox Setup.exe, but once installed, the program opens with the firefox.exe file located in the program's installation directory.

Some EXE files may instead be self-extracting files that extract their contents to a specific folder when opened, like for quickly unzipping a collection of files or for "installing" a portable program.

EXE files oftentimes reference associated DLL files. EXE files that are compressed use the EX_ file extension instead.

EXE Files Can Be Dangerous

Lots of malicious software is transported by way of EXE files, usually in the background of a program that appears to be safe. This happens when a program you think is authentic launches damaging computer code that runs without your knowledge. The program may in fact be real but will also holds a virus, or the software might be entirely fake and just have a familiar, non-threatening name (like firefox.exe or something).

Therefore, like other executable file extensions, you should be extra careful when opening EXE files that you download from the Internet or receive by email.

EXE files have such a potential for being destructive that most email providers won't allow them to be sent, and some won't even let you put the file in a ZIP archive and send that. Always make sure you trust the sender of the EXE file before opening it.

Something else to remember about EXE files is that they are only ever used to launch an application.

So if you've downloaded what you thought is a video file, for example, but it has the .EXE file extension, you should immediately delete it. Videos you download from the Internet are normally in the MP4, MKV, or AVI file format, but never EXE. The same rule applies to images, documents, and all other types of files - each of them use their own set of file extensions.

An important step in mitigating any damage done by malicious EXE files is to keep your antivirus software running and up to date. 

See How To Properly Scan Your Computer for Viruses, Trojans, and Other Malware for some additional resources.

How To Open an EXE File

EXE files don't require a 3rd party program to open because the Windows knows how to handle this by default. However, EXE files can sometimes become unusable due to a registry error or virus infection. When this happens, Windows is tricked into using a different program, like Notepad, to open the EXE file, which of course won't work. Fixing this involves restoring the registry's correct association with EXE files. See Winhelponline's easy solution to this problem.

Like I mentioned in the intro above, some EXE files are self-extracting archives and can also be opened by just double-clicking on them.

These types of EXE files may automatically extract to a preconfigured location or even the same folder that the EXE file is opened from. Others may ask you where you want to decompress the files/folders.

If you want to open a self-extracting EXE file without dumping its files, you can use a file unzipper like 7-Zip, PeaZip, or jZip. If you're using 7-Zip, for example, just right-click the EXE file and choose to open it with that program in order to view the EXE file like an archive.

Note: A program like 7-Zip can also create self-extracting archives in the EXE format. This can be done by choosing 7z as the archive format and enabling the Create SFX archive option.

EXE files that are used with PortableApps.com software are portable programs that can be opened by just double-clicking on them like you would any other EXE file (but since they're just archives, you can use a file unzipper to open them too). These types of EXE files are normally named *.PAF.EXE. When opened, you'll be asked where you want to extract the files.

Tip: If none of this information is helping you open your EXE file, check that you're not misreading the file extension. Some files use a similar name, like EXD, EXR, EXO, and EX4 files, but have nothing at all to do with EXE files and require special programs to open them.

How To Open EXE Files on a Mac

As I talk a bit more about below, your best bet when you have a program you want to use on your Mac that's only available as an EXE installer/program is to see if there's a Mac-native version of the program.

Assuming that's not available, which is often the case, another popular option is to run Windows itself from within your Mac OS X computer, via something called an emulator or virtual machine.

These sorts of programs emulate (thus the name) a Windows PC, hardware and all, which allow them to have EXE Windows-based programs installed.

Some popular Windows emulators include Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion but there are several others. Apple's Boot Camp is another option.

The free WineBottler program is yet another way to tackle this problem of Windows programs on a Mac. No emulators or virtual machines required with this tool.

How To Convert an EXE File

EXE files are built with a specific operating system in mind. Decompiling one that's used in Windows would result in many Windows-only compatible files, so converting an EXE file to a format that makes it usable on a different platform like a Mac, would be a pretty tedious task, to say the least. (That said, don't miss WineBottler, mentioned above!)

Instead of looking for an EXE converter, your best bet would be to look for another version of the software program that's available for the operating system you're wanting to use it on. CCleaner is one example of a program that you can download for Windows as an EXE or on a Mac as a DMG file.

However, you can wrap an EXE file inside an MSI (Windows Installer Package) file using EXE to MSI Converter. That program also supports running commands when the file opens.

An advanced installer is an alternative option that's much more advanced but it isn't free (there's a 30-day trial). See this tutorial on their website for step-by-step instructions.

More Information on EXE Files

Something interesting about EXE files is that when viewed as text (using a program like Notepad++), the very first two letters of the header information are "MZ," which stands for the designer of the format - Mark Zbikowski.

EXE files can be compiled for 16-bit operating systems like MS-DOS, but also for 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows. Software written specifically for a 64-bit operating system is called Native 64-bit Software.