Windows Cannot Open This File Error

How to fix an error message saying that Windows cannot open this file. Files usually have a specific program associated with them – so when you double click on them they automatically open in the correct (associated) program. For example, a .txt file will automatically open in Notepad and a .doc file will open in a word processor program like Microsoft Word.

However, you may receive an error message saying ‘Windows cannot open this file’. There are several reasons for this error and each has its own fix:

There Is No Program Capable Of Opening The File

This is especially common for files downloaded from the internet or sent to you in emails – if you do not have a suitable program installed on your computer you cannot open it E.g. If you are emailed a .doc Word document but you do not have Microsoft Word or an alternative word processor then you will be unable to open the document.

Fix: Install a program capable of opening such files – in the above example you could either buy MS Office (which includes MS Word) or download the free Open Office suite we reviewed here (recommended).

Tip: If you do not know what program you need to open it, search for the file extension (e.g. doc/txt/pub) at the File-Extension website which has a great database of which programs are associated with which file types. If you cannot see the extension you may need to follow our article to display file extension names.

A Suitable Program Is Installed But Not Found Automatically

This typically happens if you install a program (that associates certain file types with it) and then uninstall the program – the uninstall process should change the association for those types back to the previous/standard program but sometimes doesn’t. In this case you may already have the right program installed on your computer but you need to tell Windows to use that program to open such types.

Fix: When you see the error message saying that Windows is unable to open this file, choose to ‘Select the Program From A List…’ You should see a list of programs on your computer that may open this type of file. Select the right one (see the Tip above if you are not sure) and tick the box to ‘Always use the selected program to open this type of file…’ then click OK to open it. Windows will remember to use this program in future to open this type of file automatically.

The File Is Corrupt

This usually applies to things that you tried to download from the internet or copy from a scratched CD. If the download was interrupted/incomplete or the media you are copying from is faulty, the file becomes corrupt – meaning it cannot be opened even by the right program.

Fix: Download the file again or copy it from different (good) media.

The File Is A Windows System File

No fix required. Most Windows system files cannot be opened by a standard program – and it is not a good idea to try!

Those stored in the Windows directory are best left alone and you should also not try to open files with the following extensions: .sys .com .bat .ini .tmp .dll .ocx .dat .nls .drv

3 thoughts on “Windows Cannot Open This File Error”

  1. When I click on a link in an email, a window says it cannot be opened in Windows and asks for me to choose one of my programs or use the internet to look for one. None of these choices worked. This only started to happen a few days ago. I contacted my provider, Shaw Cable, and the accessed my computer and tried a test program and had the same result. They then went into Outlook and made Explorer the default program and it now seems ok.
    I cannot think of anything that caused the problem, unless it happened when I downloaded Firefox browser for a short test and deleted it a day later.

    • Perhaps you tried Chrome as well? If you set Chrome as default browser, then uninstall it, you get that error with email links – as you found, the fix is to set IE back as your default browser.

      I haven’t seen Firefox uninstalls cause that issue, only Chrome, but I guess it could do in some cases.

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