How to use the Window command line (DOS)

Windows command line (DOS)This document covers the basic in navigating and using the Microsoft Windows command line. On this page, you'll learn how to move around in the command line, find files, manipulate files, and other important commands. Keep in mind that there are over 100 different commands that have been used in MS-DOS and the Windows command line. If you are interested in learning every command, see our Microsoft DOS and command prompt help page, which gives a description and example for every command.

Get into the Windows command line

Open a Windows command line window by following the steps below. If you need additional information or alternative methods for all versions of Windows, see our how to get into DOS and Windows command line page.

  1. Click Start
  2. In the Search or Run line type cmd and press enter.

Understanding the prompt

After following the above steps, the Windows command line should be shown (similar to the example below). Typically Windows starts you at your user directory. In the example below, the user is Mrhope, so our prompt is C:\Users\Windows>. This prompt tells us we are in the C: drive (the default drive letter of the hard drive) and currently in the Mrhope directory, which is a subdirectory of the Users directory.

Windows command line

Key tips

  • MS-DOS and the Windows command line are not case sensitive.
  • The files and directories shown in Windows are also found in the command line.
  • When working with a file or directory with a space, surround it in quotes. For example, My Documents would be "My Documents."
  • Filenames can have a long file name of 255 characters and a 3 character file extension.
  • When a file or directory is deleted in the command line, it is not moved into the Recycle Bin.
  • If you need help with any of command type /? after the command. For example, dir /? would give the options available for the dir command.

Listing the files

Let's learn your first command. Type dir at the prompt to list files in the current directory. You should get an output similar to the example image below. By default, without using any dir options this is how dir output appears. As can be seen, you are given lots of useful information, the modification or creation date and time, an indication if the listed item is a directory (<DIR>), and the actual name of the directory or file. In the example below, there are 0 files listed and 14 directories as indicated by the status at the bottom of the output.

Listing files in the Windows command line 

Every command in the command line has options, which are additional switches and commands that can be added after the command. For example, with the dir command you can type dir /p to list the files and directories in the current directory one page at a time. This switch is useful to see all the files and directories in a directory that has dozens or hundreds of files. Each of the command options and switches is listed on our DOS command page. For example, if you want to see all the options for dir see our dir command page for a full listing.

In addition to switches, the dir command can also be used to search for specific files and directories by using wildcards. For example, if you only wanted to list files or directories that begin with the letter "A" you could type dir a* to list only the AppData directory, in this above example. See the wildcard definition for other examples and help with using wildcards.

Moving into a directory

Now that we've seen a list of directories (shown below) in the current directory move into one of those directories. To move into a directory, we use the cd command, so to move into the Desktop type cd desktop and press enter. Once you've moved into a new directory the prompt should change, so in our example, the prompt is now C:\Users\Mrhope\Desktop>. Now in this desktop directory, see what files are found in this directory by typing the dir command again.

Windows command line listing Desktop files

Understand the files

Now in the Desktop directory in this example (as shown above), we now have 23 files and 7 directories. As can be seen in the above example, there are many different file types. In Windows, you are familiar with files having icons that help represent the file type. In the command line, the same thing is accomplished by the file extensions. For example, "forum posts.txt" is a text file because it has a .txt file extension, Time.mp3 is an MP3 music file, and minecraft.exe is an executable file.

For most users, you'll only be concerned with executable files, which as mentioned above is a file that ends with .exe and are also files that end with .com and .bat. When the name of these files are typed into the command line, the program runs, which is the same as double-clicking a file in Windows. For example, if we wanted to run minecraft.exe typing "minecraft" at the prompt runs that program.

Note: Keep in mind that if the executable file you are trying to run is not in the current directory you'll get an error. Unless you have set a path for the directory that contains the executable file, which is how the command line finds external commands.

If you want to view the contents of a file, most versions of the command line use the edit command. For example, if we wanted to look at the log file hijackthis.log we would type edit hijackthis.log at the prompt. For 64-bit versions of Windows that do not support this command you can use the start command, for example, type start notepad hijackthis.log to open the file in Notepad.

Moving back a directory

You learned earlier the cd command can move into a directory. This command also allows you to go back a directory by typing cd.. at the prompt. When this command is typed you'll be moved out of the Desktop directory and back into the user directory. If you wanted to move back to the root directory typing cd\ takes you to the C:\> prompt. If you know the name of the directory you want to move into, you can also type cd\ and the directory name. For example, to move into C:\Windows> type cd\windows at the prompt.

Creating a directory

Now with your basic understanding of navigating the command line let's start creating new directories. To create a directory in the current directory use the mkdir command. For example, create a directory called "test" by typing mkdir test at the prompt. If created successfully you should be returned to the prompt with no error message. After the directory has been created, move into that directory with the cd command.

Switching drives

In some circumstances, you may want to copy or list files on another drive. To switch drives in the Windows command line, type the letter of the drive followed by a colon. For example, if your CD-ROM drive was the D drive you would type d: and press enter.

Creating a new file

You can create a new file from the command line using the edit command, copy con command, or using the start command to open a file.

Creating a new batch file

In the new test directory let's create your first file. In most circumstances, you never need to create any file at the command line, but it is still good to understand how files are created. In this example, we are creating a batch file. A batch file is a file that ends with .bat and is a file that can help automate frequently used commands in the command line. We are calling this batch file "example", so type edit example.bat at the prompt. As mentioned in the document on creating a file, if the edit command does not work with your version of Windows use the start command to open the batch file in notepad, so you type start notepad example.bat at the prompt.

Both of the above commands open a new blank example.bat window. In the file, type the below three lines, which clear the screen with the cls command and then run the dir command.

@echo off
cls
dir

After these three lines have been typed into the file save and exit the file. If you are in the edit command click File (or press Alt+F) and then Save. After the file has been saved and you are back into the command prompt, typing dir should display the example.bat in the test directory.

Now run the batch file to get a better understanding of what a batch file does. To run the batch file type example at the prompt, which executes the batch file and clears the screen and then runs the dir command to display the directory listing of the test directory.

Moving and copying a file

Now that we've created a file let's move it into an alternate directory. To help make things easier, create another directory for the files. So, type mkdir dir2 to create a new directory in the test directory called dir2. After the new directory has been created, use the move command to move the example.bat file into that directory. To do this type move example.bat dir2 at the prompt, if done successfully you should get a message indicated the file was moved. You could also substitute the move command for the copy command to copy the file instead of moving it.

Rename a file

After the file has been moved into the dir2 directory, move into that directory with the cd command to rename the file. In the dir2 directory use the rename command to rename the example file into an alternate name. Type rename example.bat first.bat at the prompt to rename the file to first.bat. Now when using the dir command you should see the first.bat as the only file.

Tip: When renaming any file make sure the file has the same file extension. If you were to rename the .bat file to a .txt file, it is no longer an executable file only a text file. Also, keep in mind that renaming the file to a different file extension does not convert the file. For example, if you were to name the file to a .MP3 file it may look like an MP3 audio file in Windows, but it is not going to play music.

Deleting a file

Now that we've had our fun with our new file, delete the file with the del command. Type del first.bat to delete the first.bat file. If successful, you are returned to the prompt with no errors and the dir command shows no files in the current directory.

Tip: When deleting files you can also use wildcards to delete multiple files at once. For example, if the directory contained several .GIF image files you could type del *.gif to delete all files ending with the .gif file extension.

Renaming a directory

Go back one directory to get back into the test directory by using the cd.. command mentioned earlier. Now rename our del2 directory to something else using the same rename command we used earlier. At the prompt, type rename dir2 hope to rename the directory to hope. After this command has been completed, type dir and you should now see one directory called hope.

Removing a directory

While still in the test directory, remove the hope directory by using the rmdir command. At the prompt, type rmdir hope to remove the hope directory.

Tip: If the directory you are trying to remove contains any files or directories, you'll receive an error. To prevent this error use the /s option. For example, if the hope directory still had the first.bat file you would need to type rmdir /s hope at the prompt.

Closing or exiting the command line window

After you are done with the Windows command line, you can type exit to close the window.

In conclusion

Following all of the above sections you should now have a good understanding on how to navigate in the command line, create directories and files, rename files and directories, and delete files and directories. As mentioned earlier, there are hundreds of other commands that can be used at the command line. If you want to expand your knowledge even more, we highly recommend looking at the options available for each of the above commands and go through our commands overview.