How to open and view the contents of a file on a computer

Updated: 11/13/2018 by Computer Hope

Tip: A file may be compiled or created only to be viewed by a particular program. The examples below are used to open a plain text file. If the file looks like garbage when opened, the program used to open the file is not capable of viewing the file. Make sure the program you need to open the file is installed on the computer and that it is associated with the file type. If you don't know what program to use, determine the file extension and review our file extensions page for a listing of associated programs.

Below is a listing of how to view the contents of a plain text file for each of the major PC operating systems.

Microsoft Windows users

Double-click the file that you want to open. If the file is an unassociated file, you will receive an "Open With" window. If you are unfamiliar with what program to use to open this file, try using WordPad or Notepad to view the file.

If the file is associated with a program, but you want to open it with a different program, hold down the Shift key and right-click the file. In the drop-down menu, select the Open With option and select the program you want to use to open the file.

Open with

If you know what software program you want to use to open the file, it can also be opened from in the program by following the steps below.

  1. Open the program you want to use to open and view the file. For example, if you wanted to view the file in Microsoft Word, you could open it first.
  2. Once the program is opened, from the File menu select Open or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+O.
  3. In the Open window, browse to the location of the file, select the file, and click Ok or Open. Note: If you cannot see the file change what files are shown. For example, if the program is only showing *.doc and you're trying to open a txt file it will not be shown until you change what files are being shown.
  4. Finally, if the program supports the file, it should open and display the contents of the file in the program.

Tip: Windows users can also use the methods mentioned below to open a file from the Windows command line.

MS-DOS and Windows command line users

List files

If you need to view a list of available files in the current directory, you can use the dir command.

Edit command

Locate the file that you want to view. In the example below, we will be opening the file autoexec.bat in the current directory.

edit autoexec.bat

Note: If the file typed does not exist, was entered improperly, or is empty, a blank edit window similar to the example below will be seen.

MS-DOS Editor edit command window

Once you have edited the file or typed the information for the file, click File, and choose Exit. If you do not have a mouse, see the edit command page for keyboard shortcuts and other navigation tips.

After clicking exit, if any changes were made, the computer will prompt you if you want to save the file. Click Yes and the file will be created or overwritten with the changes made.

  • See our edit command page for further information on this command.

Start command

New versions of Windows that are 64-bit no longer support the edit command. You can also use the start command to start a file in a text editor, such as Notepad, using a command similar to the example below.

start notepad hope.txt

In the above example, if the file "hope.txt" did not exist in the current directory, you are prompted to create a new file.

The start command can also be used to start any file on your computer. For example, if you have Microsoft Word installed on the computer and want to open a Word document from the command line, you can use the following command.

start hope.doc

  • See our start command page for further information about this command.

Type command

If editing or changing the contents of the file is not important and you only want to view the contents of the file, you can also use the type command.

type hope.txt

In the above example, the command would display all of the contents of the hope.txt to the file. If the file is a large file, it will keep scrolling unless you press the pause key. For large files, you can also pipe the command to more as shown in the example below.

type hope.txt | more

In the example above, the type command displays the contents one page at a time. Pressing the Enter key will advance the output one line at a time and pressing the spacebar advances the output one page at a time.

  • In MS-DOS, you can also use the type command to display the contents of a text file.

Copy con

If you are running MS-DOS version 4.x or lower or you cannot use any of the above methods, you can also use copy con to create a file.

copy con hope.txt

Once you have entered the above command, the hope.txt file will be created.

After you have typed all the lines, you want to be in the file, press and hold Ctrl+Z. After ^Z is shown on the screen, press Enter to save the file.

Note: Using the copy con method is a basic method of creating a file that does not give you the ability to edit a file or go back and fix any errors made while creating the line.

macOS users

On a Mac computer, you can double-click a file to open the file in the software program associated with the type of file you are opening. Once the file is opened, you can view the contents of the file and make changes to the file.

You can also open a file by selecting the file on the desktop or in the Finder application, then press the Command key + down arrow key.

Unix and Linux users

List files

If you need to view a list of available files in the current directory, you can use the ls command.

Opening, creating, editing, and viewing files in Linux

Because of all the available options for each of the different Linux variants we've broken this section into a page of its own. See the below page for full information on how to open, edit, or view a file in Linux.