When you download a software or a program from the internet, you often get a file with an .exe extension. This is an example of an EXE file. You double-click on the file to open it, and the program is installed on your computer.
However, some EXE files can be dangerous. Malware often disguise themselves as legitimate EXE files and infect computers. So before you click any EXE file, you first need to determine whether it is legitimate or malicious. Accidentally executing a malware-ridden EXE file can lead to dire consequences.
But how do you determine whether an EXE file is legitimate or not? This guide will discuss what an EXE file is, what it does, how to open it, and which file extensions are considered executable. We will also expound on the dangers of malware posing as EXE files and how to figure out whether your EXE file is dangerous.
What is an EXE File?
EXE stands for executable, which means that the file can be executed or run as a program using your computer’s operating program. For most Windows users, EXE files are often associated with Windows programs, making .exe one of the most popular file extensions.
Program installers are generally named setup.exe or install.exe, which when clicked, initiates the installation of the software. Installation file names vary according to the name of the program, but the file extensions are mostly the same. Google Chrome, for example, is installed using a ChromeSetup.exe file downloaded from the Google Chrome website. Once the program is installed, the program can be launched using the Chrome.exe file found in the program’s installation folder.
An executable file is usually designed to run an automatic task. So when you launch an EXE file, your system, even without your permission, will automatically run one or more tasks programmed into that executable file.
A binary machine code compiled from the source code is stored within EXE files. This code is stored so that it can be initiated directly by the CPU, thereby running the program. EXE files might also include resources, including graphics assets for the interface, the icon associated with the program, and other resources that might be needed when executing the file.
EXE files can be run by specific programs in Microsoft DOS or Windows operating system. The user just needs to double-click the executable file or use a command to open it. However, non-Windows machines, such as Mac and Linux computers, cannot execute EXE files. For example, macOS uses .app files to install or open apps. But executing an EXE file on a non-Windows platform is not impossible. You just need to use a virtual machine to run Windows programs on a non-Windows environment.
However, not all EXE files are legitimate executable files. Some of them are malware disguising themselves to avoid detection and removal.
What is an Executable File Virus?
Different types of malicious software are distributed by way of executable files, most of them are hidden within a program that seems to be safe. This occurs when the program you think is legitimate launches a string of damaging code that operates without your permission or knowledge. There are instances when the program is authentic, just that there’s a malware hidden somewhere within the executable file. It is also possible that the software might be entirely bogus, posing under a familiar, non-threatening filename.
So, whenever you download an executable file from the internet or you receive one by email, be extra careful and vigilant. Some browsers have built-in scanners that warn you when the file you are downloading is malicious. Email providers also have this feature that scans all attachments for possible executable file virus. So, make sure to check all attachments, even if you know the sender.
Users should also keep in mind that EXE files are created to launch an application or a program. If you downloaded a music file, but the extension is .exe or other executable formats, delete the file immediately because that is malware. This goes the same for all other files that you download from the internet. Hence, it is important to be familiar with the various file formats so you know when you’re downloading a file EXE virus or a legitimate file.
Common Executable File Extensions
Not all executable files have the .exe extension, although it is the most recognizable. It is important to know which extensions are used for executable files and how they are launched.
Let us look at some of the common executable file extensions and what they are used for:
- .ACTION – Automator Action file for macOS
- .APK – Application file for Android
- .APP – Executable file for macOS
- .BAT – Batch File file for Windows
- .BIN – Binary Executable file for Windows, macOS, and Linux
- .CMD – Command Script file for Windows
- .COM – Command File for Windows
- .COMMAND – Terminal Command file for macOS
- .CPL – Control Panel Extension file for Windows
- .CSH – C Shell Script file for macOS and Linux
- .EXE – Executable file for Windows
- .GADGET – Windows Gadget file for Windows
- .INF1 – Setup Information File file for Windows
- .INS – Internet Communication Settings file for Windows
- .INX – InstallShield Compiled Script file for Windows
- .IPA – Application file for iOS
- .ISU – InstallShield Uninstaller Script file for Windows
- .JOB – Windows Task Scheduler Job File for Windows
- .JSE – JScript Encoded File for Windows
- .KSH – Unix Korn Shell Script file for Linux
- .LNK – File Shortcut for Windows
- .MSC – Microsoft Common Console Document for Windows
- .MSI – Windows Installer Package file for Windows
- .MSP – Windows Installer Patch file for Windows
- .MST – Windows Installer Setup Transform File for Windows
- .OSX – Executable file for macOS
- .OUT – Executable file for Linux
- .PAF – Portable Application Installer File for Windows
- .PIF – Program Information File for Windows
- .PRG – Executable file for GEM
- .PS1 – Windows PowerShell Cmdlet for Windows
- .REG – Registry Data File for Windows
- .RGS – Registry Script for Windows
- .RUN – Executable file for Linux
- .SCR – Screensaver Executable file for Windows
- .SCT – Windows Scriptlet for Windows
- .SHB – Windows Document Shortcut for Windows
- .SHS – Shell Scrap Object for Windows
- .U3P – U3 Smart Application for Windows
- .VB – VBScript File for Windows
- .VBE – VBScript Encoded Script for Windows
- .VBS – VBScript File for Windows
- .VBSCRIPT – Visual Basic Script for Windows
- .WORKFLOW – Automator Workflow file for macOS
- .WS – Windows Script file for Windows
- .WSF – Windows Script file for Windows
- .WSH – Windows Script Preference file for Windows
- .0XE – Renamed Virus File for F-Secure Internet Security
- .73K – TI-73 Application for TI Connect
- .89K – TI-89 Application for TI Connect
- .A6P – Authorware 6 Program File for Adobe Authorware
- .AC – GNU Autoconf Script for Autoconf
- .ACC – GEM Accessory File for Gemulator
- .ACR – ACRobot Script for ACRobot
- .ACTM – AutoCAD Action Macro for AutoCAD
- .AHK – AutoHotkey Script for AutoHotkey
- .AIR – Adobe AIR Installation Package for Adobe AIR
- .APP – FoxPro Application for Visual FoxPro
- .ARSCRIPT – ArtRage Script for ArtRage Studio
- .AS – Adobe Flash ActionScript File for Adobe Flash
- .ASB – Alphacam Stone VB Macro for Alphacam
- .AWK – AWK Script for AWK
- .AZW2 – Kindle Active Content App File for Kindle Collection Manager
- .BEAM – Compiled Erlang File for Erlang
- .BTM – 4DOS Batch File for 4DOS
- .CEL – Celestia Script for Celestia
- .CELX – Celestia Script for Celestia
- .CHM – Compiled HTML Help File for Firefox, IE, and Safari
- .COF – MPLAB COFF File for MPLAB IDE
- .CRT – Security Certificate for Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari
- .DEK – Eavesdropper Batch File for Eavesdropper
- .DLD – EdLog Compiled Program for Edlog
- .DMC – Medical Manager Script for Sage Medical Manager
- .DOCM – Word Macro-Enabled Document for Microsoft Word
- .DOTM – Word Macro-Enabled Template for Microsoft Word
- .DXL – Rational DOORS Script for Rational DOORS
- .EAR – Java Enterprise Archive File for Apache Geronimo
- .EBM – EXTRA! Basic Macro for EXTRA!
- .EBS – E-Run 1.x Script for E-Prime (v1)
- .EBS2 – E-Run 2.0 Script for E-Prime (v2)
- .ECF – SageCRM Component File for SageCRM
- .EHAM – ExtraHAM Executable for HAM Programmer Toolkit
- .ELF – Nintendo Wii Game File for Dolphin Emulator
- .ES – SageCRM Script for SageCRM
- .EX4 – MetaTrader Program File for MetaTrader
- .EXOPC – ExoPC Application for EXOfactory
- .EZS – EZ-R Stats Batch Script for EZ-R Stats
- .FAS – Compiled Fast-Load AutoLISP File for AutoCAD
- .FKY – FoxPro Macro for Visual FoxPro
- .FPI – FPS Creator Intelligence Script for FPS Creator
- .FRS – Flash Renamer Script for Flash Renamer
- .FXP – FoxPro Compiled Program for Visual FoxPro
- .GS – Geosoft Script for Oasis Montaj
- .HAM – HAM Executable for Ham Runtime
- .HMS – HostMonitor Script for HostMonitor
- .HPF – HP9100A Program File for HP9100A Emulator
- .HTA – HTML Application for Internet Explorer
- .IIM – iMacro Macro for iMacros (Firefox Add-on)
- .IPF – SMS Installer Script for Microsoft SMS
- .ISP – Internet Communication Settings for Microsoft IIS
- .JAR – Java Archive for Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari
- .JS – JScript Executable Script for Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari
- .JSX – ExtendScript Script for Adobe ExtendScript Toolkit
- .KIX – KiXtart Script for KiXtart
- .LO – Interleaf Compiled Lisp File for QuickSilver
- .LS – LightWave LScript File for LightWave
- .MAM – Access Macro-Enabled Workbook for Microsoft Access
- .MCR – 3ds Max Macroscript or Tecplot Macro for 3ds Max
- .MEL – Maya Embedded Language File for Maya 2013
- .MPX – FoxPro Compiled Menu Program for Visual FoxPro
- .MRC – mIRC Script for mIRC
- .MS – 3ds Max Script for 3ds Max
- .MS – Maxwell Script for Maxwell Render
- .MXE – Macro Express Playable Macro for Macro Express
- .NEXE – Chrome Native Client Executable for Chrome
- .OBS – ObjectScript Script for ObjectScript
- .ORE – Ore Executable for Ore Runtime Environment
- .OTM – Outlook Macro for Microsoft Outlook
- .PEX – ProBoard Executable for ProBoard BBS
- .PLX – Perl Executable for ActivePerl or Microsoft IIS
- .POTM – PowerPoint Macro-Enabled Design Template for Microsoft .PowerPoint
- .PPAM – PowerPoint Macro-Enabled Add-in for Microsoft PowerPoint
- .PPSM – PowerPoint Macro-Enabled Slide Show for Microsoft PowerPoint
- .PPTM – PowerPoint Macro-Enabled Presentation for Microsoft PowerPoint
- .PRC – Palm Resource Code File for Palm Desktop
- .PVD – Instalit Script for Instalit
- .PWC – PictureTaker File for PictureTaker
- .PYC – Python Compiled File for Python
- .PYO – Python Optimized Code for Python
- .QPX – FoxPro Compiled Query Program for Visual FoxPro
- .RBX – Rembo-C Compiled Script for Rembo Toolkit
- .ROX – Actuate Report Object Executable for eReport
- .RPJ – Real Pac Batch Job File for Real Pac
- .S2A – SEAL2 Application for SEAL
- .SBS – SPSS Script for SPSS
- .SCA – Scala Script for Scala Designer
- .SCAR – SCAR Script for SCAR
- .SCB – Scala Published Script for Scala Designer
- .SCRIPT – Generic Script for Original Scripting Engine1
- .SMM – Ami Pro Macro for Ami Pro
- .SPR – FoxPro Generated Screen File for Visual FoxPro
- .TCP – Tally Compiled Program for Tally Developer
- .THM – Thermwood Macro for Mastercam
- .TLB – OLE Type Library for Microsoft Excel
- .TMS – Telemate Script for Telemate
- .UDF – Excel User Defined Function for Microsoft Excel
- .UPX – Ultimate Packer for eXecutables File for Ultimate Packer for eXecutables
- .URL – Internet Shortcut for Firefox, IE, Chrome, and Safari
- .VLX – Compiled AutoLISP File for AutoCAD
- .VPM – Vox Proxy Macro for Vox Proxy
- .WCM – WordPerfect Macro for WordPerfect
- .WIDGET – Yahoo! Widget for Yahoo! Widgets
- .WIZ – Microsoft Wizard File for Microsoft Word
- .WPK – WordPerfect Macro for WordPerfect
- .WPM – WordPerfect Macro for WordPerfect
- .XAP – Silverlight Application Package for Microsoft Silverlight
- .XBAP – XAML Browser Application for Firefox and IE
- .XLAM – Excel Macro-Enabled Add-In for Microsoft Excel
- .XLM – Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook for Microsoft Excel
- .XLSM – Excel Macro-Enabled Workbook for Microsoft Excel
- .XLTM – Excel Macro-Enabled Template for Microsoft Excel
- .XQT – SuperCalc Macro for CA SuperCalc
- .XYS – XYplorer Script for XYplorer
- .ZL9 – Renamed Virus File for ZoneAlarm
How to Open EXE Files
Most EXE files don’t need a third-party program to open, unless the EXE file was for a specific program. The operating system knows how to automatically handle EXE files by default. For example, a file with a .cmd extension can be opened directly by the Windows OS. But when you open a file with a .pptm extension, Windows will automatically launch Microsoft Powerpoint to open the file.
To open EXE files, you just need to double-click on it and provide the necessary permissions. Once launched, the installer or the software will run by itself according to operations included in the file.
Some executable files are self-extracting, which means it contains a Zip file and a program to extract the files that were compressed. You can simply double-click the self-extracting archive to launch the executable. The contents of the executable archive will then be dumped to a preconfigured location or a folder of your choice. Another way to open self-extracting EXE files is by right-clicking on it, then choose the self-extracting program to view the contents of the EXE file.
If you’re using MS-DOS or other command line operating systems, just type in the name of the executable file, then press Enter to execute it. For example, ChromeSetup.exe can be launched by typing ChromeSetup in the command prompt window. For Linux or Unix systems, you might need to add a period and forward slash before the filename to execute it. In this case, you need to type ./ChromeSetup to execute the Chrome installer.
How to Open EXE Files on macOS
EXE files can’t be directly opened on macOS though. So if you have an EXE file that you want to run on a Mac, your first option should be to find a Mac version of the installer or software, then run that macOS-compatible version instead.
If a Mac version of the program is not available, you can use a Windows emulator or virtual machine to launch the EXE file. A Windows emulator emulates a Windows computer, which allows you to install and run Windows-based software. Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion are the most popular Windows emulators in the market today.
Executable files or EXE files are designed to perform various operations on a computer. The most common executable file extension is .exe, which is used by Windows installers or programs. macOS on the other hand, uses the .dmg and .app extensions for its installer files. Aside from these popular extensions, there are still hundreds of other executable files, each with their own purpose.
Double-clicking the executable file is the easiest way to open it, but you can also use commands to run it. However, you need to be careful when opening EXE files from unknown sources because they might contain an executable file virus, which can be damaging for your computer.