If you let someone use your computer, they could gain access to your saved passwords, read your email, access all your files, and more. Instead of looking over their shoulder, just use your operating system’s guest account feature.
Guest accounts are found on all desktop operating systems — from Windows and Mac to Ubuntu, Chrome OS, and other Linux distributions. The Guest account isn’t enabled by default on Windows, so you have to go out of your way to use it.
We’ve covered why it’s a good idea to use separate Windows user accounts, and using a guest account is ideal for the same reason. There’s no need to create a dedicated user account for temporary guest users.
Why You Should Use Guest Accounts
Have you ever needed to give someone else access to your computer? If you’re careful, you may have sat behind them, looking over their shoulder and ensuring they weren’t going to stumble into your private documents or unwittingly access your email. There’s a better way — use the special guest account that gives your guest limited access, allowing you to leave them alone with your computer and let them browse the web without giving them access to all your passwords, private documents, email, social media accounts, browser history, and everything else you do on your computer.
Guest accounts aren’t able to install software, configure hardware devices, change system settings, or even create a password that applies to the guest account. Guest accounts can shut down your computer — that’s about as much harm as they can do.
The guest account allows users to browse the web and use typical applications, so it’s a great way to give someone else access to your computer without feeling compelled to look over their shoulder. Even someone you trust may not access your personal data maliciously — they may open your browser, head to Gmail to check their email, and see your inbox if you’re already logged in. They’d then have to log out and log into their account, and you’d have to log back into your accounts when they’re done. Avoid this headache by using the guest account instead.
Enabling the Guest Account in Windows
To enable the guest account on Windows 7, open the Control Panel and select the Add or remove user accounts option.
On Windows 8, click the Change account type option instead.
Click the Guest icon to enable the account.
Windows will display some information — enabling the guest account will allow anyone to log into your PC and use it, although they won’t be able to access your personal files or install software. Click Turn On to enable guest access.
Using the Guest Account
Once you’ve enabled the guest account, it will be appear as a separate user account on your login screen. Anyone can log in as the guest account after booting your computer or accessing it when it’s locked.
You can log out of your current user account or use the Switch User feature to stay logged in, keeping your programs open and your account locked while allowing the guest to use your PC.
Once they’re done, they can log out of the guest account. Note that their browsing history, logged-in websites, and any other files or data they left lying around will remain accessible to future users of your guest account. Guest users should log out of any websites they accessed or just use a browser’s private browsing feature inside the guest account.
Guest Accounts on Mac, Linux, and Chrome OS
On a Mac, you can log in as the guest user by selecting the Guest User account on the login screen. If this option isn’t available, use the Users & Groups panel in System Preferences to enable the guest account.
On Ubuntu, the guest account is enabled out of the box. You can select the Guest user on the login screen to log in as the guest account.
Mac OS X and Ubuntu both automatically delete a guest user’s files when the guest user logs out, providing a fresh experience for each guest user. Windows doesn’t do this. Microsoft was working on similar functionality with “Guest Mode” when they were developing Windows 7, but this feature was dropped.
If you’re worried about what files the guest user can access, feel free to log in as the guest user and poke around. By default, files shouldn’t be accessible as long as they’re stored in folders under your user folder at C:\Users\NAME, but files stored in other locations like a D:\ partition may be accessible. You can lock down any folders you don’t want guests to have access to with the security properties dialog.
If you like, you can also rename your Windows guest account.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 08/12/13