Any time you make a change to the Windows Registry, any responsible article will probably tell you to backup the registry first. But how do you do that? It’s not quite as simple as you might think.
You can’t just backup and restore the registry like any other file — much of it can’t be modified by hand, and the files themselves can’t be replaced or copied over, at least not while Windows is running. And you can’t restore a full backup of the registry from an export file either.
But there are a number of things you can do to backup sections of the registry, and you can use System Restore to actually restore the registry back to a previous state. Keep reading for all the details.
What is the Registry?
The Windows Registry is a hierarchical database that contains all of the configurations and settings used by components, services, applications, and pretty much everything in Windows.
The registry has two basic concepts to be aware of: Keys and Values. Registry Keys are objects that are basically folders, and in the interface even look exactly like folders. Values are a bit like the files in the folders, and they contain the actual settings.
For more on the registry and how it works, be sure to read our guide to using the registry editor like a pro.
Backing up and Restoring Sections of the Windows Registry
For the most part, all you need to know is how to backup and restore sections of the registry, especially those sections that you might be attempting to edit. Luckily this process is fairly simple and works quite well almost all of the time.
You can also backup sections of the registry that deal with application settings. Just head down to HKCU\Software or HKLM\Software and find the key that represents the application manufacturer that you’re trying to backup.
Not all applications store their settings in the registry, but for those that do, you can often save their settings to a backup file using this technique, and then if you have to reinstall your computer, you can reinstall the application and just restore the settings by double-clicking on the registry backup file. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a foolproof process, but we’ve used it quite a bit over the years.
For example, if you were messing around in HKEY_CLASSES_ROOT\*\ to try and remove some items from the Windows Context menu, you probably wouldn’t want to make any serious changes without having a backup. And yes, the Briefcase is still a thing for some reason.
To backup that section of the registry, just right-click on the key on the left-hand pane and choose Export from the menu, saving the file out with a name that you’ll recognize later. We’ll save it as HKCRstar.reg.
Now you can go ahead and make whatever changes you’d like to test from underneath that key, because you have a backup file.
Restoring that backup is as simple as double-clicking on the icon and choosing to restore the information into the registry.
You can use the same technique for anything in the registry you’d like to backup… but you can’t use this for restoring the entire registry. And if you try to delete the whole registry, things are going to break.
Backing Up the Whole Registry to a .reg File
You can absolutely make a whole copy of the registry as a .reg file by exporting from the root node. Right-click, and export.
The resulting file will be enormously gigantic, and you probably don’t want to open it up in Notepad.
If you double-click on the registry file, you’ll see an error message letting you know that not all of the entries were restored because some of the keys are open by the system, etc.
And that’s the problem with this method of backing up the registry — it doesn’t work all that well for serious changes like installing applications or something else where you might really need to restore the whole registry. You also really don’t want to keep this type of full registry backup around for a long time, because there’s no way to know what changes are stored in that registry file and whether or not they are going to break something when you restore it.
Luckily there’s a better way to backup the registry, and it won’t break your PC.
Using System Restore to Properly Backup Your Registry
Any time you’re going to be making serious changes to the registry, installing things like drivers, or changing a lot of settings all at once, you should just set a System Restore point, which you can easily use to restore from at a later date. It also has the side effect of doing a backup of the registry.
You can make a restore point easily in just a few clicks. Search the Start Menu or screen for “Create restore point” and you’ll be presented with the option real quick.
Now you can click the Create button, give the restore point a descriptive name, and it will be immediately created.
To restore from that restore point, just search the Start Menu for “System Restore” and open up the wizard. Select the restore point you want to restore from, go through the wizard, and that’s it.
You’ll often have better luck restoring from Safe Mode though. If you are running Windows 8 or later, you can actually access both Safe Mode, and System Restore, directly from the boot menu by using Shift+Restart.