What Is the ProgramData Folder in Windows?

On modern versions of Windows, you’ll see a “ProgramData” folder on your system drive—usually the C:\ drive. This folder is hidden, so you’ll only see it if you show hidden files in File Explorer.

Application Data, the Registry, and Other Places Programs Store Data

Programs store data in a number of different places in Windows. It depends on how the developers coded the program. They can include:

  • Application Data Folders: Most applications store their settings in the Application Data folders at C:\Users\username\AppData\, by default. Each Windows user account has its own Application Data folders, so each Windows user account can have its own application data and settings if programs use this folder.

  • Documents Folders: Some applications—especially PC games—choose to store their settings under the Documents folder at C:\Users\username\Documents. This makes it even easier for people to find, back up, and edit these files.

  • The Registry: Many applications store various settings in the Windows registry. Registry settings can be either system-wide or per-user. However, the registry is just a place for individual settings—applications can’t store files or other larger pieces of data here.

  • The Application’s Own Program Folder: Back in the days of Windows 95, 98, and XP, programs often stored their settings and other data in their own folders. So, if you installed a program named “Example” to C:\Program Files\Example, that application might just store its own settings and other data files at C:\Program Files\Example, too. This isn’t great for security. Modern versions of Windows limit the permissions programs have, and applications shouldn’t be able to write to system folders during normal operation. However, some applications—Steam, for example—still store their settings and other data files in their Program Files directory.

What Do Programs Store in ProgramData?

There’s also the ProgramData folder. This folder has most in common with the Application Data folders, but—instead of having an individual folder for each user—the ProgramData folder is shared among all the user accounts on your PC.

On Windows XP, there was no C:\ProgramData folder. Instead, there was a “C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data” folder. Starting with Windows Vista, the All Users application data folder was moved to C:\ProgramData.

You can still see this today. If you plug C:\Users\All Users\ into File Explorer or Windows Explorer on Windows 10, Windows will automatically redirect you to the C:\Program Data folder. It’ll redirect any program that tries to write to C:\Users\All Users\ to the C:\ProgramData folder, too.

As Microsoft puts it, “this folder is used for application data that is not user specific”. For example, a program you use might download a spelling dictionary file when you run it. Rather than store that spelling dictionary file under a user-specific Application Data folder, it should store it in the ProgramData folder. It can then share that spelling dictionary with all users on the computer, instead of storing multiple copies in a bunch of different Application Data folders.

Tools that run with system permissions may also store their settings here. For example, an antivirus application may store its settings, virus logs, and quarantined files at C:\ProgramData. These settings are then shared system-wide for all users of the PC.

While this folder is conceptually just an Application Data folder shared for all users of the computer, it’s also a modern, more secure alternative to the old idea of storing an application’s settings in its own program folder.

Is There Anything Important to Back Up in the ProgramData Folder?

In general, you likely won’t find a lot of important settings you need to back up in the ProgramData folder. Most programs use this as a caching location for data that should be available to all users, or to configure some basic settings.

Your most important application data, if you want to back it up, will likely be stored under C:\Users\username\AppData\Roaming. However, if you’re concerned there might be some important settings or data under the ProgramData folder, you might want to go inspect and and see which programs are storing data there. It’s up to each program’s developer to choose where that program stores its data, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

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+.