What Is An XML File (And How Do I Open One)?

A file with the .xml file extension is an Extensible Markup Language (XML) file. These are really just plain text files that use custom tags to describe the structure and other features of the document.

What is XML?

XML is a markup language created by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to define a syntax for encoding documents that both humans and machines could read. It does this through the use of tags that define the structure of the document, as well as how the document should be stored and transported.

It’s probably easiest to compare it to another markup language with which you might be familiar—the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) used to encode web pages. HTML uses a pre-defined set of markup symbols (short codes) that describe the format of content on a web page. For example, the following simple HTML code uses tags to make some words bold and some italic:

This is how you make <b>bold text</b> and this is how you make <i>italic text</i>

The thing that differentiates XML, though, is that it’s extensible. XML doesn’t have a predefined markup language, like HTML does. Instead, XML allows users to create their own markup symbols to describe content, making an unlimited and self-defining symbol set.

Essentially, HTML is a language that focuses on the presentation of content, while XML is a dedicated data-description language used to store data.

XML is often used as the basis for other document formats—hundreds, in fact. Here are a few you might recognize:

  • RSS and ATOM both describe how reader apps handle web feeds.
  • Microsoft .NET uses XML for its configuration files.
  • Microsoft Office 2007 and later use XML as the basis for document structure. That’s what the “X” means in the .DOCX Word document format, for example, and it’s also used in Excel (XLSX files) and PowerPoint (PPTX files).

So, if you have an XML file, that doesn’t necessarily tell you what app it’s intended for use with. And typically, you won’t need to worry about it, unless you’re the one actually designing the XML files.

How Do I Open One?

There are a few ways you can open an XML file directly. You can open and edit them with any text editor, view them with any web browser, or use a website that lets you view, edit, and even convert them to other formats.

Use a Text Editor If You Work With XML Files Regularly

Since XML files are really just text files, you can open them in any text editor. The thing is, a lot of text editors—like Notepad—just aren’t designed to show XML files with their proper structure. It might be okay for popping an XML file open and taking a quick look to help figure out what it is. But, there are much better tools for working with them.

Right-click the XML file you want to open, point to “Open With” on the context menu, and then click the “Notepad” option.

Note: We’re using Windows examples here, but the same holds true for other operating systems. Look for a good third-party text editor that is designed to support XML files.

The file does open, but as you can see, it loses most of its formatting and crams the whole thing onto just two lines of the document.

So while Notepad might be useful for quickly checking out an XML file, you’re much better off with a more advanced tool like Notepad++, which highlights syntax and formats the file the way it’s intended.

Here is the same XML file opened in Notepad++:

RELATED: How To Replace Notepad with Another Text Editor in Windows

Use a Web Browser to View the Structured Data

If don’t really need to edit XML files, but just need to view them on occasion, the browser you’re using to read this article is well-suited to the job. And in fact, your default web browser is likely set up as the default viewer for XML files. So, double-clicking an XML file should open it in your browser.

If not, you can right-click the file to find options for opening it with whatever app you want. Just select your web browser from the list of programs. We’re using Chrome in this example.

When the file opens, you should see nicely-structured data. It’s not as pretty as the color-coded view you get with something like Notepad++, but it’s a far sight better than what you get with Notepad.

Use An Online Editor to View, Edit, or Convert XML Files

If want to edit the occasional XML file and don’t want to download a new text editor, or if you need to convert an XML file to another format, there are a few decent online XML editors available for free. TutorialsPoint.com, XMLGrid.net, and CodeBeautify.org all let you view and edit XML files. After you’ve done your editing, you can download the changed XML file, or even convert it to a different format.

For the example here, we’ll be using CodeBeautify.org. The page is divided into three sections. On the left is the XML file you’re working with. In the middle, you’ll find several options. On the right, you’ll see the results of some of the options you can select. For example, in the image below, our full XML file is on the left and the tree view is showing in the results pane because we clicked the “Tree View” button in the middle.

Here’s a better look at those options. Use the “Browse” button to upload an XML file from your computer or the “Load URL” button to pull XML from an online source.

The “Tree View” button displays your data in a nicely formatted tree structure in the results pane, with all your tags on the left in orange and the attributes to the right of the tags.

The “Beautify” displays your data in neat, easy-to-read lines in the results pane.

The “Minify” button displays your data using the least amount of white space possible. It will attempt to put every single piece of data on one line. This comes in handy when trying to make the file smaller. It will save some space, but at the cost of being able to read it effectively.

And finally, you can use the “XML to JSON” button to convert the XML to JSON format, the “Export to CSV” button to save your data as a comma-separated values file, or the “Download” button to download any changes you’ve made as a new XML file.

Brady Gavin is a passionate writer, tech aficionado, and a programmer at heart. He enjoys traveling and experimenting in the kitchen with international flavours. When he's not enjoying the blazing sun in Vietnam, you'll find him writing away in a coffee shop, sipping on an iced Vietnamese coffee to cope with the heat. Like any good Canadian, he loves hockey and a strong IPA.