Encrypt files on the PC, hide and password protect folders

Best ways to protect your files no matter where they are stored

Secure your files and folders on a Windows PC and make them private by encrypting files on the disk. How to put a password on a folder, how to hide a folder and more. Use these free tools.

Security is a constant worry, but you can encrypt the whole disk in some versions of Windows using BitLocker, like the Pro edition. However, this is not available in the Home edition, which is far more common, especially among home users of course. Many Windows PCs sold come with the Home edition.

Even if you encrypt the whole disk, this is not the complete solution to making your files secure and you have to consider files you email to people. You might need to send people Word documents, Excel spreadsheets or images. If the emails are intercepted or if someone else has access to the email account, these files could be accessed too. You should send encrypted files for security.

Online storage like OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox and Box are very useful and files can be accessed anywhere and on any device. But what about security and privacy? Online storage services are only as secure as your username and password and these could be compromised, especially if you use them elsewhere. Don’t! They should be unique.

You might also worry about whether the online storage provider can see your files. You might want to encrypt them before you store them online if you don’t want anyone to see.

Here I look at some of the options for encrypting and password protecting folders and files on the PC’s disk, for emailing or for storing in online drives. Don’t let others see or access your files containing company, personal, private or financial information.

Encrypt files on OneDrive

OneDrive is built into Windows these days and is enabled by default with 5 GB of online storage space. A terabyte is more is available for paying subscribers. All your files are synced to the OneDrive folder on the PC’s disk.

If you are worried about files stored online being accessed by other people or Microsoft, if you are concerned that someone could access files on the computer’s disk, OneDrive provides encrypted and secure storage called Personal Vault.

Double click the Personal Vault item in OneDrive on the PC and you can access a part of OneDrive that is encrypted and secured by two-step verification. Even if someone gained access to your OneDrive account, they could not access files in your personal vault.

There are several security steps the first time Personal Vault is used in order to set it up, but after that you just double click it and authorize access using the Microsoft Authenticator app on your phone. The phone app asks if it is Ok to allow access to Personal Vault. Say yes, and you # have access to a secure encrypted storage area on OneDrive that even Microsoft cannot access.

Microsoft OneDrive personal vault

Personal Vault can be accessed on the PC in the OneDrive folder or online in a browser at onedrive.com and you can drag files to it from the PC’s disk to store them.

Only three files can be stored with a free Microsoft account, but you can be sneaky and store three zip files. The zips could contain many files. There are no file limits with an Office 365 subscription.

Encrypt a file in Windows

Some versions of Windows have a built-in encryption feature that enables you to protect files from unauthorized access. In some ways it is excellent, but in other ways it is not.

  1. Right click a file or folder in an Explorer window.
  2. Select Properties on the menu that is displayed.
  3. Click the Advanced button.
  4. Tick the box, Encrypt contents to secure data.
  5. Click OK.
  6. You are asked if you want to encrypt all subfolders too. It’s up to you.
Screenshot of the File Properties window in Windows
File and folder properties window
Screenshot of File Properties window in Windows
Windows Pro is needed to encrypt files

Encryption is not available in Windows Home and this is the most common version on consumer PCs used at home. It might even be on some work PCs too. File encryption is only available in Pro versions of Microsoft’s OS.

Encryption and decryption is completely automatic. Log into Windows and your files are completely accessible. Log out and no-one can access them.

This is useful if your computer is stolen because the thief has no access to your files. However, if you left your PC while at lunch or getting a coffee, or if someone else knows your password, like a partner or co-worker, they have full access to your encrypted files. Encryption is only active when you are logged out or switched off.

Password Folder

Password Folder is a free utility for Windows that enables you to lock folders with a password. It is a small and simple tool, and it is nice to see a portable version of the program that you can just unzip and run.

Screenshot of Password Folder utility for Windows
Password Folder utility for Windows
Screenshot of Password Folder utility for Windows
Password Folder utility for Windows

There is little to it, and you just drag a folder to the program window and drop it. You are then prompted to enter a password, twice just to be sure there is no mistake. The folder is then locked and is given a .pff extension.

Double click the folder and you are asked for the password. No password means no entry. In addition to this, the folder cannot be copied from the disk, such as to an external drive or USB stick. It just won’t unlock, even with the right password.

This is a simple and free utility that enables you to password protect folders. It does what you want and protects your files by preventing others from accessing them.

7-Zip

7-Zip is a free open source utility for compressing files into archives. Run the program and you can browse the disk for files and folders. Select one or more items and then click the Add button in the toolbar to create an archive.

A window appears containing many options and one of these is encryption. There are a couple of encryption methods and the commonly used 256-bit AES is available.

7-Zip archive settings highlighting encryption

You should be aware that Windows will open an encrypted zip. It cannot open or extract the files it contains, so they are secure, but it will list the filenames, which could reveal more than you want. In the latest version of 7-Zip, filenames can be encrypted too.

There are many other options, such as the type of archive, which can be zip, or 7z (others are available, but only these two support encryption). Six levels of compression can be selected, from none to ultra. Files can be automatically deleted after compressing and encrypting them and a self-extracting archive can be created – a .exe file that can be clicked to extract and decrypt files.

7-Zip has a lot of features for working with zip and other archives, and it can handle almost any compressed file format. If you need to send password protect a folder or files on disk, or send files to other people over the internet, the compression features are very useful or making the files as small as possible. It is a bit clunky for working with encrypted files on the disk though.

EncryptOnClick

EncryptOnClick is a simple free utility from 2BrightSparks that makes it easy to encrypt and decrypt files on Windows PCs. It uses 256-bit AES encryption and it can work with individual files or folders containing many files and it enables you to password protect folders.

Screenshot of EncryptOnClick file encryption utility for Windows
EncryptOnClick file encryption for Windows

When the program is run, it displays a small window with basic features to encrypt or decrypt files or folders. You probably will not need this because it is easier to right click files on the desktop or in an Explorer window and select Encrypt with EncryptOnClick from the menu.

Screenshot of EncryptOnClick file encryption utility for Windows

One file or several can be selected by Ctrl+clicking each one or clicking the first and then Shift+clicking the last. Right click and they can be encrypted with EncryptOnClick. The original files are automatically deleted by default, but there is an option to keep them if you want. This could be useful if you are emailing an encrypted file to someone but want to keep the original yourself.

The filename can also be encrypted so no-one can tell what the file is, like text, image, audio. A very small amount of compress is applied. It isn’t much, but the encrypted files are very slightly smaller than the original.

The program can be run to select files or folders to decrypt, but it is easier to right click them in Explorer. It is not obvious, but the Encrypt with EncryptOnClick actually decrypts a file if it is already encrypted. It is more of a toggle, encrypting if unencrypted, decrypting if encrypted.

Out of curiosity, I renamed an encrypted .EOC file to zip and double clicked it. Windows opened it. No files could be accessed because they are encrypted, but basically EncryptOnClick is a simplification of 7-Zip’s compression and encryption feature. It is much easier to use when all you need is encryption and don’t want to be bothered with all the archiving settings.

VeraCrypt

VeraCrypt is a different type of encryption utility and instead of encrypting files, it creates encrypted virtual disk drives. It can encrypt real drives and partitions, but a virtual drive has advantages.

VeraCrypt is excellent for people that want to work with encrypted files, loading and saving them from applications on their computer. You can open encrypted documents, photos, text files, music, videos and other files just like unencrypted files on the disk. VeraCrypt is not useful for encrypting files for emailing or for storage online. It’s great for files on the PC’s disk.

Screenshot of Veracrypt volume creation wizard
Veracrypt volume creation wizard

Using the Volume Creation Wizard on the Tools menu enables an encrypted file container to be created. It asks what size it should be and it can be any size, with options in MB, GB and TB. There is a choice of 15 encryption methods, which includes the popular 256-bit AES and many others.

Screenshot of Veracrypt volume creation wizard
Veracrypt encryption settings

Follow through the wizard and the result is a file on disk. VeraCrypt then enables this to be mounted as if it was a drive and you assign a drive letter like G, H, M or any other unused drive letter.

One or even several VeraCrypt virtual drives can be mounted and they work just like real disk drives. Programs use the drives just like real ones, reading and writing, completely unaware that the files are encrypted.

Unmount a VeraCrypt virtual drive and the drive letter is removed and the virtual disk contents are no longer accessible. Everything is encrypted.

The ability to work with encrypted files as if they were normal unencrypted ones make VeraCrypt a brilliant and very useful utility. With no obvious size, file or folder limit, you are only restricted by the amount of free space on your PC’s disk.

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