Difference Between a File and a Directory. Users of any operating system are familiar with the differences between files and directories since they regularly interact with both: music, movies, photos, electronic documents on computers, tablets, smartphones, USB drives, or memory cards are organized into corresponding folders. In Windows-based operating systems, these folders are called “directories” and are represented by universally recognizable icons.

A computer system works with information presented solely in the form of files—named areas of data on physical media. A directory is also a file, but it contains information about the registration of other files grouped by some criteria. Graphical interfaces allow us to visualize the hierarchical structure as nested folders, while the operating system sees a directory file as a record of the full path to the desired data. A directory file does not hold the actual data available to the user or applications; it is simply an object within the file system. This is the primary difference between a file and a directory.


All users occasionally move, group, and organize files stored on physical or virtual media. What happens when we drag the file “Movie.mkv” from the “New Movies” directory to the “Watched” directory with a few mouse clicks? Visually, it’s easy to understand: the icon disappears from one folder and appears in another. However, the operating system sees that the registration entry with the path to “Movie.mkv” has been removed from the “New Movies” file and has been added to the “Watched” file.

Any actions involving objects allow us to notice the difference between a file and a directory: moving, renaming, copying, changing attributes of a file affect only that specific object. Conversely, operations on a directory affect all the files and subdirectories within it. For example, you can make all files hidden or allow shared access, or restrict editing for all files in a directory.

Files in computer systems can have different types or formats. To indicate their interaction with a particular program, file extensions such as .mp3, .jpeg, .xls are used after the filename. Directories, on the other hand, are all the same in this regard, and they do not have filename extensions. By default, their graphical representation is usually uniform, whereas file icons correspond to the application used to open them.

In Windows, directories undergo hierarchical division within the file structure: they can be parent or child directories. The main directory is located at the root of the disk and contains first-level directories, which, in turn, contain second-level directories, and so on. Any of these directories can contain an unlimited number of files. In this hierarchy, directories are treated as equivalent elements, regardless of the type, content, or value of the stored information for the user or system.

A file cannot be empty because it represents a block of information. At a minimum, it contains data about its creation date and time, author, type, and the program used to open it. A directory that does not store information about subdirectories and files is considered empty.