The Windows Learning Center

What To Do When You Can't Open an Email Attachment

The Problem

Certain questions about using computers keep coming up. One of the recurring problems that home PC users seem to have is being unable to open certain email attachments. Now I could go into an entire song and dance here about how opening email attachments is generally dangerous and should be avoided but I'll skip that and assume that you have an attachment from a known source and that your email service or software has scanned it and found it to be safe. And that you really want to open it. So, when Windows tells you that it can't open the file (figure below) what do you do?

Dialog box for unknown extension

Why you can't open an attachment

The most likely reason for being unable to open a file is that you do not have a program for handling that particular file type. This is an example of why it pays to have the display of file extensions enabled. The file extension will tell you what kind of file you are dealing with. As the figure shows, Windows offers to find some software for you and that may be the way you want to handle it. Personally, I have never found this to be a useful service. I go look up the extension myself to see what kind of software is involved (for example, at the links in this post). However, that is a fair amount of work if you are also going to have to research some new software just to open the attachment.

You can save yourself some time and aggravation if you prepare in advance for some of the most common types of file that give average PC users trouble. Here are the solutions to the problem situations that I have seen most:

Seven solutions for opening an attachment

  1. Your correspondent uses Microsoft Word; you don't and can't open DOC or DOCX files. The solution is to download a free viewer from Microsoft now and save future annoyance. DOC and DOCX files are very common and you will keep getting them. Unfortunately, Wordpad no longer reads DOC files.
  2. Your correspondent has the entire Microsoft Office and you don’t. You only have Word. She sends you an Excel spreadsheet (extension XLS or XLSX). In fact, the sending of Excel files to others without realizing that they need software to open them is quite common. Again, the solution is to download the free viewer from Microsoft or a program like Open Office now and be prepared once and for all.
  3. You have an older version of Office and someone sends you the newer file format DOCX or XLSX from Office 2007 or later. Older versions of Office won’t open these new XML formats. Get the converters here.
  4. Someone sends you a picture in a file format that won’t open. How do you know it’s a picture? You did enable file extensions, didn’t you? The problem of incompatible picture formats affects mostly older systems but new or old your system will benefit from installing a program like the freeware IrfanView and its plugins. You will then be prepared to handle almost any graphics format.
  5. You get a multimedia file that won’t play. There are a number of possible problems with audio and video files but lacking the correct codecs is the most common. Codecs are a subject outside the scope of this article so I will just say downloading additional codecs may solve your problem. Consult the information for whatever media player you use. Another common problem is that there are incompatible file formats; Windows Media Player won’t open RealPlayer or QuickTime files. You need to install players for these formats. Again, the file extension will identify what format a file is in.
  6. You get an attachment that is in a compressed format that is not ZIP and Windows does not recognize it. For example, a fairly common alternative archive format has the extension RAR. The solution is to install a free program like 7-Zip. It is much better than the built-in Windows ZIP function and will handle a number of archive formats.
  7. Your correspondent has an Apple Mac and sends you files in a Mac format that Windows doesn’t recognize. Checking the file extension will tell you if a Mac format is involved. Ask your correspondent to try another format.

How to find out what program is needed for a particular file extension

Since it is often necessary to know what kind of file is indicated by a particular file extension and what programs will open it, here are a some references that will tell you what many of the file extensions mean

When file associations are wrong

Finally, it is less common but another possible reason that a file won't open is that, although you have the proper software, your file associations are wrong. This can happen from installing and uninstalling a program that took over associations or from other causes. You can read more about file associations here.