I'd like to compile an extensive list of folders to look through in Windows where user data might be hiding, specifically when migrating to a new machine or backing up your data to reload your existing machine with a reformat. Should include system settings folders

Existing tools to perform said task would also be helpful!

EDIT: Let's also make it XP and later...


10 Answers 10


You should always check all user home directories ("Documents and Settings" on XP; "Users" and "ProgramData" on Vista). Make sure you don't leave out hidden folders like Local Settings or Application Data - many a user has gotten angry with me because I forgot to grab their IE bookmarks when migrating or recovering data.

You should also look for other folders the user might be using - if an application creates user profiles in its installation directory rather than in the user's home directory, get that as well.

Finally, I always check in the root of drives - lots of users sometimes create extra folders or store files in C:\, just because it's fairly easily accessible from My Computer. Once I found a user who stored a 10GB+ music library entirely in the root of the C drive, and would have been very unhappy to have lost while getting a new system.

  • I second the comment about users storing stuff in folders on "C:\" I'm always amazed at how much I find there sometimes. May 15, 2009 at 23:38
  • 1
    A scan for recently modified files can sometimes help track down goofy outliers.
    – Bob
    Jun 11, 2009 at 21:48

The basics that I cover are:
- My Documents which should contain photos, videos, etc.
- Internet Favorites
- Email files (.PST as well as mailbox rules and white/black lists)
- Desktop files
- Other important software backups that might be in use (Financial software being the most common)
- Always check with the user to see if they have any other files in strange places.

If you get all these then you should be able to do a clean rebuild without causing much disruption to the user.


The one I keep forgetting is Windows\Fonts.

  • Oh, good call! I don't typically have to deal with that in a plain office environment, but I've had a few times where that's bitten me.
    – squillman
    May 16, 2009 at 14:51

You've just hit upon the primary reason for using roaming profiles, ideally you don't have to worry about any of that however if you're not using them:

My Docs
Web favourites
Quick look around the hard drive to make sure that don't have any folders they've set up outside of My Docs (do a search for .doc, .xls etc)


Our list of what we would always look for is:

  • My documents
  • Bookmarks
  • PSTs
  • Files and folders on the desktop

The thing that I overlook very easily is saved passwords. Though an unsafe practice, lots of people use the save password feature in Firefox. It's always a good idea to remind the user to try to remember all of their passwords before you blow away their machine. There is also the slightly dangerous strategy of using a backup system like Xmarks(formerly Foxmarks). I can backup password saves as well as bookmarks for IE or Firefox.


I would say, basically, everything in user profiles folder (c:\users for vista and w7, c:\documents and settings for XP), plus some obvious folders in the system.

What I usually do is I convert the current disk to a format of VM, VHD or VMDK so if I missed anything after I formatted the system, I can have something re-attached to restore from.


Most user date should end up in the appropriate \Documents and Settings\ folder (\Users\ and \ProgramData on Vista). I usually do a quick search for any folders containing the user's login name as well.


Audit the software you routinely install on users' PCs to determine where they store data. This way you can adapt these suggestions to the specific loadout you're using.

If you have absolutely gobs of storage space somewhere, you may consider creating a full disk image backup (something like ghost) of the PC before you rebuild it to keep for a certain amount of time until you're sure the user doesn't need anything else.


As a general rule, I tend to just back up %appdata% when migrating or archiving data. It might be overkill in some scenarios, but I'd rather cast a wider net. Few applications today still use %ProgramFiles%, but if you're in a standardized environment with known applications which store data in strange places, you'll have to make exceptions for them.

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