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How to Create a Custom Hotkey for Your Favorite Application or Folder

Hotkeys are keyboard shortcuts that save time and effort. A number of them are built into Windows as well as into various applications and they are the subject of many of the tips in this section. Windows also has a feature that makes it possible to assign your own custom hotkeys to an application, folder, or file so that it can be opened with a minimum of effort.

There are two ways for designating a hotkey in Windows. One uses a combination of two of the so-called modifier keys Ctrl, Alt, and Shift together with one other key. The other method uses a single key, one of function keys F1 to F12 or a key from the numeric pad. This second method uses keys that often have other functions and must be assigned with care to avoid conflicts.

The usual way to set up a hotkey is with the default combination “Ctrl + Alt + (key)” where (key) is another of the standard keyboard keys. Certain keys such as Esc, Ins, Del, Enter, Tab, Spacebar, PrtScn, Shift, or Backspace keys are not allowed as the third key but punctuation keys, arrow keys, Home, Page Down and others are allowed as well as the usual letters and numbers.

The Ctrl + Alt combination is automatically applied by Windows in the method given here but other combinations using two of the three modifier keys Ctrl, Alt, and Shift are also possible.

There is a small catch. Windows does not apply hotkeys to a file or folder directly but only works with a shortcut file for the desired target. For applications that are listed in All Programs, a shortcut file already exists. For other files or folders, a shortcut file for the object in question will have to be created if one does not already exist. The shortcut file must be placed in either the All Programs list or on the Desktop or a folder on the Desktop.

How to assign a hotkey to an application

  1. Open the Start menu
  2. Find the application in the All Programs menu
  3. Right-click the desired program file and choose “Properties”
  4. In the Properties dialog, find the text box labeled “Shortcut key”
  5. Click in the text box and enter a key that you wish to use in your hotkey. Windows will automatically place “Ctrl + Alt +” in front. If you choose a function key or a numeric keypad key, only that key will be used and “Ctrl + Alt +” will not be added.
  6. Click "OK"

How to assign a hotkey to a folder or file not in the All Programs menu

  1. Create a shortcut file by right-click dragging the desired target file or folder to the Desktop (or to a folder on the Desktop) and choose “Create shortcuts here” from the right-click menu. (You can also use “Send to” but that will be covered in an upcoming tip.) You must create the shortcut exactly where you intend to keep it. If you create the shortcut one place and then move it, the hotkey won't work, 
  2. Right-click the new shortcut file and choose “Properties”
  3. Carry out steps 4-6 given above.

Scope of tip

I have used this tip on Windows XP, Vista, and 7. A comment below indicates that it also works in Windows 2000.

Related software

 There are also numerous programs for creating hotkeys. Take a look at the article, Best Free Hotkey / Macro Recorder Utility, for information about these.

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This tips section is maintained by Vic Laurie. Vic runs a Windows blog called The PC Informant and also operates a computer education website.

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by JPD (not verified) on 6. May 2012 - 15:46  (93127)

Pressing Ctrl+Esc is the same as pressing the Windows-Key, but it cancels your input into the Shortcut Key field of any shortcut (on the shortcut tab on the shortcut's property sheet); so, Winkey looks like a good aternative if one wants to use the Windows-Key. I'll try it!--Along with others from your article: Best Free Hotkey or Macro Recorder Utility,

by tuna (not verified) on 27. March 2012 - 19:37  (91287)

For those who use the Ctrl+Alt+key method, if you work from the C:\ProgramData\Microsoft\Windows\Start Menu\Programs folder the keys will work across all admin accounts in Windows 7/Server2008(not sure if limited users work).

Anyone know of a reg key or config file where this data could be stored, other than the individual short-cuts' properties? I suppose a copy/paste of shortcuts after installing the apps might work, but looking for a cleaner migration, if possible. A 3rd party solution may be acceptable, especially if it's portable.

by pottster on 19. October 2011 - 12:17  (81699)

ActiveHotKeys is a useful program for keeping track of allocated global hotkeys to avoid duplication.

by MilesAhead on 10. October 2011 - 22:15  (81207)

A good way to "roll your own" hotkey and avoid conflicts is AutoHotKey_L. It's a free scripting language made for hotkeys and mouse hotkeys. You can get it here:

Pay special attention to the "#IfWinActive" directive. You can restrict the hotkey to situations when only a certain window or the desktop is active. It comes with a Window Spy to get the class names of windows. For example the Desktop is either Progman or WorkerW class. If a window other than Desktop is the "active window" in this example, the hotkey won't fire.

You can launch programs, but you can also do things like send a mouse double-click when the middle mouse button is pressed in Explorer. Avoids setting Explorer to "single click mode" with its side effects, but gets the convenience.

by From Australia (not verified) on 7. October 2011 - 5:55  (81035)

I found the freeware program 'Hotkeyz' from this website, and it works well, including using a hotkey to paste any text you like into a document etc
The method described in this article isnt helpful to me - as many of my shortcuts in Word use the function keys, so I need to find other shortcut keybuttons to use. The method above doesnt let you use 'CTRL' key alone and a letter, or 'ALT' alone and a letter, or other combinations that can be useful

by Cheri.T (not verified) on 24. September 2011 - 2:56  (80234)

was in late 90's but I used to use hotkeys for frequently used text. Does anyone have any info on doing that now? am using vista. thanks

by Steve C. (not verified) on 7. September 2011 - 19:05  (79164)

Here's what I do that seems to work best for me in XP:

1. I create a folder, "Drives and Shortcuts" (without quotes) in Start/Programs. (Right click "Start" and choose "Open all Users" or "Open," then right click and choose New/Folder.)

2. Copy the desired program, folder, or drive to the clipboard.

3. In the open folder "Drives and Shortcuts," right- click and choose "Paste Shortcut."

4. Right-click the new shortcut, choose properties, and click on the "Shortcut key" space.

5. Press the key combination you want for the shortcut. Then click "Apply," then "OK," and finally, close what you opened.

6. You probably will have to reboot to activate the hot key. Also, for some reason, occasionally a hot key will not work.

by Roger Bertrand (not verified) on 5. September 2011 - 20:22  (79039)

Works fine with Programs-Applications, but as for folders sent to desktop, it does not work. I ahve tried many times, many ways and it just does not open up.
OS: WIN 7 - 64

by v.laurie on 6. September 2011 - 0:41  (79048)

As the tip says, "Windows does not apply hotkeys to a file or folder directly but only works with a shortcut file for the desired target." Also note the instruction that the shortcut must be created and left on the desktop or in a folder on the desktop.

by Laurel (not verified) on 5. September 2011 - 19:34  (79038)

IIRC, I've been doing this since win 95. In XP or later, you need to assign hot keys using an account w/ admin privs. Has always worked more consistantly for shortcuts than for apps. Assigning a hot key to a dummy spreadsheet makes for a great "boss key" as well!

by MrWednesday7 on 5. September 2011 - 18:55  (79035)

Nice tip. Works so far. Will see what happens after a re-boot

by samcraw on 5. September 2011 - 13:52  (79026)

Is it possible to use this method to enter a line of text by using a combination of the change keys and another character? For example, is it possible to do perhaps set "Ctrl+A" and have your e-mail address appear on the screen?


by v.laurie on 5. September 2011 - 14:03  (79027)

For creating text, I think you would need a script or maybe a macro in a program like Notepad++.

by samcraw on 5. September 2011 - 15:02  (79030)

Do you know if somewhere on this forum a discussion as to how to use script to set up a text hot key?

by A__nonymous (not verified) on 5. September 2011 - 13:35  (79025)

Brilliant. Better than Quick Launch.

by Just me (not verified) on 5. September 2011 - 12:50  (79020)

I would like to know how to find out what is set to a Hotkey as I have a program which I rely Hotkey use for, where several do not work as they are assigned to other functions or software elsewhere for which I am unaware of. I have a desire to reasign/change what seems to be defaults or self assigned hotkeys to gain the control I need in the software of my choosing.

by Bobva (not verified) on 4. November 2010 - 22:18  (60778)

I'm using Win7 Home Premium x64. The assigned shortcut works until I reboot. Then the shortcut no longer works.

by v.laurie on 5. November 2010 - 0:34  (60782)

I have a Win7 Home Premium 64-bit system and shortcuts work for me after rebooting.

by jss (not verified) on 4. November 2010 - 8:02  (60753)

Also, you have to select the shortcut tab at the top of the properties window if it's not selected.

by Teri Greene (not verified) on 3. November 2010 - 18:56  (60731)

Thanks. The problem was I moved it to the desktop folder instead of creating it in the desktop folder.

So it does work in Win 2000.

The "create in" vs. "move to" requirement would be a swell edit for this article.

Thanks for providing this helpful tip.

by v.laurie on 3. November 2010 - 19:01  (60732)

Teri, thanks for the information about Windows 2000. Also, thanks for the suggestion about making the "create in" clearer. I've added it.

by Len222 (not verified) on 3. November 2010 - 14:52  (60715)

I have used a very old program called Winkey for years which allows me to define new key combinations using the Windows key. Very simple, very effective.

I'm still on Windows XP - not sure whether it works on Windows 7, but I hope so.

by Rob (not verified) on 6. September 2011 - 8:24  (79065)

Thanks, gave WinKey a try.
There is 'good news' and 'bad news'.
I have XP Pro SP3
Appears to work (the pre loaded shortcuts)
It does not appear to minimize to the Sys Tray (cannot get rid of the Taskbar 'button')
I tried the close button (red cross), and that was ugly (errors).
It really needs the ability to have sub folders, or some means to organize the list of shortcuts.
I will continue to give it a try.
Anyone know of a similar free program, that will be all 'good news' ?

by Rob (not verified) on 6. September 2011 - 9:27  (79069)

I have found a free program that appears to be a vast improvement - WinShortcuts
I have installed it, and am exploring it now.

Also if you are a member of DonationCoder (which requires a once only donation), you can download ActiveHotkeys (Free)-
It will list all active Hotkeys

by bodis on 4. November 2010 - 6:17  (60749)

You will run into more and more problems with this software as it has not been updated since 2005.

by 0r3n on 3. November 2010 - 23:19  (60740)

WinKey is AWESOME and i'm using it for years!

but with windows 7 it have some problems:
1. cant use Win+numbers (1-0) because it assigned to the Taskbar buttons.
2. have to always "run as admin" the main windows, otherwise u will get an error.

by Teri Greene (not verified) on 2. November 2010 - 3:31  (60626)

In what versions of Windows does this work? Or what context is required to use it? I have Win 2000 and made a shortcut to a folder and put it in a folder on the desktop, but hitting the hot key does nothing. I called up a file save dialog box and and tried it, and it did nothing. Where can it be used?

by v.laurie on 2. November 2010 - 12:52  (60660)

I don't know if it works in Windows 2000. I have tried it in XP, Vista, 7. One possibility is that you created the shortcut somewhere else and then moved the shortcut to the desktop folder. That does not work. You must create the shortcut directly in the desktop folder.