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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