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Page updated Feb 19, 2014

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What is a "zip" file?

A zip file is a single file containing one or more files inside it that usually have been compressed to a smaller size. It is sometimes called an "archive" file, and it is an extremely popular file format in both business situations and general computing.

Compressing files into a zip file makes a transfer of the component files across a network or the Internet much faster and more secure, since all files in the archive are kept together until the user "unZips" (i.e., uncompresses) them. The original zip file is generally not deleted immediately, so it can be kept as a back up in case you need to use the files stored in it at a later date.

The zip file format has been around since the 1980s, and there are now many programs (some free or low cost) that can zip a collection of files. In fact, newer versions of Windows (XP and later) have a basic zip/unzip function built in; see here or here for how to use it.

[If you wish to use a more robust third-party program] you need only install and start the Zip program, and then select one or more files from a folder on your system. The program will then ask for a name to give to the new zip file, optionally allow you to add a password or specify the degree of file compression, and then "zip up" the files in a single file. 

The same software program -- or almost any other Zip program -- can unzip the archive file, restoring the individual files. In fact, newer versions of Windows (Windows XP and later) can extract filed from a ZIP file by merely double-clicking on the ZIP's filename.

Available Zip/unZip programs include the well-known WinZip program ( http://www.winzip.com ), now owned by Corel, and free programs such as FreeZip (http://members.ozemail.com.au/~nulifetv/freezip/) or 7-Zip (http://www.7-zip.org/).

These programs will have instructions on how to select (i.e., choose) files for inclusion in a zip file, how to add a password, how to extract all (or just some) files from a zip file, and so forth.

In most cases the resulting file created by a Zip program will have a .zip filename extension (hence the common name, "zip file"). Sometimes it will have a .exe extension, if the sender set it up that way; in this case the file will self-extract into its constituent files, automatically, when you double-click the filename in Windows Explorer or My Computer. If it has the more typical .zip extension, you will need to use the unzip portion of the program to extract the files, or, if the Zip program has been properly installed on your Windows system and you can find the zip file with Windows Explorer or My Computer, double-clicking the file's name will bring up the Zip program and allow you to extract the files immediately.

Finally, it is always a good idea to extract files into an empty folder on your computer, to keep just those files together and give you the chance to read any text file or instructions that may be included in the archive. You can then move the files to a more appropriate folder.