The correct way to determine if a file is a directory.

By Stephen Kellett
30 November, 2016

After writing for Microsoft’s Windows platform for 20 years, I thought I knew all I could know about GetFileAttributes() until I found a rather odd and subtle bug in some code that interacted with data supplied by the user of the software. A call would succeed that I expected to fail. Naturally, this meant the software didn’t make the right choices and instead of being presented with a helpful dialog explaining what had failed, the software sat silently in a corner humming to itself waiting for the user to work out what had happened. The failure was that I was presenting incorrect data to GetFileAttributes() assuming that it would always fail for bad input. How wrong I was!

I thought I’d write up what can go wrong with GetFileAttributes().

It’s tempting to test if a file is a directory by writing code like this:

if ((GetFileAttributes(fileName) & FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DIRECTORY) != 0)
    // file is a directory

The above looks logically correct. But there are problems with it.

First, a refresher on file attribute values…

File Attributes

The list of defined file attributes is in WinNT.h. The values are shown below.

#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_READONLY             0x00000001  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_HIDDEN               0x00000002  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_SYSTEM               0x00000004  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DIRECTORY            0x00000010  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_ARCHIVE              0x00000020  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DEVICE               0x00000040  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_NORMAL               0x00000080  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_TEMPORARY            0x00000100  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_SPARSE_FILE          0x00000200  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_REPARSE_POINT        0x00000400  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_COMPRESSED           0x00000800  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_OFFLINE              0x00001000  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_ENCRYPTED            0x00004000  
#define FILE_ATTRIBUTE_VIRTUAL              0x00010000  

Rather strangely, the invalid attributes flag is defined in a different file, WinBase.h.


Problem 1

What if GetFileAttributes() fails? If the file doesn’t exist, the call fails. If the filename specifies a computer name, the call fails. See GetFileAttributes() documentation for more information. When GetFileAttributes() fails, it returns INVALID_FILE_ATTRIBUTES. This error status passes the above test. OK, so add an additional check and the code becomes

DWORD attribs;

attribs = GetFileAttributes(fileName);
if ((attribs != INVALID_FILE_ATTRIBUTES) &&
    ((attribs & FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DIRECTORY) != 0))
    // file is a directory

Problem 2

Even with the above file-does-not-exist problem solved, there is another problem. The file could be a directory, but it could be a directory that you don’t want. For example, what if you’ve allowed the user to specify the directory name and they typed _T(“/”), or what if your filename creation code has a bug in it that fails when passed an empty name, resulting in a calculated filename of _T(“\”). What then?

In these cases the following calls all return 0x16.


If we break down 0x16 to its constituent file attributes, we get:


It’s a reasonable bet that in your code, any code looking for a directory to use is probably not looking for a hidden directory and almost certainly not intending to use a system directory. OK, time for a new implementation.

DWORD attribs;

attribs = GetFileAttributes(fileName);
if ((attribs != INVALID_FILE_ATTRIBUTES) &&         // check if a valid file
    ((attribs & FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DIRECTORY) != 0) &&  // file is a directory
    ((attribs & FILE_ATTRIBUTE_HIDDEN) == 0) &&     // file is not hidden
    ((attribs & FILE_ATTRIBUTE_SYSTEM) == 0))       // file is not system
    // file is a directory that isn't hidden and isn't system

What about files, rather than directories?

It’s natural to think about implementing checks for if a filename identifies a file rather than a directory. You test for this in exactly the same way but looking for different attributes. You’ll want to exclude FILE_ATTRIBUTE_DIRECTORY, and then depending on the job your code is doing, you’ll want to consider excluding files depending on the following attributes:


and of course, you might also want to consider FILE_ATTRIBUTE_HIDDEN and FILE_ATTRIBUTE_SYSTEM.

Additional reading

Microsoft documentation on GetFileAttributes().

Why is GetFileAttributes the way old-timers test file existence? Old New Thing.

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