It depends on how you download. Typically they go into your “Downloads” or “My Documents” folder, so we’ll look at how best to check that.
But it’s also possible that they went into the same folder as the last download. We’ll look at why, and how to fix it as well.
There’s another place that downloads often end up that’s kind of dangerous, as it gets “cleaned up” every so often – meaning you could eventually lose your download. We’ll learn how to avoid that.
And we’ll look at how to find your file, regardless of where it landed.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
An example file to download
First, here’s an example file for you to download.
This example link shows the entire URL, but you’ll also see download links that look more readable:
Either will get you the same download.
Plain old click
When you click on a link, your browser may do several different things, depending on what the link points to. If it’s another web page, of course your browser will display it. If it’s something other than a web page (like a document or software, for instance) then the browser will, in all likelihood, offer to download it for you.
PDF files are kind of special. They’re not really web pages, but in most cases, web browsers display them as if they are. As a result, if you simply click on that link to the example PDF above, Internet Explorer may1 download the file, open it, and display it:
OK, so it downloaded to your computer … but where do these downloads go?
Well, like any page you download from the internet, your web browser downloads it to its cache. Yes, you can find it – I just searched for the filename on my hard disk and found it here:
Not only is that not obvious and not friendly, it’s also not something you or I are ever expected to actually use. The thinking is that if you just click the link, all you want to do is read the contents without saving it. Eventually it’ll be removed from the browser cache, and if you want it again you’ll need to download it again.
Saving a PDF you view
Many PDF viewers embedded in browsers have an interesting feature: they allow you to save a copy without re-downloading.
For example, using Internet Explorer 11 with Adobe Reader 11 installed, if you move the mouse over the lower portion of the displayed document, a floating toolbar will appear:
There are several icons relating to PDF viewing, but the one I want to draw your attention to is at the far left: the disk icon. Click on that and you’ll get a “Save As…” dialog:
This will let you save a copy of the downloaded file to a location you specify.
The default location in this instance? Your Documents folder (or more correctly, your Documents Library), which is where we find the copy after clicking Save:
Now you have the PDF file where you can do what you will with it. Keep it there, and you won’t have to download it again.
Saving a file directly
Naturally, not all downloads are PDFs, so the option to save a copy while viewing it won’t always make sense.
Fortunately, there’s a way to avoid all that: just save the file directly from the start. The added benefit is that you control where the download goes from the start.
Right click on the link:
The pop-up menu will include an item “Save target as…”. In other browsers the exact words may differ; you may see “Save link as…” or “Download linked file as…” but the effect is the same: rather than simply trying to view whatever the link points to in the browser, you’re asking for it to be downloaded to your computer.
And here’s where things get weird.
The default save location
If you’ve never downloaded anything, or never downloaded anything since installing or perhaps even upgrading your browser, the location that resulting “Save As…” dialog box defaults to will probably make sense. In most cases, it’ll be the same “Documents” folder that we saw above.
- If you’ve downloaded something before…
- and you selected a different download folder, directing the download to be placed in a specific folder of your own choosing…
- then the next time you download a file, the browser will probably default to that most recent location.
That’s why, when preparing this example, my default download location was something else entirely:
The solution is simple: select the folder you want before clicking on Save. But you do have to be watching and paying attention to the download location to know whether or not you need to do that.
Or you can simply do it every time. For example, clicking on the Documents library in the left hand pane of the Save As… dialog will set the download location in one click.
Set your own standard
Sometimes your browser, or your operating system, will actually have a “Downloads” folder that it uses for just this purpose. As long as you haven’t downloaded elsewhere, then your downloads will always go to this appropriately-named location.
Even if your system doesn’t do that, you can do it yourself. I find it a great way to organize my files.
You can use the system-provided Downloads folder, if it exists, or you can use Windows Explorer (File Explorer in Windows 8 and beyond) to create a “Downloads” folder anywhere on your hard drive that you like, and then use that.
Once you download to that location, your browser will typically remember it for you next time.
The browser’s own download folder
Some web browsers either default to the system downloads folder more consistently, or they have their own. Fortunately, most have a quick way to open that default folder.
In Internet Explorer, that’s CTRL+J:
That will open a list of the files you’ve recently downloaded, and show you where they were placed:
When all else fails?
What if you still can’t find or figure out where your PDF ended up?
It’s time to search.
In Windows 8 at the tiled start screen … just start typing and the search interface will pop up:
The download I’m looking for is “routinemaintenance_toc.pdf.” If I can’t recall the exact file name, I might start by typing “main” or “maint” – parts of the file name that I do remember. Windows will show me everything that matches.
The first thing to do is to narrow it down to files only. Click the little down arrow next to the word “Everywhere” and you’ll be given a menu of search options.
Click on Files to restrict the search to only files, and the results list will become a little more manageable. Keep typing letters of the filename until what you’re looking for shows up.
Once you see the file you’re looking for in the list, you can either click on it to open it directly, or right click on it and select Open file location to open the folder containing the file in File Explorer.