Simple questions: What are network locations in Windows?

Network locations were first introduced in Windows Vista. At that time, they felt half-baked and confusing to users. They were improved in Windows 7 and later on in Windows 8. Now they have a simple implementation and they are a very useful way to manage network connections and network sharing. Let’s learn together what they are, how they work in all modern versions of Windows and why they are useful:

What is a network location in Windows?

A network location is a profile that includes a collection of network and sharing settings that get applied to the network you are connected to. Based on the network location assigned to your active network connection, features such as file and printer sharing, network discovery and others might be enabled or disabled. These network locations (or profiles if you would like to call them that) are useful to people who are very mobile and connect their Windows computers and devices to many networks. For example, you could use your work laptop to connect to your company network, take it home at the end of the day, connect to your home network and, during the weekend, travel and connect to free WiFi networks in hotels and airports.

Each time you connect to a new network, Windows asks you to assign a network profile (in Windows 7) or whether you want to make your computer discoverable on the network (in Windows 10). With this choice, you set the network and sharing settings that are appropriate for that network connection. This help you maintain the security of your system and turn on network and sharing features only when they are useful to you.

Network locations in Windows 7: Home vs Work vs Public

Windows 7 allows you to choose between three types of profiles/network locations:

  • Home network - choose this location when you are connected to your home network or a network with people and devices you fully trust. By default, network discovery will be turned on and you will be able to see other computers and devices which are part of the network. Also, this will allow other computers from the network to access your computer. On home networks you will be also allowed to create or join a HomeGroup.
  • Work network - this profile is good when connecting to the network from your workplace. This profile shares the same settings with Home network. The only important difference is the fact that it won't allow you to create or join a HomeGroup.
  • Public network - this profile is perfect when you are in a public place like an airport, hotel or coffee shop. When this profile is used, network discovery and sharing are turned off. Other computers from the same network will not be able to see yours. This setting is also useful when your computer is directly connected to the internet (direct cable/modem connection, mobile internet, etc).

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The default settings can be changed for all profiles. To learn how to do this, read this article: How to Customize Network Sharing Settings in Windows 7. We don't recommend changing them, at least not for the Public network location. The default settings for this profile give you the best security you can get when connecting to public networks.

NOTE: There's also a fourth network location profile named Domain network. This one cannot be set by a normal user. It is available for enterprise workplaces and it is set by the network administrator. The settings applied to this profile are those set by your company and you cannot change them. Also, they vary from company to company.

Network locations in Windows 10 and Windows 8.1: Private vs Public

Windows 10 and Windows 8.1 further simplify the concept of network locations, reducing them to only two choices:

  • Private network - This profile should be applied to your home network or to the network from your workplace. When this profile is assigned to a network connection, network discovery is turned on, file and printer sharing are turned on and homegroup connections are allowed.
  • Public network - This profile is also named Guest. It is the more secure of the two because network discovery is turned off as well as file and printer sharing. This profile should be used when connecting to public networks you don’t trust, like those found in airports, coffee shops, bars, hotels, etc.

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NOTE: There's also a third network location profile named Domain network. This one cannot be set by a normal user. It is available for enterprise workplaces and it is set by the network administrator. The settings applied to this profile are those set by your company and you cannot change them. Also, they vary from company to company.

How to change the network location set in Windows

The network location is set the first time you connect to a new network. When you do that, Windows 7 asks which of the three network locations you want to set while Windows 8.1 asks whether you want to find devices and content on the network and Windows 10 asks whether you want to make your PC discoverable on the network. All these different questions are confusing to users and you should remember that your answer does only one thing: sets the network location for your network connection. Fortunately, you can always change your mind and change the network location that is set for your active network connection. If you want to know how, read the guide that’s appropriate for the version of Windows that you are using:

Conclusion

As you have learned from this guide, network locations are a useful feature of Windows. With only a few clicks or taps, you change the whole set of network sharing settings that are applied to your active network connection. If you have any more questions about how it works or if you encounter problems when working with this feature, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

About the Author: Ciprian Adrian Rusen
I love technology and I work in IT for more than a decade. I am the co-founder of Digital Citizen and its chief editor. Alongside my work as an editor, I am also an author. I have written and published 7 books, most of them about Microsoft products and technologies. They are translated into more than 12 languages. In 2014, I have been recognized by Microsoft for my technical expertise and involvement in the community with the title of Microsoft MVP - Windows Consumer Expert.