Simple Questions: What are User Accounts & How Are They Managed by Windows?

One of the most basic and important concepts in computing is the user account. We all think we know what a user account is, how it is used and why. But do we really know everything there is to know? This guide will share the detailed definition of the user account and its attributes. You will also learn how to list all the user accounts that exist on any Windows PC or device and how to see which users are signed in at the same time, on the same PC.

What is a User Account in Windows?

A user account is a collection of settings that is used by Windows for understanding your preferences and for controlling the files and folders you access, the tasks you are allowed to perform, the devices and resources you are allowed to use, etc.
User accounts are the only way of authenticating and receiving the authorization to use your Windows PC or device. Without logging in with a user account, you cannot use Windows. User accounts are also used to separate the people that use the same computer or device, and make sure that they do not mess with each-other's files, settings or applications. When multiple people use the same computer, user accounts keep everyone's files, settings and applications private.

Any user account has the following attributes: the user name, a unique identifier, the password, the user type and the user group. The user name is the display name you give to your user account. For each user account, Windows also generates a unique Security Identifier (SID) that's not displayed in the Windows interface but is used internally for storing your settings. The SID has this format: S-1-5-21-1180699209-877415012-3182924384-500. While display names may not be unique, the hidden SID is always unique.

Every user name has a password. However, this password may be blank, depending on how your Windows is set up. Windows 8 and 8.1 have also introduced the concepts of PIN and Picture Password which do not replace the traditional password but only complement it. Basically, you can create a PIN or Picture Password and use them to log in faster. They cannot be created without first providing a password. To learn more about these concepts, read this guide: How to Switch Between Sign-In Options.

Every user account has a type assigned to it. In Windows 7 and earlier versions, there were only three types of user accounts:

  • Administrator – user accounts of this type have complete control over the operating system, its apps and settings.
  • Standard – this is a limited type of user account which can only use existing software and cannot install applications of any kind. Also, these user accounts cannot modify system settings that affect other users.
  • Guest – a limited type of user account. There is only one Guest user account on a Windows device and it has no password. It is meant only for temporary access to the PC and it can be used only for running existing applications. This user account type cannot modify any system settings.

Windows 8 and 8.1 have introduced two new kinds of accounts: the Microsoft account and the local account. Both of them can be set as administrator and standard user accounts. To learn more about them and when to use one or the other, read this article: Should You Use a Local or a Microsoft Account?.

The user group is a collection of user accounts that share the same permissions. A user account is a member of at least one user group while user groups can have any number of members, including 0. A user account that is part of a group inherits all its permissions as well as its restrictions.

Who Can Create User Accounts in Windows?

User accounts can be created by many parties:

  • Windows creates several user accounts when you install it or when you use certain features. For example, Windows 8.1 creates the following user accounts: Administrator, Guest or HomeGroupUser$. The first two user accounts are disabled and must be manually enabled by a user account with administrator permissions. The HomeGroupUser$ is enabled and used to provide homegroup access to your PC or device.
  • Administrators can create any number of user accounts.
  • Third-party software and services can create hidden user accounts that are used in order to perform different services. The most common example is virtualization software like VMware Player: it creates a user account named ___VMware_Conv_SA___ which is used to run VMware Converter standalone server jobs.

Where Do You Find All the User Accounts That Exist in Windows?

There are several methods for displaying the user accounts that exist on your Windows PC or device. If you have a Professional, Ultimate or Enterprise edition of Windows 7 or the Pro or Enterprise edition of Windows 8/8.1, you can use the Computer Management tool. Complete step by step instructions are shared in this guide: The Geek's Way of Managing User Accounts and Groups in Windows.
If you have another edition of Windows 7 or Windows 8, you can also use the Command Prompt to find this information. Complete step by step instructions are shared in this guide: How to Generate a List with All the User Accounts Found in Windows.

Both methods share the complete list of user accounts, including accounts that are hidden, disabled or created by third-parties.

How Do You Learn Which User Accounts are Signed In?

The Task Manager is the perfect tool for learning which user accounts are signed in to your Windows PC or device and what apps they are running.

If you would like to learn how to use it so that you keep track of who is signed in, read this guide: How to Manage Signed In User Accounts with the Windows 8 Task Manager.

Conclusion

I hope you found this guide useful. If you have any questions about user accounts in Windows, don't hesitate to ask using the comments form below and we will do our best to answer them.