The Overlay Icons in Windows explained

You may have noticed several icons in your Windows operating system which have an overlay icon on it. This could be the most common overlay arrow icon, which indicates that the icon is a shortcut icon; or it could be a padlock icon, which would indicate that you have a private item in a non-private directory.

Overlay icons in Windows

Here is a list of some icon overlays that come with Windows 10/8/7:

  • Small arrow: This is the shortcut overlay.
  • Lock icon: A lock indicates a private item in a non-private directory. It could be a file or folder with special permissions.
  • Downward pointing blue arrow: This means that the file is still to be written to a CD.
  • A pair of green swirly arrows: This indicates that the item is available offline.
  • Gray X: The file has been archived to a Tape.
  • Shield: This means that the program requires elevation to run and that a UAC prompt may appear.
  • 2 arrows: Two small blue arrows on the top right corner of the icon indicates a compressed file or folder.
  • Red x: Contents not syncing.

The Sharing Hand is no longer present as an overlay, and has been removed in favor of the private overlay. The reason?

Given the changes in how people use computers, sharing information is becoming more and more of the default state. When you set up a HomeGroup, pretty much everything is going to be shared. To remove the visual clutter, the information was moved to the Details pane. What’s more, a single overlay cannot express the different ways an item can be shared, so in order to figure out what the deal is, you have to go to the Details pane anyway.

The Offline files swirly arrow too has been removed as, based on customer feedback, it was considered as “unnecessarily noisy” Now they are shown only on the root of the folder that is pinned.

Says Microsoft,

Overlays are not a good way of presenting information because there can be only one overlay per icon, and there is a limit of 15 overlays per ImageList. If there are two or more overlays which apply to an item, then one will win and the others will lose, at which point the value of the overlay as a way of determining what properties apply to an item diminishes…

This means that if more than 2 overlay icons want to be seen, then only one will be seen. Whichever software is installed last, is likely to get the overlay icon space.

The following registry key will show you all currently installed overlay handlers, on your Windows computer, says Microsoft:


There appears to be no change in Windows 10, and it does appear that Microsoft wants people to move away from overlay icons.

Have you come across any more overlay icons or have any additional information on them? Please do share!

UPDATE 26th May 2016: It is my policy to always link to sources. Certain ‘inappropriate’ comments have been made using my name ‘Anand Khanse’ elsewhere. I wish to state that they have not been made by me but by someone else. I repeat, this post HAS been sourced from Microsoft – like most of the content on this site – and I have confirmation from Microsoft that this post can stay.

Thank you, Peter, for bringing certain issues relating to this post to my notice.

Posted by on , in Category Windows with Tags
Anand Khanse is the Admin of, a 10-year Microsoft MVP Awardee in Windows (2006-16) & a Windows Insider MVP. Please read the entire post & the comments first, create a System Restore Point before making any changes to your system & be careful about any 3rd-party offers while installing freeware.


  1. tuxplorer

    And if you want you can get back the overlay for shared items by installing Classic Shell, the best shell extension for Windows Explorer that undoes 50% of the damage done to the shell and Explorer by the Windows team since Vista.

  2. Those little padlocks started showing up after I installed and started using TeraCopy on Win 7 64bit. Not sure why it waited until then unless these overlay icons came with a Windows Update at the same time I installed TeraCopy.

  3. Bob

    @tuxplorer Classic Shell doesn’t undo any damage, it just brings different kind of crap, i.e. giving you a 16+ year old start menu design. Also, the shared items overlay function doesn’t work, so meh, classic shell is waste of time.

  4. I have an overlay icon on some Access files. It’s a square in the upper-left corner with what looks to me like a key at a diagonal inside the square.

  5. Peter

    In Windows 10, there are new overlay icons, such as the two blue arrows pointing at each other, denoting that the drive where the file is, is using compression. You may want to include this in your article to make it more up-to-date.

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