If you let someone use your computer, they could gain access to your saved passwords, read your email, access all your files, and more. Instead of looking over their shoulder, just use your operating system’s guest account feature.
Guest accounts are found on all desktop operating systems—from Windows and Mac to Ubuntu, Chrome OS, and other Linux distributions. The Guest account isn’t enabled by default on Windows, so you have to go out of your way to use it.
Why You Should Use Guest Accounts
We’ve covered why it’s a good idea to use separate Windows user accounts, and using a guest account is ideal for the same reason. There’s no need to create a dedicated user account for temporary guest users. The built-in guest account gives your friend limited access, allowing you to leave them alone with your computer and let them browse the web without giving them access to all your passwords, private documents, email, social media accounts, browser history, and everything else you do on your computer.
Guest accounts are not able to install software, configure hardware devices, change system settings, or even create a password that applies to the guest account. Guest accounts can shut down your computer—that’s about as much harm as they can do.
The guest account allows users to browse the web and use typical applications, so it’s a great way to give someone else access to your computer without feeling compelled to look over their shoulder. Even someone you trust may not access your personal data maliciously—they may open your browser, head to Gmail to check their email, and see your inbox if you’re already logged in. They’d then have to log out and log into their account, and you’d have to log back into your accounts when they’re done. Avoid this headache by using the guest account instead.
Enabling the Guest Account in Windows
Enabling the guest account is different for Windows 7 and 8 than it is for Windows 10. In Windows 7 and 8, you can enable the guest account pretty easily. From the desktop, click the Start menu and start typing “user accounts.” Click on “User Accounts” in the search results. From this menu window, click “Manage another account.”
Click “Guest.” If the guest account feature is disabled, click “Turn On.”
Windows 10, unfortunately, hides this feature a bit…partly because Microsoft would like you to exercise a bit of data security, and partly because they’d like everyone to use official Microsoft user accounts. Enabling the guest (or “Visitor” account) requires Administrator access and a bit of command-line legwork.
Once you’ve enabled the guest account, it will appear as a separate user account in the bottom left corner of your login screen. Anyone can log in as the guest account after booting your computer or accessing it when it’s locked.
You can log out of your current user account or use the Switch User feature to stay logged in, keeping your programs open and your account locked while allowing the guest to use your PC.
Once they’re done, they can log out of the guest account. Note that their browsing history, logged-in websites, and any other files or data they left lying around will remain accessible to future users of your guest account. Guest users should log out of any websites they accessed or just use a browser’s private browsing feature inside the guest account.
If you’re worried about what files the guest user can access, feel free to log in as the guest user and poke around. By default, files shouldn’t be accessible as long as they’re stored in folders under your user folder at C:\Users\NAME, but files stored in other locations like a D:\ partition may be accessible. You can lock down any folders you don’t want guests to have access to with the security properties dialog.
If you like, you can also rename your Windows guest account.
Enabling the Guest Account in macOS
On a Mac, you can log in as the guest user by selecting the Guest User account on the login screen. If this option isn’t available, you’ll have to enable it.
From the desktop, click the System Preferences icon in the dock (the one with the gear.) Click “Users & Groups.”
Click the lock icon in the lower-left corner, then enter your administrator password to access advanced functions.
Click “Guest User,” then click the check box next to “Allow guests to log in to this computer.” Don’t click “Allow guest users to connect to shared folders,” unless you want to give them access to your personal files.
Log out. You’ll now have a guest user account accessible without a password. Once your guest logs out, all their data will be erased (unlike Windows).
Using the Guest Account on Ubuntu
On Ubuntu, the guest account is enabled out of the box. You can select the Guest user on the login screen to log in as the guest account. Like macOS, all their data will be wiped when they finish and log out of the guest account.
Using the Guest Account on a Chromebook
Google’s Chromebooks also offer a guest mode. Like macOS and Linux, all guest user data will be automatically wiped when the guest user logs out.