How to Sign an EXE With a Digital Certificate

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SonicWall’s 2023 report reveals that nearly one in three detected malicious files were executables. Prove to your clients that your .exe files are authentic and malware-free. Here’s our no-fluff, step-by-step guide on how to sign an .exe with a digital certificate.

In August 2023, the cleaning product manufacturer Clorox was the victim of a devastating ransomware attack. Production and sales were severely affected. Nearly two months later, the company is still cleaning up the damages and forecasting a net sales loss of up to $593 million.

Digitally signing your exe files with a digital certificate helps to shield you and your customers from malware infections in a world where ransomware runs rampant.

So, how can you digitally sign your Windows executables and applications? Follow our step-by-step guide. Learn how to level up the security of your codes and prove to your customers that they’re legitimate and untampered since they have been signed.

How to Sign an EXE Using a Code Signing Certificate

No matter which type of code signing certificate you choose, signing an .exe with a digital certificate is easier than you think. And Microsoft SignTool makes it even more straightforward. Here is an overview of the steps involved.

Steps to Sign an .exe in WindowsOverview
1. Purchase a Code Signing CertificateBuy a code signing certificate and secure USB token from a trusted certificate authority (CA).
2. Set Up Your Secure Hardware TokenGo through the set-up wizard to configure your USB token and set a password for your code signing certificate. 
3. Download and Install Microsoft SignToolSignTool.exe is part of Windows SDK. Download its latest version and install it.
4. Open Windows Command Prompt as AdministratorType “cmd” on your Windows search bar and open it as Administrator. (You don’t have to do this if you’re logged into your device as Admin.)
5. Navigate to the SignTool DirectoryEnter the filepath to specify your SignTool directory.
6. Enter the Signing and Time Stamping CommandEnter the command: signtool sign /tr /td SHA256 /fd SHA256 /a “c:\filepath\myexecutable.exe” 
7. Type Your SafeNet PasswordEnter your token password.
8. Verify Your SignatureCheck your software’s digital signature and ensure there are no errors using the basic check command (signtool verify /pa “c:\filepath\myexecutable.exe”)
the in-depth verification method (signtool verify /pa /v “c:\filepath\myexecutable.exe”)

Are you a visual person? Our screenshots will show you the entire process in action.

1. Purchase a Code Signing Certificate

The first thing you’ll need to do to sign your executable is get a publicly trusted code signing certificate. Do you already have one? Great! You can jump to step three. If you don’t,

Since June 2023, the new industry standard requires all code signing private keys to be stored on secure hardware. Therefore, no matter which type of certificate you purchase, it’ll be issued on a secure hardware token by default.

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2. Set Up Your Hardware Token

Did you already receive your USB token? Fantastic! Now, to be able to use it, you’ll first have to set it up. To do so, plug your USB into your device and follow our quick guide.

Once done, leave your USB token plugged into your device. You’ll need it later to sign your code. But when the token isn’t in use, be sure to store it in a secure location where only you have access to it.

Note: This set-up procedure is done only once. Next time, you’ll want to sign an .exe with a digital certificate, you’ll just have to plug in your USB token.

3. Download and Install Microsoft SignTool

To sign an .exe with a certificate, you’ll need to have Microsoft SignTool installed on your device. If you have Windows SDK or Visual Studio, you can skip to the next step as they both come with SignTool.exe embedded.  If you don’t, the easiest way to get it is to download Windows SDK’s most recent version and install it.

4. Open Windows Command Prompt as Administrator

Plug in Your Token and Open SafeNet

Before opening CMD, you first need to plug your secure token into your computer and launch the SafeNet Authentication Client. You also will likely need to install your code signing certificate locally on your device in Certificate Manager (CertMgr).

  • Click on the Start button to open the search bar.
  • Type cmd and Select Run as Administrator.
  • When prompted, enter your admin password.
cmd as run as administrator

If you’re already logged into your device as Admin, you won’t need to do this step. You can just open the Windows Command Prompt tool normally (i.e., you don’t have to select Run as Administrator).

If you don’t have admin privileges, get in touch with your IT admin to see if your role calls for having upgraded privileges.

5. Navigate to the SignTool.exe Directory

Generally, SignTool is installed in a bin folder, under Program Files. If this is the case:

  • In the Command Prompt, type cd C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\bin\SDK version number\x86  and click Enter.

Hint: Replace the part of the file path highlighted in bold with your SDK version number.

cmd windows kits

You have installed Windows SDK in another directory? Don’t worry. Use the command below to move to its location on your machine. Make sure you indicate the correct file_path and folder using the following command:

cd C:\file_path\folder

If you’re already logged in as Admin on your device, you may have to enter the two following commands:

cd C:\Program Files (x86)\Windows Kits\10\bin\SDK version number\x86

sdk version number

This will change your directory so you can start using SignTool.

6. Enter the Signing and Time Stamping Command

Now, it’s time to sign your .exe with a digital certificate and add a time stamp. NOTE: Time stamping is an optional step; however, it’ll save you a lot of hassle and extend the life of your digital signature. It permanently preserves the signature so that, even when the certificate you used to sign the executable expires, the user running the .exe won’t get a “Publisher Unknown” warning.

So, from now on, make sure you always add a time stamp to your codes. It takes a few seconds and it won’t cost you a dime. To add a digital signature to your software, type the following command:

signtool sign /tr /td SHA256 /fd SHA256 /a "c:\filepath\myexecutable.exe" 

Remember to replace the details in bold with the information related to your code signing certificate and file paths, just like we did in the example in the screenshot below. You’ll find the time stamp server information on the CA’s page that issued your certificate. In our example, we’ve used DigiCert’s timestamp server since we’re signing using a DigiCert code signing certificate:

digicert timestamp

7. Enter Your SafeNet Password

  • At the prompt, type the SafeNet password you created when you first set up your USB token into the SafeNet Client window that will pop up (as shown below):
safenet authentication client

If everything goes well, the Command Prompt will display a message indicating that the file was signed successfully (as shown below).

successfully signed message

Congratulations! You’ve now digitally signed your first executable. Really? That was easy, wasn’t it? Don’t close the Command Prompt window yet — let’s double-check the signature, just to play it safe. 

8. Verify Your Signature

There are two main ways you can go about verifying your software was digitally signed properly in SignTool.

Basic Digital Signature Verification

In the same Command Prompt window, enter the following command and hit Enter:

signtool verify /pa “c:\filepath\myexecutable.exe

successfully verified message

(NOTE: Don’t forget to replace the bold filepath elements with your information)

This method allows you to verify the basics: that the software’s digital signature is verified, that it’s timestamped, and that it used a specific algorithm (in this case, SHA256). Yes, it’s really that simple.

Want to see more detailed information regarding your software’s digital signature? We’ve got you covered.

In-Depth Digital Signature Verification

In the same Command Prompt window, type the command signtool verify /pa /v “c:\filepath\myexecutable.exe and hit Enter.

signtool verify

(NOTE: Don’t forget to replace the bold file path data with your information.)

Do you see something similar to what is shown in the screenshot below? Yippee! Your code has been signed and time-stamped correctly.

signed and time-stamped code

Do you find Command Prompt a bit complicated and you’re looking for a more user-friendly process? Here’s what you can do:

  • Go to the signed .exe icon and right-click on it.
  • Select Properties. A pop-up window will come up.
yourexecutable properties
  • Click on the Digital Signature tab and then on Details.
digicert timestamp digital signature details

Et voila’. As the last pop-up says, “The digital signature is OK.”

Know what’s the beauty of this process? The simplicity. Your customers can use this technique, too. This way, they’ll confirm the integrity and authenticity of your .exe in a flash.

Final Thoughts on How to Sign an EXE or Windows Application

Now that you’ve learned how to digitally sign your .exe files with a certificate in Windows, be sure to include code signing in your secure software development process (SSDLC). Taking this approach will:

Times can be challenging in the digital world, but as the adage goes: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” So, jack up your defenses, sign your .exe files with a digital certificate now.