How do you get rid of a file that you can’t delete?

As a digital technology user, you may have encountered a situation where you try to delete a file but find that you are unable to do so through normal means. A file may become undeletable for a variety of reasons – it could be in use by a program, have incorrect permissions set, be corrupted, or be locked by the operating system.

Trying to force delete an undeletable file could make the situation worse and possibly damage your computer’s file system. Instead, it’s important to understand why a file has become undeletable and then use the proper techniques to remove it safely.

Common Causes of Undeletable Files

Here are some of the most common reasons why you may encounter an undeletable file:

  • The file is currently open or in use by a program. For example, trying to delete a Word document while it’s open in Microsoft Word.
  • You don’t have permission to delete the file. The file may have restricted permissions set by an administrator.
  • The file is marked as read-only. This prevents modification or deletion of the file.
  • The file is corrupted. If part of the file’s data structure is damaged, it may prevent deletion.
  • The storage medium is corrupted. Problems with your hard drive or SSD can lead to undeletable files.
  • The file is locked by the OS. Sometimes the operating system locks a file to prevent modifications.
  • Antivirus software is blocking the deletion. Antivirus programs may prevent file deletion to protect your system.
  • You don’t have ownership of the file. By default, only the creator user can delete a file.

Knowing what causes an undeletable file can help you troubleshoot the problem and choose the right solution.

Manual Methods to Delete Undeletable Files

If you encounter an undeletable file, try some of these manual techniques to remove it before resorting to software-based solutions:

Close Any Programs Using the File

If the file is open or in use, close the associated program first. For example, if an undeletable file is a Word document, make sure to close Word before attempting to delete it. After closing the program, check if you can now delete the file successfully.

Change File Permissions

If you get a permissions error when trying to delete a file, you may need admin or root access to change its permissions. On Windows, take ownership of the file and grant yourself full control. On Mac and Linux, use chmod to modify permissions.

Unlock the File

Some platforms like Windows allow you to unlock files that are locked by the OS. You can right-click the file, select Properties > General and uncheck the Read-only checkbox. Be careful when unlocking system files.

Boot Into Safe Mode

Sometimes booting into Windows Safe Mode lets you delete files that won’t budge during regular boots. Safe Mode loads only the bare essential drivers and services. Reboot and try deleting in Safe Mode.

Disable Antivirus Temporarily

Your installed antivirus software may be blocking the file deletion. Disable your antivirus completely, then attempt to delete the file. Remember to re-enable antivirus protection afterward.

Delete from Command Line

Open a command prompt or terminal window, navigate to the file location and use the del or rm command to delete the file. Command line deletions can bypass some GUI restrictions.

Restart Your PC

Restarting your computer resets program and system states. After a restart, check if the file can now be successfully deleted through normal means.

Delete on Next Reboot

You can force Windows to delete a file on the next restart. Open an elevated command prompt and use this command:

del <filename> /f /s /q

Replace <filename> with the actual filename.

Automated Tools for Deleting Problem Files

If manual methods don’t work, the next step is to use an automated utility designed specifically for deleting undeletable files. Here are some top tools to try:


Unlocker is a free utility for Windows that can delete files and folders that are locked or in use. It integrates with Explorer’s right-click context menu for quick access. Unlocker offers multiple deletion methods like renaming or moving prior to deletion.

IObit Undelete

IObit Undelete is focused on data recovery, but one of its many capabilities allows you to easily delete protected files. Its “Forced Delete” function can remove undeletable files and folders.


FileAssassin is designed to delete any file or folder on Windows, even if it’s locked or in use. It has a range of options like batch deletion, logging, and integration with Explorer’s context menu.

Empty Trash Utilities

Tools like Empty Trash for Mac let you thoroughly empty the Trash and delete protected files. This can help remove stubborn undeletable files on Mac OS.

Secure Delete Utilities

Secure delete programs like Eraser for Windows utilize advanced deletion methods to wipe files completely. They can force delete even protected system files.

Preventing Undeletable Files

You can take some proactive measures to avoid having undeletable files in the future:

  • Don’t use admin or root accounts for day-to-day work to avoid permission issues.
  • Make sure your account has full control permissions on its own files and folders.
  • Don’t remove write permissions on files unless absolutely required.
  • Run regular disk check and repair utilities to fix file system errors.
  • Install reputable antivirus software and keep it updated.
  • Back up your data regularly in case you need to format and reinstall.
  • Close programs properly instead of forcing termination.
  • Don’t save important files in system folders like Program Files.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you’ve exhausted all manual methods and software tools, but a file still refuses to be deleted, it may be time to seek professional help. A computer technician has access to more advanced system tools and diagnostics to investigate the issue. They can:

  • Use specialized repair tools to fix file system errors.
  • Investigate any underlying malware causing the problem.
  • Recover data and reformat corrupted drives if needed.
  • Access restricted system files you can’t as a user.
  • Modify permissions on protected system directories.
  • Clear out clutter and recover disk space if needed.

For extreme cases, a technician may recommend reformatting and reinstalling the operating system from scratch to delete problem files. Be sure to backup important data first.


Undeletable files can happen occasionally on any system. Don’t force delete – instead, understand the potential causes and use the right tools. Try manual solutions, automated tools, and ultimately professional help if needed. Prevent issues by following best practices in maintaining your computer. With some time and patience, even the most stubborn undeletable file can eventually be removed.