How To Delete Those Pesky "Undeletable" Files

"Access is denied." "Sharing violation." "This file is being used by another person or program." These cryptic messages that appear when you're trying to delete or move a file, but mysteriously can't, can be vanquished with a simple free tool.
Published: Apr 8, 2008
Author: Jordan Running
Related OS: XP / Vista

Error Deleting FileYou've probably found yourself in this situation before: You're clearing out some old files when suddenly a box pops up announcing that it can't delete a particular file or folder because "it is being used by another person or program," or "access is denied," or any number of variations, none of which actually give you any useful information. You might have closed every program your open but Windows still claims that the file is somehow locked and undeletable. Like a zombie, it cannot be slain.

Not without the proper tools, at least. Now, the easiest way to handle most of these situations is to simply reboot your computer. That will end all running programs, including whichever is using the pesky undeletable file, and when your computer starts back up you should be able to delete the file. But I know and you know that sometimes rebooting is a pain, especially if you're in the middle of something and your computer, like mine, seems like it take an hour to reboot. And sometimes, as I discovered last week, even rebooting won't force some files to shuffle off this mortal coil. For these situations, I recommend a little tool called Unlocker.

Unlocker Context MenuUnlocker is free and a mere 237kb download, but is packed with features. Once you've installed it, its basic usage is as follows: When you encounter a file or folder you're unable to delete, rename, or move, simply right-click on it and choose Unlocker. The Unlocker window will appear listing all of the offending files and the name of the program or process that has it locked. Below the list you'll see a few options: In the lower right, Kill Process will attempt to end the program or process that's holding hostage the files that you've selected in the list. Unlock will merely attempt to release the program's hold without actually ending it, and of course Unlock All will do so for all of the files shown in the list instead of just the ones you've highlighted. In the lower left you'll see a drop-down menu of actions that Unlocker can take after it's unlocked the file. "No action" is selected by default, so once you've unlocked the file, nothing further will happen. You can choose Delete, Rename, Move, or Copy, however, and then when you click the Kill Process or Unlock button, Unlocker will automatically perform the chosen action.

Unlocker Main Window

The above steps will work for the majority of "undeletable" files. But once in awhile Unlocker will run into a process it can't immediately kill or a file it can't instantly unlock. For these, you'll still have to reboot. Unlocker makes this particularly easy, though: When it can't delete a file directly, it will schedule the file to be automatically deleted (or moved or renamed or whatever action you want) the next time Windows boots, but before any programs (that might hold the file hostage) start. This is the way I was finally able to delete my "zombie" file.

Finally, Unlocker has another useful feature called Unlocker Assistant. It runs in the background (you can optionally configure it to start when Windows does) and will automatically activate when it detects a process preventing you from deleting or moving a file. This saves you the trouble of right-clicking on the offending file and starting Unlocker automatically. Only a minor time-saver, but useful anyhow.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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