How to Delete Files on Mac that Won't Delete: Methods Vary from Specific Errors

Here is what you can do to force delete files that refuse to delete on Mac: secure empty Trash, through Terminal and use third-party file deletion software. If you are looking for a solution to how to delete files on Mac that will not delete, this guide can help you.

Table of Contents

Quick Navigation:

Workable Solutions Step-by-step Troubleshooting
1. Force Quit and Delete

Press these three keys together...Full steps

2. Change Permissions

Launch a new Finder window...Full steps

3. Unlock File and Delete Ctrl-click the file you cannot delete...Full steps
4. Delete Stubborn Files  Choose either of the ways to open...Full steps

Why Files Won't Delete on Mac

It is usually straightforward to delete files and folders from the Mac by dragging the items into the Trash. However, sometimes things don't quite work out as planned. When you get stuck in the awkward situation that files won't delete on Mac, let's first find out what goes wrong with the file. Following are some commonplace factors that stop your Mac from deleting a file or uninstalling an application. 

  1. 1. The file is currently in use
  2. 2. The file is locked, and read-only
  3. 3. Lack permission to modify a file
  4. 4. Mac Finder bugs
  5. 5. macOS corruption issues

Solution 1. Force Quit and Delete

Is there any error message telling you why you cannot delete the file? It can be error messages like these:

  • The item can't be moved to the Trash because it can't be deleted.
  • The operation can't be completed because the item (name) is in use.

If you've been hit with the above error message examples, you need to force quit the app that is currently using the file before you can successfully delete that file. Chances are that you can hardly identify which application is taking up the file, you may want to quit all apps instead. Here's how you can force quit the app(s) and delete the file.

Step 1. Press these three keys together: Option + Command + Esc (Escape). Or choose Force Quit from the Apple menu in the upper-left corner of your screen. (This is similar to pressing Control-Alt-Delete on a PC.)

force quit app to delete files that cannot delete on mac

Step 2. Then select the app in the Force Quit window and click Force Quit.

force quite apps in macos high sierra to delete files that cannot be deleted

Repeat the two steps to close all apps that are currently running in the background. You can even force the Finder to quit, if it stops responding: Select Finder in the Force Quit window, then click Relaunch.

Solution 2. Change Permissions from Read-only to Read-Write

Read-only: The user can open the item but not be able to make changes to it. When a file is in the read-only status, it'll refuse to delete unless you change the read-only to read-write. 

Step 1. Launch a new Finder window. Press Command-I to display the Get Info window.

Step 2. At the bottom of the window, click the arrow next to Sharing & Permissions to display permissions.

Step 3. Click on the Privilege menu next to your username and choose Read & Write. Save the change and close the Get Info window.

change read only to read write on mac

The other chance of not being able to delete a file happens to an NTFS external hard drive. NTFS is a Windows-compatible file system, macOS only allows you to read an NTFS hard drive, but can't write or delete anything from it. This is an exclusive guide for how to fix the external hard drive read-only problem on Mac.

Solution 3. Unlock File and Delete

This is another permission limit similar to the read-only issue. When a file is locked, you need to unlock it first in order to move to Trash.

Step 1. Ctrl-click the file you cannot delete and select Get Info.

Step 2. Expand the General tab and find the Locked checkbox. Deselect it if it's turned on.

unlock file on mac

Step 3. Go back to select the file and delete it again.

Solution 4. Delete Stubborn Files Through Terminal

Terminal provides advanced Mac users with the way to use the command line to delete a file that you cannot delete through the regular ways.

Step 1. Choose either of the ways to open the Mac Terminal utility.

  • Navigate to Terminal on your Mac by opening a Finder window and selecting Applications > Utilities.
  • Press Command + Space to open the spotlight, type terminal and hit Enter.

Step 2. In the Terminal window, type rm and a space. Next, drag the file you want to delete into the Terminal window.

Step 3. Press Enter to execute the file deletion.

Last Try...for Peculiar File or Folder Deletion

Don't give up if the four methods didn't work for your case. We have more thoughts here. Try them one by one until you successfully throw away those particular files or folders.

  • If it's a folder you cannot delete, try deleting each of the files within the folder instead. Remove the files that give you errors, and then try trashing the folder again.
  • Create a new file or folder in a different folder or disk from the item you want to throw away. Give the new item the same name, and then move or copy it into the folder where the recalcitrant item is located. When the Finder asks you if you want to replace it, click Yes or Replace, and then throw the moved item away.
  • Run a file repair utility to examine and repair the file deletion problem you've met. Once it is finished, try to empty the trash to completely remove the problematic file from the Mac drive.

Be Careful...You Shouldn't Have Deleted Useful Files and Folders

It's quite annoying to stick around the files you want to get rid of. The approaches introduced in this guide are all served to delete an unwanted item, some of the methods are said to delete permanently. You must be careful while executing some of the operations, including emptying Trash and applying rm Terminal command lines. Those manners are meant to clear all files there instead of a single file.

But just in case, you wrongly deleted some other important pictures, videos or documents, you can download EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard for Mac to perform a full recovery. It's a program that particularly recovers lost data from 100+ data loss scenarios, such as deletion, disk formatting, hard drive inaccessibility and photo/video corruption...

You can do research, read unbiased reviews and product comparisons on authoritative IT websites, trust such a reputable, powerful and efficient Mac data recovery application that guarantees a recovery rate of 99.7%.

EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard for Mac

  • Recover lost or deleted files, documents, photos, audio, music, emails effectively
  • Recover files from formatted hard drive, emptied Trash bin, memory card, flash drive, digital camera, and camcorders
  • Support data recovery for sudden deletion, formatting, hard drive corruption, virus attack, system crash under different situations

Step 1. Select the location and scan

Launch EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard for Mac and choose the disk where you lost data. Then, click "Search for lost files" to start scanning.

select a location and click search for lost files

Step 2. Filter and preview lost files

After the scan, use the file format filter on the left or upper right corner to find the deleted files you need.

filter lost files in types

Step 3. Recover lost data or files

You can double-click a file to preview its content, or choose multiple files to recover them at once. Click "Recover" to restore the lost data to a local or cloud drive.

click recover to recover lost data

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Updated by Dany

Dany is an editor of EaseUS who lives and works in Chengdu, China. She focuses on writing articles about data recovery on Mac devices and PCs. She is devoted to improving her writing skills and enriching her professional knowledge. Dany also enjoys reading detective novels in her spare time.

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Written by Jean

Jean has been writing tech articles since she was graduated from university. She has been part of the EaseUS team for over 5 years. Her special focuses are data recovery, disk partitioning, data space optimization, data backup and Mac OS. By the way, she's an aviation fan!

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