Force Empty Trash in Mac OS X When File is Locked or In Use

Jul 19, 2012 - 43 Comments

Mac OS X can sometimes throw permissions errors when trying to delete files or empty the Trash. The most common variations of the errors are usually “Operation cannot be completed because the item “File” is in use” or “because the file is locked”, sometimes you can get around this by just quitting open applications or rebooting the Mac, but if you don’t want to do either you can also forcibly remove files through the command line. We will cover two different approaches to this, the first changes a files flags to attempt to unlock the file in question, and the second is a no-nonsense force delete.

Force Empty the Trash if a file won't delete

First: Try quitting all apps to release the file lock or permissions, then attempt to Secure Empty Trash by holding down the Command key and right-clicking the Trash icon. If that doesn’t work, proceed with the methods outlined below. Some users have also reported Command+Shift+Option+Delete to work as a method of forcing the Trash to empty regardless of a file being locked or owned by another user.

Change Permissions To Forcibly Empty Trash

The first approach uses the chflags command to change the flags of all files in the Trash

Launch Terminal found in /Applications/Utilities/ and then proceed:

cd ~/.Trash

chflags -R nouchg *

Now you can try emptying the Trash as usual through the Dock, a keyboard shortcut to dump the file, or go the rm route mentioned below.

Advanced: Forcibly Emptying the Trash via Command Line

This is a last resort and intended only for advanced users. Make sure the syntax is correct with this, the “sudo rm -rf” command will erase anything without warning. If you don’t know what you’re doing you could easily delete crucial system or personal files. Have backups ready or don’t bother with this method, proceed at your own risk.

First change the directory to Trash:

cd ~/.Trash

Confirm you are in the proper directory and the only files you see are the ones you want to forcibly remove by using ls:


Now try to delete the specific file:

rm filename.jpg

If that still doesn’t work you can try the ultimate delete approach using sudo and -rf *. This is intentionally not spelled out easily to try and prevent any novice users from accidentally deleting something significant.

Using sudo requires the administrator password but combined with rm it will absolutely forcibly remove any file regardless of whats going on with it.

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Posted by: William Pearson in Command Line, Mac OS X, Tips & Tricks, Troubleshooting


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  1. Nicholas says:

    I usually just use TrashIt! It’s free.

    • Anet says:

      tried trash it, but not working!

    • Bern says:

      Used it for a stubborn locked file and worked perfectly.

      • Whark says:

        I second that. TrashIt NOT working in either FAST or REALLY STUCK mode. My two items remain in the Trash, even after trying to reset permissions with the Terminal as well as MacDentro’s IceClean. I also tried Force Empty Trash AND holding down the Option key while trying to empty the Trash. No luck. Sigh. Can no one help??

  2. Trevor says:

    I just always right click the trash and hold command key to secure empty. Works every time to overwrite error.

  3. anonymous says:

    just press Command Option Shift and Delete and it will empty the trash even if the file is owned by another user

  4. daniels says:

    If it complains about the file being in use you can also “lsof | grep filename” and see what program is using it so you can close it. Worked every time for me.

  5. Michael says:

    In most cases, I just try again, and it deletes without incident.

  6. Rance says:

    To Trevor and Anonymous… and this web site/comments… Thank You! I have been working for two days trying to delete locked files from the Trash on my iMac running OS 10.8. Nothing worked until I came across this list of comments. I tried everything and I mean everything, but nothing worked. I will add that after I was able to delete the locked files holding down the Command Key. I then went back and added the Admin and myself to the permissions list and changed everyone’s permission listed to Read & Write. Then I held down the Shift, Option & Command key right clicked the Trash and Bam… they were all deleted. Thank You Again!

  7. says:

    you only need:

    cd .Trash/
    rm -rf *

    • Manrique says:

      check your current directory and be sure to be in ~/.Trash, if you run the command rm -rf * in a wrong place and wrong user, prepare do reinstall your system.

    • Jeff Pinkerton says:

      Perfect. So simple. Dangerous if you don’t change directory to Trash, but if you don’t know to do that, you shouldn’t be messing about in Terminal in the first place.

  8. tre says:

    I tried everything!! Then paydirt!! Just went to disk utility and repair permissions. Viola!!

  9. raed says:

    i was working on this last night but fall asleep not finishing the job. so i woke up the next morning and the first thing i did, terminal x…rm -rf *. woooooops wrong dir, here i am trying to fix it…

  10. try using this command,

    rm -rf ~/.Trash/*

  11. Jim says:

    Numerous utilities will do this all for you with the click of a button. Onyx being one of them, MainMenu another.

  12. Suzie says:

    DUDE!! Thank you for posting this. Very clean way to tidy up the stuck on trash! You rock.

  13. Tim says:

    I have tried using the command suggested but my problem is that every time I start a secure empty trash it stops after a few seconds and doesn’t delete any files,

  14. Susan says:

    I tried every method I could find and couldn’t get rid of a locked file deleted from Time Machine. Then I ran routine cleaning with OnyX and it deleted it with no fanfare.

  15. alex says:

    Thanks, it worked out perfectly!

  16. Talkin' Trash says:

    If you don’t want to Terminal bash it, you can try right clicking on the file while it’s in the trash, then press cmd and choose Empty Trash. This works 7/10ish is the file is persistent with just a regular emptying.

    Failing that, I use the app Find Any File. Copy the file’s name that needs deleting, and paste it into Find Any File. Once found, right click on the file and choose “Delete Immediately”. Works a charm.

  17. Stewart says:

    Change Permissions To Forcibly Empty Trash

    Thank you it worked for me.

  18. Cheshire1229 says:

    Command, option, shift, and right clicking the trash to secure empty worked for me too…there aren’t enough thank yous to go around!
    Here’s to getting rid of those pesky locked files in the trash, whew!

  19. KeiroN says:

    I still can’t delete a folder in my trash. The fiolder in question is actually on an external WD hard drive, thus only show up in trash when I plug it in. I have tried everyhting to delete them – all the advice here has been attempted…

    Secure Empty gives me: “The operation can’t be completed because you don’t have permission to access some of the items”

    sudo etc doesn’t seem to delete them either


  20. Jacco says:

    Wow… I have one bloody stubborn file…

    It’s on my external hard drive where I store all my iTunes stuff. Took a while to track it down but finally managed to do so. Turns out I had to cd to
    “/var/volumes/Seagate Expansion Drive/Trashes/501/”
    But Finder reports it as
    “/var/volumes/Seagate Expansion Drive/Trashes/Trash/”

    Anyway, eventually got to there. Tried the whole change flags thing and it just said Input/output error

    So I tried renaming it… Same thing.
    Finally had enough and went the dangerous route… with the sudo rm -rf option and STILL I got the same thing. That bloody file just refuses to die!!!

  21. Nick says:

    Thanks it works

  22. Nick says:

    Thanks it works !@!@@!@!!

  23. Wish says:

    i tried sudo and chflags and everything you mentioned, it doesn’t work, they all give me “No such file or directory”
    anybody can figure this out??

  24. Joshu says:

    Sometimes changing the file ending works very well when file is in use.

  25. Shabnam says:

    Lovely. Thank you. This worked so easily

  26. John Smith says:

    When this happens, I usually restore the file to its original location, and then use terminal to delete the file via: “rm XYZ”, never fails.



  27. Mark says:

    open the trash folder. right click on the stubborn file and select delete immediately.

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