Documents Lock on Their Own

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated May 13, 2023)
This tip applies to Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021


1

Every time Garry tries to open a document, he gets the message "locked by user, read only...". Garry is the only user/administrator and has never locked any of his documents. He wonders how to turn off these notifications.

This sort of issue can take some sleuthing to figure out. The first thing to do is to think about when the problem first cropped up and what changed just before it cropped up. Did you update your version of Windows? (If so, the problem is most likely related to something in Windows.) Did you install a new version of Microsoft Office? (If so, then the problem is most likely related to something in the new install.) Did you transfer the files to an external drive or a new network drive? (If so, then that is the most likely cause of the problem.)

You get the idea—if things were working fine previously and something changed, then the change is the most likely cause of the issue. Let's assume, though, that the problem is not related to an update in Windows—that would be beyond the scope of a tip such as this.

Whenever you try to open a document in Word, it checks to see if a "lock file" exists. This is a special file, sometimes called an "owner file," that exists in the same folder as the original document. If the lock file isn't there, then Word opens it to show that the file is currently in use. When Word is exited normally, then the lock file is deleted. It serves, therefore, as a "flag" that the document is open by someone so that if a different user tries to open the document, they can't mess up the existing editing session.

What I've described so far is how the lock file is supposed to work—created when the document is opened, deleted when the document is closed. What happens, though, if Word is exited abnormally, before the lock file can be deleted? What happens if the file is on an external drive or network drive where files cannot be deleted? If the lock file never gets deleted, then the next time you open the document, you'll see a message like Garry is seeing.

The first thing to try is to get out of Word and, within Windows, look for any lock files. Remember, they are in the same directories as the documents. They will have the same name as the document, but the first two characters will be replaced with a tilde (~) and a dollar sign ($). Thus, if the document name is "Monthly Report.docx," then the lock file name will be "~$onthly Report.docx."

Since you exited Word completely, then there shouldn't be any lock files on your system. You can safely delete anything beginning with "~$" and having a filename extension that indicates it is a Word file. When you next try to open the document within Word, then the problem should not crop up. This entire process (plus some) is described at this Microsoft support page:

https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/topic/-the-document-is-locked-for-editing-by-another-user-error-message-when-you-try-to-open-a-document-in-word-10b92aeb-2e23-25e0-9110-370af6edb638

(Yes, I know that is a stupid-long URL, but it seems to be what Microsoft is using these days.)

Remember that the lock files are normally created when a document is opened and deleted when a document is closed. This means that if your documents are on a shared network drive, it is possible that someone else is opening the documents and they are not exiting Word correctly. If that is the case, then you may see the problem crop up again later, even though you went through the trouble of deleting lock files. The only solution to such a cause is to educate the other users on how they should get out of Word when they are done using a document.

You might also want to check out what other Office programs you are using. For instance, Outlook can be configured to use Word as its editor. Get out of all your Office programs (including Outlook) and then restart Word, but not Outlook. If the problem no longer crops up, then you know that Outlook is the culprit—it is opening the documents (since it uses Word as its editor) and showing them as in-use when you try to open them in Word.

There have been reports that the problem could be caused by how you are opening the document. For instance, there are two very common ways to open a document:

  • Within Windows, double-click on the document file.
  • Within Word, use the Open command to locate and open the document.

If the problem only crops up when using the first method, then you know the issue is related to something within Windows—it isn't passing information on to Word correctly (or fully) when opening the document. Earlier I mentioned that Windows-related problems were beyond the scope of this tip, but at least, at this point, you've got an idea of where the problem is rooted and can further try to track it down. Plus, in the meantime you know you can always open the document from within Word itself to avoid the issue.

Finally, if you have gotten rid of all the lock files and you are still having the issue with all of your documents—even when you open the documents within Word—then you may want to try repairing Office. You can do this by following the instructions on this Microsoft support page:

https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/repair-an-office-application-7821d4b6-7c1d-4205-aa0e-a6b40c5bb88b

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (11068) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, Word in Microsoft 365, and 2021.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...

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What is eight more than 2?

2023-05-13 20:36:10

MW

I occasionally run into this problem with other Windows Office files, e.g., Outlook emails (.msg), which prevent me from deleting or moving those files ( when they are not open).

When I do, I utilize a Freeware Software program called "UnLockIT" that is engaged by right clicking on the problem file (from the Context Menu).

That program unlocks the file, allowing me to delete, move, or open it, however it is a temporary (but very convenient) fix, but does not cure the problem described by Allen Wyatt in the above Tip.

You can find the program at this link: https://emcosoftware.com/unlock-it


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