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A primer on how to delete files conveniently and securely in Windows

Deleting files is something we all do pretty regularly on our Windows PC, but there are ways and means to make the process slightly slicker – and indeed to ensure when something is deleted, that it is actually deleted. This is what we're going to look at in this short primer on deletion.

First off, the normal method of deleting a file is that you right click on it and select Delete from the menu (or you select the file, and press the Delete key on your keyboard). This sends the file to the Recycle Bin, which you can subsequently restore the file from if, in the future, you decide you actually didn't want to get rid of it.

So, to actually delete the file and free up hard drive space, you have to empty the Recycle Bin after binning your file (and, in truth, even then the data hasn't actually been erased from the hard drive as such – more on that in a moment).

In effect, then, file deletion is a two-step process – delete the file, then empty the Recycle Bin to actually get rid of it and free up the space it took on the hard drive for usage. But you can turn off the Recycle Bin, so that when you delete a file on your drive, it doesn't go in the bin, but rather it's got rid of straight away. Bear in mind, though, that in exchange for this convenience, you won't be able to get the file back from the Recycle Bin later on if you decide you made a mistake.

So how do you delete files straight off the bat and avoid them going into the Recycle Bin? Simply right click on the Recycle Bin, then select Properties. Under Settings for selected location, click the button which says: Don't move files to the Recycle Bin, remove files immediately when deleted. This does, well, exactly what it says – click OK to confirm your choice.

Now onto our second point. When you delete a file from your PC – whether via the Recycle Bin, or bypassing it – that file isn't actually deleted (not there and then). Essentially, the space on the disk it was taking up is marked as free, so new data can overwrite it. But until new data actually does overwrite it, the "deleted" file is still present and can be recovered using special tools.

If you really want a file immediately scrubbed completely from the hard drive, you need to use a secure file deletion utility, which deletes the file, then overwrites it with garbage data to ensure it can't be resurrected. Some antivirus suites will come with these tools built in (sometimes called a File Shredder or similar), or you can download one for free – we'd recommend Eraser. This handy little utility overwrites data a number of times to ensure it's destroyed.

Incidentally, this is why you should never just throw away your computer or hard drive without first ensuring you wipe the hard disk – otherwise it may be found by an unscrupulous type who'll try to pull all your old data off the drive. Because it's all still there, even if you formatted the disk.

You can securely wipe an entire drive using the popular freebie piece of software DBAN. For more details on how to use this, see our full guide to destroying your data – which also mentions another method of disk wiping, simply hitting the drive hard with a hammer lots of time until the platters shatter. That's as secure a wipe as any, and probably more fun and less hassle too – just be sure to mind your thumbs!