Please Note: This article is written for users of the following Microsoft Word versions: 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. If you are using a later version (Word 2007 or later), this tip may not work for you. For a version of this tip written specifically for later versions of Word, click here: Keeping the Flash Drive Occupied.

Keeping the Flash Drive Occupied

Written by Allen Wyatt (last updated July 14, 2022)
This tip applies to Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003


For many people on the go, flash drives are the coolest thing since sliced bread. In a small little device, often no larger than a couple sticks of gum, you can carry around many megabytes or gigabytes of data wherever you go. They easily replace floppy disks, CDs, and even entire DVDs of information.

But you can run into a problem when using them with Word, as did Glenn. He opened two Word documents from his hard drive, and saved one of them to the flash drive. When he then tried to stop the flash drive so he could remove it, Windows refused to permit the safe removal of the flash drive, as it thought the drive was still in use.

There are a couple of issues at play here, and they can all affect how Windows (which controls the flash drive) views the drive. When you save a file to the flash drive from within Word, then Word starts using that drive as a place to store some of its temporary files. Even after you close the document, Word could still have a temporary file or two open on the flash drive—it all depends on what file operations you have performed with the documents you had open in Word and whether the program still needs those temporary files it created.

To complicate matters, even if Word doesn't have any temporary files still saved on the flash drive, it is possible that Word still considers the flash drive in use, thereby stopping Windows from releasing the drive. Word considers the last-used folder the active one when it comes to opening and saving files. Thus, when you save a document to the flash drive, then the folder on the flash drive becomes the temporary default folder as far as Word is concerned. To turn Word's attention to a different folder (and thereby release the hold it has on the flash drive), you either need to exit the program or perform some file operation—such as loading or saving a file—on a different drive.

If you are interested in more information about how Word creates and maintains temporary files, refer to this page in the Microsoft Knowledge Base:

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (317) applies to Microsoft Word 97, 2000, 2002, and 2003. You can find a version of this tip for the ribbon interface of Word (Word 2007 and later) here: Keeping the Flash Drive Occupied.

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 one more than 0?

2017-02-27 12:28:45

Phil Rabichow

In Outlook, under Tools/Options/Mail Format, if you select "Use Microsoft Office Word "version" to edit e-mail messages, this behavior is true. If you don't use Word to edit e-mail messages, Outlook won't keep Word open. BTW, I'm using Office 2003, so I don't know if this behavior changes in later versions.

2017-02-26 14:06:32

Tom Bates

I too use Unlocker to see what programs have a file or device open that prevents either removal of the external device or deletion of the file itself, wherever it may be stored.

One additional thing I've run into is that using Outlook for your email and Word as your email editor can complicate this situation further. Even if you close Word after saving a document, a separate copy of Word may be running under Outlook and keeping something open on an external device. I've had to shut both Word and Outlook down in order to free a USB device for removal.

2017-02-25 13:11:44

Phil Rabichow

It is my understanding, also, that when you are writing to an external drive, such as a thumb drive, Windows doesn't completely write your data, as it's entered. I have forgotten what it's called, but the reason that Windows did this, was speed. It was faster to write everything to RAM & then write to a hard disc all at once.

In fact, if you have two external drives connected, Windows waits until it has sufficient data to write, & then writes to both drives. That is why you may see both drives flash when you write to one of them or when you go to eject one of them.

There is a solution if Windows has already written to the drives. This will happen when you try to eject it. If Windows is still preventing you from ejecting, you can download a small utility, called Unlocker. This little device has helped me many times. When you get a message: "Cannot delete xxx: It is being used by another person or program.", you right click on the file or drive & bring up a dialog box which let's you "unlock" the file or drive.

FYI. In Windows 10 (& possibly an earlier version, I'm not sure), Windows no longer waits to write to an external drive. The reason is that many people just detached a thumb drive & corrupted the data. The "time saved" by Windows writing only when necessary was outweighed by time spent recovering lost data.

2017-02-25 12:34:40

Steve Wells

Let me rephrase, because I have no way to edit my error in my previous comment. A fixed drive may have no disc. My system drive is a solid-state chip on my motherboard and my swap drive is a solid state SATA device. It isn't until my main data drive that I'm using disc technology.

It is often simplest to work with a document on your local fixed (internal) drive, copying it from or to your thumb drive. This leaves all the temporary files and internal handling issues where they cannot interfere with external media.

2017-02-25 12:28:38

Steve Wells

It is often simplest to work with a document on your local fixed disc drive, copying it from or to your thumb drive. This leaves all the temporary files and internal handling issues where they cannot interfere with external media.

2017-02-25 12:22:18

Richard O.

Thanks for this enlightenment on flash drives and Word. It's an interesting fix to keep in mind now that I understand how Word works. Thanks to Mr. Burg also for his additional info.

2017-02-25 09:00:24

Fred Burg

I've run into the issue of WIndows thinking the flash drive is still in use - even if all programs that were using the drive have been closed (Word was closed, all flash-drive folders, etc. were closed but to no avail).

My understanding, having asked some IT people and from my own background, is that Windows may buffer data being written to a drive in memory (main memory or virtual memory) rather than writing it when you do a "write" operation to the disk. For example, when you save a file, Windows may not write the information to the disk immediately bcs write operations to an external drive are relatively slow. So to keep the CPU humming along at higher speeds, Windows (or other OS's) keep the data in memory until there is less to do. So if you try disconnecting the drive, Windows wants to warn you that it's not safe to do so because you might lose information not yet actually written to the drive and still sitting somewhere in memory.

However, there is a setting associated with a drive (including a thumb drive) that tells the OS whether to always write data to the drive as soon as the write operation is performed. For thumb drives, this setting is set to true. So in theory, disconnecting such a drive does not pose the problem of losing data.

In the case of Word, of course, disconnecting the drive after you've done the last save does leave Word's temporary files on the drive. Same for any other program that uses such files on the "active" drive (the one where the file is being written to). It's not that those files are corrupted since they were temporary and can just be deleted. Remembering to do so, of course, is another story and your thumb drive can get filled up with junk over time.

All of the above aside, I still go thru the "disconnect" drive process for my thumb drives and close down any relevant programs if Windows complains that the drive is still in use. It's the equivalent of safe sex.

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