How to find a lost Word / Excel / PowerPoint document, opened from email (Hotmail or Outlook Web Access), that was edited and saved — but is now gone?

This is a long post that I hope will help a few desperate souls out there: how to find your lost Word, Excel or PowerPoint files?

Google “lost file opened from email attachment”, “rescue lost word doc” or “word document that I opened from my email did not save on my copmuter” and you can witness the misery of dozens (thousands? millions?) of poor computer users who lost their dissertations, school papers or theses after they emailed it to themselves, opened the document, and saved it — just to discover they can’t find the files they spent hours working on.

I want to smash my computer

It happened to me at least a few times and to my wife a few more. Worst of all, none of the explanations on the web seem to actually work! So for the sake of all you who accidentally ran into the same problem, read on (and if it helped, tell me in the comments).

I lost my Word / Excel / other file after opening it from email

The scenario is always the same. You:

  1. Opened a file from your webmail, typically using Internet Explorer.
  2. Made lots of changes and saved at least a few times.
  3. Closed Word or Excel.
  4. Tried to reopen the file but couldn’t find it.

Why it happens

This typically happens to users of Hotmail or Outlook Web Access (OWA), usually when you use Internet Explorer (especially versions earlier than IE9). Google Chrome is built differently (and better in this case, in my opinion).

In Internet Explorer, when you click on an attachment you have two options: “open” and “save”. If you clicked “save”, you’d be fine. You will be able to save the file somewhere (e.g. on the desktop) and continue working. The only way to lose the file is if you delete it or forgot where you saved it. In any case you can just search for it. In Chrome, any file you open is automatically downloaded and saved, too.

If you clicked, “open”, however, you’re entering zombie land. Word will show you the document (maybe after a warning that you opened a downloaded file). You will be able to edit and save the document regularly. But little do you know that you’re saving the file in a “safe zone” (technically, a system folder) used for files downloaded from the web. I call it zombie land because you have no idea that the files you’re saving will disappear the second you shut down Word. Worst of all, because files are saved in this zombie land, you won’t be able to find these files when you search for them.

How to rescue the file you opened, saved and is now gone?

Luckily, there’s a way to rescue these files, especially if only a short time passed since you’ve opened and closed them. Here are the instructions for Windows 7 or Windows Vista users, English version.

<disclaimer> Please be careful and follow the instructions closely, as you can cause damage, too. If you’re not sure what you’re doing, ask a friend to help. I’m just trying to help you but I can’t assume responsibility if something goes wrong… </disclaimer>

  1. Most importantly, do not try to re-open the file from your email. If you have done so already, you may have overwritten your file. You’ll know soon enough.
  2. Click Start (bottom left icon on your desktop) or on your keyboard’s Windows key. If you don’t have a Start menu (e.g. if you’re using Windows 8), tap Windows logo key
  3. +R.
  4. Your cursor should blink in the search bar. Just copy and paste this line
    %userprofile%\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.IE5
    and tap Enter. If this happened to you when using Firefox, please use this line instead: %userprofile%\AppData\Local\temp (Thanks to Paul who commented below for this tip!)This will open the special folder where temporary downloaded files are saved. Annoyingly, Windows doesn’t show you this folder unless you manually type it.
  5. We now need to show the hidden system files where Windows saved your files. Click Alt+T to show the Tools menu. Click the fourth option, “Folders options”.
  6. You should now see the Folder Options dialog box. At the top, choose the ‘View’ tab to see the Advanced Settings. Under ‘Hidden files and folders’, choose the option ‘Show hidden files, folders and drives’.
  7. Underneath, un-check the box of the option ‘Hide protected operating system files (Recommended)’. Approve the warning message by clicking ‘Yes’. Don’t worry, we’ll put everything back to place later. Click OK to close the dialog box.
  8. You should now see many more folders and icons. Some will appear a bit transparent — that means they’re hidden files.
  9. The folder will contains many folders that have strange names like ANH4N2W1, etc. Your files will be in one of them. The easiest way to find the file is by sorting the list by ‘Date modified’ and opening each folder at a time. Just click Alt+V to show the View menu, then choose Sort by, and ‘Date Modified’ and ‘Descending’ to show the latest files first.
  10. Double click to open each folder. You’ll get an annoying warning message each time you do so, just approve it.
  11. When you open a folder, again sort it by ‘Date Modified’. You can also sort by ‘Type’ to show your Microsoft Word files first.
  12. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your missing file in no time. Just notice the file size — if it’s 1 KB you are probably looking at a temporary file created by Word and not at the file you saved. Just copy the files you found to your desktop or to your My Documents folder.
  13. Check each folder until you find your file. Jump up in the air and thank God if you have found what you’re looking for. My sincerest sympathies if you couldn’t find it.
  14. When you’re done, you should return Windows to its normal state by hiding again the hidden folders. In Explorer (the file browser window), just click again Alt+T, Folder Options, View tab, and check the box ‘Hide protected operation system files’ and choose the option ‘Don’t show hidden files, folders or drives’.

If it all worked for you, scroll to the bottom of this page and add your comment. I’m so glad I could help. Just remember to never, ever, click ‘open’. Always save documents to the right folder before opening and editing them. It’s safer and would save you trouble. Or consider switching to Google Chrome or the latest version of Internet Explorer. That’ll save you at least this sort of trouble.

27–7–2012 update: Cool! This post has been featured in Wired UK magazine.

11–4–2013 update: Thanks for all the offers for a free drink! I plan a worldwide tour after the 1,000th comment.

09–10–2014 update: 1,000 comments! Wow! Apparently more than 140,000 people viewed this post. Glad I could help.