Recover Deleted Files on Windows or Mac
'Yikes... I didn't mean to delete that file!' It happens to everyone... it could be a stray mouse click, a senior moment, or fumbling fingers. And the document, spreadsheet, or photo you just spent hours creating or editing is gone. Or maybe not. Fortunately, 'deleted' doesn't necessarily mean 'gone forever' on a hard drive. Here are some things to try when you want to recover a deleted file...
How To Recover Deleted Files
Once in a while, humans armed with mouse and keyboard may delete a file they wish they had not. Accidents happen. Recovering deleted files on Windows or Mac systems is often possible, but it requires just a bit of know-how, a gentle touch and a bit of luck. It has to do with the subtle difference between “delete” and “erase.” Read on, and I’ll explain.
First, look in the Recycle Bin. (On a Mac, it's called the Trash Bin.) When you "delete" a file on a Windows or Mac system, it’s not actually deleted, but rather it is moved to the Recycle/Trash Bin and not erased permanently. On Windows, double-click on the Recycle Bin icon to open a window that displays the Recycle Bin's contents. Click on the item you want to recover to highlight it and then click "Restore this item" on the menu bar. The file will be restored to its previous location. When no items are selected you will see the menu option to "restore all files." On a Mac, open the Trash Bin from the Dock. Select the file(s) that you want to recover by right-clicking them, and then select the "Put Back" option. This trick will work in most cases, unless you have recently emptied the Recycle/Trash Bin.
If you made a backup copy of all your data before deleting a file, the file may be recovered from the backup. Use the Restore function of your backup program to locate and restore a specific file.
More File Recovery Tools
The File History and System Restore functions of Windows provide other ways to recover a file that was deleted or accidentally modified. The nice part is that you may be able to recover versions of a file that you did not back up, even if they are days or weeks older. If you have activated File History, it will automatically make multiple backup copies of your important files. Windows also automatically creates System Restore Points during certain major operations, such as installing new software. The Restore Points are essentially backup copies of files, folders, and settings.
See my article What is File History? for help setting up and configuring File History. (The article references Windows 8, but it applies equally on a Windows 10 or 11 computer.) You may also want to read Try System Restore for Windows 10 for help turning on System Restore.
Here is how to restore a deleted file that Windows has saved with File History or System Restore:
- Click the Start button, type This PC and press Enter to display the drives on your computer.
- Click on a drive and navigate its folder tree to the folder that contained the deleted file.
- Right-click on the folder and select "restore previous version" from the drop-down menu.
- Select the desired file and click Restore
Mac users have something similar, called Time Machine. In addition, some Mac apps automatically save versions of your file while you edit, and also when you open, save, or rename them. To find previous versions of a file, open the document, then click "File / Revert To / Browse All Versions". Find the version you want by browsing the timeline, then you can revert to an older version, or duplicate a saved version in a new document.
If these methods fail, you may still be able to recover a deleted file using a free third-party data recovery program such as Recuva for Windows, or Disk Drill for Mac. See also 10 Free Tools to Recover Deleted Files. Such programs can recover files that have been deleted in such a way that the Recycle or Trash Bin was not involved, but only as long as the disk space occupied by the file has not been overwritten.
Pardon just a bit of geekery here. Both Windows and Mac operating systems maintain a master file table which keeps track of the location of each file that’s stored on your hard drive. When your operating system is given the command to delete a file, it doesn’t go to all the trouble of actually erasing the data contained in that file. Instead, it just removes the “pointer” to that file in the master file table. (On Windows, this is known as the MFT. On a Mac, it's the Index Node.)
That's where a bit of luck and the gentle touch come into play. The longer you wait before attempting to recover a deleted file, the less your chances of getting it back in one piece. That's because the space occupied by deleted files is marked as available, and can be overwritten when you create or save a new file, download from the Internet, or by various operating system functions. Recuva and other third-party file recovery tools have the smarts to scan your hard drive for those “deleted but not erased” files, and restore them.
And just for completeness, I should mention that you can use these tools on flash drives and memory cards as well. I remember one time when a friend gave me an SD memory card from his camera, bemoaning the loss of hundreds of photos taken on a family trip. Because the card was undisturbed after whatever “accident” caused the photos to be deleted, I was able to restore them all. I told my friend it was magic, and for all practical purposes, it was.
Do you have experience with recovering deleted files? Post your comment or question below…
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 19 Apr 2023
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- Recover Deleted Files on Windows or Mac (Posted: 19 Apr 2023)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved