How To Recover Deleted Files

Recover Deleted Files with Recycle Bin or File Recovery Software

Illustration of people throwing data into a recycle bin
© Fanatic Studio / Getty Images

Before we get started, I think it's important to stress one thing in particular:

Recovering deleted files from your hard drive, media card, flash drive, iPhone, or some other device is possible and is not a crazy thing to try to do.

I, of course, can't guarantee that your accidentally deleted file can be recovered but there's a good chance it can be, especially if it hasn't been too long since it's been deleted.

Here's the thing - files that get deleted aren't usually truly deleted but are instead just hidden, waiting to be overwritten by something else. You can take advantage of this fact and recover deleted files you want back!

Follow the easy steps below, in order, to maximize your chances of recovering deleted files from your device:

How to Recover Deleted Files

Time Required: Depending on how long ago the file was deleted, your habits on emptying the Recycle Bin, and some other factors, recovering files you've deleted could take a few minutes or up to an hour or so. 

  1. Stop using your computer! Aside from the specific tasks I outline during the rest of this tutorial, the smartest thing you can do is to stop writing data to the drive that contained the deleted file.

    As I mentioned above, files that are deleted are actually just hidden. The only way the file you want to recover disappears completely is if the same physical space it occupied on the drive is overwritten. So... don't do anything that might cause that to happen.

    Most "write heavy" are things like installing software, downloading or streaming music or videos, etc. Doing those things won't necessarily overwrite your file but the chances go up the more you do them.

    See How Long is Too Long Before a File is Unrecoverable? for more on this if you're interested.
     
  1. Restore the deleted files from the Recycle Bin. You've probably already looked in the Recycle Bin, but if not, do so now. If you're lucky enough to have not emptied it since you deleted the file, it might be here and in perfect working order.

    Tip: Files you delete from media cards, USB-based drives, external hard drives of any kind, and network shares will almost never be stored in the Recycle Bin. The same goes, more obviously, for things like your smartphone. Very large files from any source are also often deleted outright, skipping the Recycle Bin.
     
  1. Download a free file recovery program and use it to search for and recover your deleted files. If the files you're looking for have already been emptied from the Recycle Bin, a file recovery tool can help.

    I'm a huge fan of Recuva, my top pick in my list, but if you don't like it for some reason, or if you try it and it doesn't find the file you need to recover, by all means, work down the list.

    Important: I highly recommend downloading the "portable" version of Recuva, or whatever program you choose, directly to a flash drive or some drive other than the one with the missing file(s) on it. See Should I Use a File Recovery Tool's Portable or Installable Option? for more on this.
     
  2. Extract the portable version of the file recovery tool you chose. Portable programs usually come in ZIP format which Windows natively supports (i.e. unzipping is easy in Windows).

    If you downloaded it to a flash drive, extracting it right there onto the flash drive is great.

    If you had no choice but to use your hard drive, extract it there. If you had to use your hard drive and choose an installable version of a file recovery tool, go ahead and install it as directed.
     
  3. Use the file recovery tool to scan for files that can be recovered, a process that could take a few seconds to several minutes or longer depending on how large the drive is.

    The exact procedure differs from program to program but this typically involves choosing the drive you want to scan for deleted files on and then tapping or clicking a Scan button.
     
  1. Once the scan is complete, locate the file from the list of recoverable files, select it, and then choose to Restore it.

    Again, the details on recovering files you want to recover are specific to the tool you chose to use in Step 3 above.

    Important: While you hopefully found the file you needed to recover in this list, it's possible you didn't. See Will a Data Recovery Program Undelete Anything Ever Deleted? and Why Are Some Deleted Files Not 100% Recoverable? for more on why this may have happened.

More Help Recovering Deleted Files

  1. The Recycle Bin should be the first place you look to recover deleted files. If you skipped Step 2 above because you "know" it's not there, just humor me and check again. You never know!
     
  1. As I mentioned a few times above, recovering files from devices like smartphones, music players, flash drives, and network drives are possible but can sometimes require some extra steps. See Can I Recover Files From SD Cards, Flash Drives, Etc.? and Do File Recovery Tools Support Network Drives? for more.
     
  2. You do not need to have a data recovery software program installed before you delete the file to use one, which is great news. See Can I Undelete a File if I Don't Already Have a File Recovery Tool? for more, including why this is the case.
     
  3. A dead hard drive, or a non-working computer, presents an extra layer of trouble when you need to recover a file. While this is possible in most cases, see my Can I Recover Files From a Dead Hard Drive? for more on figuring out what to do.

Still Having Trouble?

See Get More Help for information about contacting me on social networks or via email, posting on tech support forums, and more.

Let me know exactly what you've already tried doing to recover the deleted files, what program (if any) you've already tried, and how you think they went missing. That'll help me help you!