Are deleted files gone forever?

When you delete a file on your computer, smartphone, or other device, it may seem like it’s gone for good. However, in many cases deleted files can actually be recovered, even after being emptied from the recycle bin. This is because deleting a file doesn’t fully erase it from your storage device. Instead, it simply marks the file’s disk space as available for future use. The actual contents of the file remain on the disk until they are overwritten by new data.

With the right software and skills, it’s often possible to search for and restore previously deleted files. However, there are also circumstances where deleted files can be essentially gone forever. In this article, we’ll explore when deleted files can and can’t be recovered.

How does file deletion work?

How digital storage works

To understand file deletion, you first need to understand a bit about how digital storage works. When you save a file to a storage device, such as a hard drive or SSD, it gets written as data across disk sectors on the drive’s platters or chips. Your operating system keeps track of where each file’s data gets stored through a file system, which includes file allocation tables and directories.

The file system indexes where everything is located on the physical storage media so files can be stored, retrieved, deleted, and overwritten as needed. When you delete a file, essentially all the file system does is mark the disk space occupied by that file as being available for reuse. The actual data remains in place until new data overwrites it.

File pointers get removed

When you put a file in the recycle bin or trash can and then empty that folder, it works similarly. The operating system removes the file directory entry and pointers to the disk sectors where the data is stored, so it’s no longer easy to access that data. But again, the actual 1s and 0s containing your file are still on the drive, invisible but present, until replaced with new information.

Why deleted files can often be recovered

As long as the original data hasn’t been overwritten by new data, forensic software can scan a drive and look for recognizable remnants of formatted files. Essentially, the software searches for known file headers, footers, namespaces, and patterns that signify a given file type – say a .docx, .xls, .pdf or .jpg file. If the program can reconstruct some or all of the file’s metadata and contents from what’s still available on the disk, it can attempt to recover the deleted data.

Recycle Bin

If you delete a file and simply move it to the Windows Recycle Bin or Mac Trash folder, recovering it is trivial. Your operating system still knows exactly where all the data for the file is stored, so restoring it just requires undeleting the file. However, once you empty the Recycle Bin or Trash folder, the OS forgets this information and recovery becomes much trickier.

Free space hasn’t been overwritten

As long as the disk space where your deleted file resides hasn’t been filled with new data yet, recovery tools stand an excellent chance of getting that file back for you. Each file’s data remains intact in disk sectors and clusters until replaced with new info. Think of it like a library – your file is effectively still on the shelf, even if the card catalog says the book doesn’t exist anymore. As long as its storage space hasn’t been reused, the contents are still present and can be searched for.

File Status Recoverability
In Recycle Bin or Trash Easily recoverable
Deleted but space unused Recoverable with software
Overwritten with new data Usually unrecoverable

When are deleted files gone for good?

While undeleting files is often possible in principle, there are certain circumstances that can render your erased data unrecoverable in practice. Let’s look at situations where deleted files are likely gone forever.

Drive space reused for new data

As soon as new data is written to anywhere on your storage drive, any deleted files whose data resided in that space are toast. For example, say you delete a 10MB video file from your PC’s hard drive. As long as no new files get saved that fill those 10MB of clusters, recovery software still has a shot of restoring your video. However, as soon you copy a few new movies from a friend onto that drive, some of their data may overwrite parts of your deleted file. Any portions that got replaced are now unrecoverable.

Deletion from solid state drives

Solid state drives (SSDs) found in many modern PCs and mobile devices store data differently than traditional hard drives. Whereas hard drives have physical magnetic platters that retain data even after deletion, SSD memory chips need to be actively rewritten at a low level to clear their contents. This process is called TRIM and it wipes file data completely once blocks are marked as deleted. So recovering erased files from SSDs can be difficult or impossible. However, TRIM operations can’t always access every cell and data remnants may still remain in some cases.


If you use full disk encryption on a drive, any files you delete become inaccessible without the original encryption keys. The raw data will still be present on the drive until it gets overwritten, but it will look like random gibberish without decryption. File recovery software won’t be able to reconstruct or restore encrypted deleted documents.

Newer desktop operating systems

Modern Windows and Mac computers use better file deletion techniques than older operating systems. Secure delete features can repeatedly overwrite sensitive data, and fast SSD TRIM commands leave fewer remnants behind. While recoverability isn’t zero, your odds of undeleting files decrease significantly on newer PCs and OS versions.

Reformatting or wiping drives

If you reformat a storage drive or intentionally wipe it using data destruction software, this purges all existing files – including both active and deleted items. Forensic recovery attempts will essentially always fail, since the original file system structures and data locations needed to reconstruct files are gone.

Recovery scenarios

Now let’s look at some real world examples of trying to recover deleted files from various devices and situations.

Hard drive file recovery

If you delete a file from a traditional hard drive on your PC or laptop, then don’t write any new data to that drive, recovery software should be able to restore it as long as the sectors storing that file’s data are still intact. Deleted files on hard drives are recoverable most of the time, unless something has partially overwritten them.

External device file recovery

Much like hard drives, deleted files on external USB keys or portable drives have a good chance of recovery if you act quickly. As long as you don’t keep adding new data that may overwrite the deleted data, specialized software can scan the drive and pull the erased files out of unallocated disk space. Just don’t reformat the device or continue using it, as this will lower your chances.

RAID recovery

RAID arrays combine multiple hard disks together for improved performance or redundancy. Often RAID setups use data striping, storing a file across multiple drives. So a deleted file may have its contents spread out across several disks. Making matters worse, if a traditional RAID setup loses a drive, the missing data needs to be rebuilt and recalculated onto replacement drives. The more this occurs, the less recoverable deleted files become. Virtual RAID systems in modern OSs improve recoverability.

NAS recovery

Recovering deleted files from Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices can pose challenges. Many consumer NAS boxes lack data redundancy and automatic backup tools. And if multiple people access a NAS over a network, simultaneous incoming writes can rapidly overwrite deleted files. However, sophisticated NAS devices aimed at businesses often include snapshot recovery and versioning capabilities to preserve accidental deletions and past versions of files.

Smartphone recovery

For phones with SD card storage, recoverability is similar to portable drives. However, most smartphones today just use internal solid state storage. As mentioned earlier, SSDs make data recovery harder thanks to TRIM commands that actively wipe disk sections holding deleted data. Still, mobile recovery specialists can sometimes extract remnants of lost data if a phone hasn’t been extensively reused after file deletion.

Cloud storage recovery

If you delete a file stored on cloud servers, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive, it’s gone for good in most cases. That’s because cloud storage systems quickly reuse vacant disk space on their massive storage arrays. The only way to restore cloud deleted files is if the cloud service has versioning turned on, letting you roll back to a time before that file was deleted. But usually, there are no deleted shadows lurking in the cloud.

Removable media

Files you delete from removable media devices like USB sticks, SD cards, and external hard drives typically remain recoverable if the media hasn’t been reused and wasn’t quick-formatted. However, camera memory cards often contain protected partitions that are hard to access. And SSD-based removable devices reduce recoverability due to TRIM commands. But otherwise, standard software can pull deleted items off removable media as long as the original data still exists.

Improving your chances of recovery

If you accidentally delete an important file and have any chance of getting it back, act immediately. Here are some tips to improve your chances:

– Don’t save anything new to the drive containing the erased file, as this can overwrite precious deleted data.

– Don’t reformat the drive if possible. This purges the existing file system and metadata needed for recovery.

– Use read-only disk access tools and avoid free space wipers when scanning drives. Write access can ruin your chances.

– Grab a bootable file recovery ISO and boot from that on the affected machine, to avoid overwriting data when rebooting.

– For mobile devices, put them in Airplane mode before attempting recovery, to avoid incoming data overwriting deleted files.

– Use reputable, commercial recovery software with capabilities to resurrect lost data. Free recovery tools are often limited in what they can restore.

Preventing file loss

Of course, while recoverability is useful as a last resort, it’s always better to avoid losing your files in the first place. Some tips:

– Maintain good file organization and document your storage locations so files don’t go missing.

– Backup important files to external media or cloud services in case of device failures, theft, or disasters.

– Enable versioning in cloud services like Google Drive so you can roll back to previous copies if needed.

– Use a source code repository like Git if working on software projects. Repos preserve all file versions and allow reverting mistakes.

– Enable Windows Previous Versions or Apple Time Machine for rollback and recovery of lost files.

– Subscribe to a cloud backup service that maintains deleted file versions and allows easy restores.


While the majority of erased files can be recovered with the right tools and care, nothing comes close to the reliability of prevention and backups. Don’t rely solely on data recovery to save your files. Instead, preserve important data from loss up front through careful data management habits.

But in a pinch where disaster strikes, recovery software can sometimes salvage your most critical documents. Just avoid actions that could overwrite precious deleted data and quickly apply disk forensic tools while remnants still persist. With effort, those crucial erased files may not be gone forever after all.