Can formatted USB data be recovered?

recovering data from a formatted USB drive is often possible with the right tools and techniques. When a USB drive is formatted, the data itself is not necessarily deleted right away. The format simply removes the file system structure and marks all existing data as free space to be overwritten. As long as the original data has not yet been overwritten, it can potentially be recovered.

Why does formatting a USB drive not permanently erase data?

There are a few reasons why a standard format does not permanently delete all data on a USB drive:

  • Formatting only removes file system structures – The file allocation table (FAT) or NTFS file system structures are erased, marking all storage space as available for new data. But the actual contents of the storage sectors often remain intact.
  • Data may be recoverable until it is overwritten – As long as the sectors containing the original data have not been overwritten with new data, the original data can still be retrieved by data recovery software.
  • Flash memory wears over time – When new data is written to a flash drive, it does not always overwrite the exact same physical location each time. Different sectors are used to increase the life of the drive. This leaves some old data intact.

For these reasons, a quick format does not touch the actual contents of the data stored on the drive. Special tools are required to actively overwrite and destroy the original data at a sector level.

How is USB drive data erased during formatting?

When a USB flash drive is formatted, either using a computer’s built-in formatting tool or a third-party application, the following process usually occurs:

  1. The master boot record (MBR) is updated – The MBR contains information about the drive’s partitions. Formatting overwrites this data with a new empty MBR.
  2. A new file system is written – The FAT or NTFS file system tables and structures are created to manage the storage space.
  3. All file system clusters are marked as empty – The file allocation table marks all data clusters as available for new data storage.
  4. Root folders are reset – Any root directory entries are cleared to show that no user files exist.

Importantly, none of these steps actively overwrites the original user data stored on the USB drive. The data still resides in the drive’s memory sectors and may be recoverable.

What happens when a USB drive is fully erased?

There are disk utility programs that can actively overwrite all data on a drive to completely erase it. This involves writing either zeros or random bit patterns over the entire drive multiple times. Here is what happens in this scenario:

  1. Each sector is overwritten with zeros – Every sector of the drive has zero values (all bits turned off) written over it. This eliminates any residual traces of the old data.
  2. More passes with random data – Additional passes write random bit patterns over each sector to obscure the old data even further.
  3. The drive space appears completely empty – With every byte overwritten, there is no trace left of any original user files on the disk.
  4. Unrecoverable without forensic methods – At this point, the old data is not recoverable even with specialized tools due to being completely obscured.

This multi-pass overwrite technique is sometimes referred to as a DoD-grade or Gutmann wipe, meeting Department of Defense erasure standards. After verifying the process, the drive can be considered cryptographically erased.

How does USB drive formatting work?

USB flash drive formatting refers to the process of preparing the drive for new data storage by erasing file system structures and setting up a new blank file system. Here is an overview of how formatting a USB drive works on Windows and Mac OS:

On Windows

  1. The format tool is accessed – This can be through File Explorer, Windows Explorer, or Disk Management.
  2. The drive, partition, and file system are selected -Typically FAT32 or exFAT for USB drives.
  3. A quick or full format option is chosen – Quick just resets structures, full scans the disk.
  4. File system structures are created – A new MBR and file allocation table are written.
  5. Root folders are reset – The drive appears empty to the operating system.
  6. The device is ready for new data – The USB drive is now prepared for the user to store files.

On Mac OS

  1. The Disk Utility application is opened – Found in the Utilities folder.
  2. The USB drive is selected in the sidebar – Its current partitions and formatting are shown.
  3. The Erase tab is clicked – Options are available for erasing and reformatting.
  4. Volume Format is selected – Such as MS-DOS FAT32, exFAT, APFS, etc.
  5. The drive is erased and reformatted – A new empty file system is written.
  6. The newly formatted drive is ready to use – It appears empty and ready for new files.

In both cases, the operating system writes a new blank file system to prepare the drive. Old data is not actually overwritten except in the case of a full format on Windows. The reformatting alone leaves the original data intact but inaccessible as the file structures are reset.

Can you recover formatted USB drive data?

In most cases, yes – formatted USB drive data can be recovered as long as the original files have not been overwritten. When a drive is reformatted, the file system resets but the actual user data still resides in the memory sectors untouched. Data recovery software can scan the drive and rebuild file system structures to regain access.

As long as the sectors containing the original files have not been reused for new data storage, recovery is often possible. The likelihood of recovering formatted data depends on:

  • Time elapsed – The less time since formatting, the greater the chance of data recovery.
  • Drive usage – If the drive has been used extensively since formatting, old data is more likely overwritten.
  • Drive capacity – The fuller the drive was before formatting, the higher chance of data overlap.
  • File system – Complex systems like NTFS have more metadata to reconstruct during recovery.

For the best chance of recovering data after accidentally formatting a USB drive, you should avoid writing new data and immediately use data recovery software.

How can you increase chances of USB data recovery?

Here are some tips to maximize the chances of successfully recovering data from a formatted USB drive:

  • Avoid writing any new data to the drive – Prevent overwriting old data sectors.
  • Connect the USB drive to a PC – Use read-only recovery software.
  • Scan the drive with recovery programs – Recuva, Testdisk, PhotoRec.
  • Check for intact partitions – Formatting may have deleted partitions.
  • Focus on specific file types – Target documents, photos, videos.
  • Try alternative file systems – HFS+ for Mac drives, EXT for Linux.
  • Repair the file system if needed – Fix tables and entries to reconstruct directories.
  • Extract files to another drive – Copy recovered data to safe storage.

Avoiding using the USB drive and letting data recovery software scan it before partitions are lost gives the best chance of salvaging files. Attempting your own recovery may further overwrite data.

What USB recovery software is best?

Here are some of the top options for USB data recovery software:

Software Features Formats
TestDisk Recovers lost partitions, fixes tables FAT, exFAT, NTFS
PhotoRec Scans for common media files FAT, exFAT, NTFS
Recuva Wizard-style interface, deep scans FAT, exFAT, NTFS
Disk Drill Scans inside formatted partitions HFS+, FAT32, NTFS
R-Studio Advanced scanning and recovery FAT, exFAT, NTFS, CDFS

The top tools provide options for deep scanning, reconstructing partitions, and flexible format support. TestDisk and PhotoRec are good free options. R-Studio and Disk Drill have more advanced capabilities.

What data recovery services can attempt USB recovery?

If DIY software cannot recover the needed files from a formatted USB drive, data recovery services provide advanced techniques to potentially restore data. Options include:

  • Drive imaging – Experts create full sector-by-sector images of connected drives for safe data extraction.
  • Clean room recovery – Damaged drives are disassembled and chips are read using specialized equipment.
  • Encrypted drive unlocking – Password removal or bypass to recover data from secured drives.
  • Proprietary tools – Engineers use in-house technology tailored for complex cases.

Reputable data recovery labs like Ontrack, Gillware, Secure Data Recovery, and DriveSavers offer these kinds of advanced capabilities for difficult USB drive cases. However, fees can range from $500 to $3000 or more depending on the drive size and complexity.

Can you recover data after full format?

Recovering data after a full format—overwriting the entire USB drive—is less likely but may still be possible in some cases. It depends on the extent of the changes during the full format process.

If the full format only wrote zeros to all sectors, recovery software can still scan for traces of files that may persist. But if the overwriting used random bit patterns, recovery becomes exponentially more difficult.

For the best chance of full format data recovery, it is critical to avoid writing any new files to the drive. Overwriting old sectors that still contained recoverable traces will result in permanent data loss.

While rare, some recovery experts like Kroll Ontrack report cases where meticulous sector-by-sector analysis and advanced techniques were able to recover data even after multiple overwrites. But there is no guarantee, and each situation is different.

Can you recover formatted external hard drive data?

The techniques for recovering data from a formatted external hard drive are essentially the same as for a USB flash drive. As long as the original data sectors have not been overwritten, recovery is often possible.

External hard drives typically use desktop-class hard drives inside an enclosure with a USB interface. They often use common file systems like NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT that USB flash drives also use. This means similar data recovery software can scan and rebuild file system structures and extract data.

However, external hard drives usually have far more storage capacity than USB flash drives. This greater volume of data means formatted external hard drives have a higher risk of some original data having been overwritten by new data written after formatting. But with careful recovery procedures, experts can often recover critical user files.

Can professionals recover formatted SD card data?

SD cards and other removable media like CompactFlash and MemoryStick cards have the same data recovery principles apply. As long as the flash memory sectors retaining the original user files have not been overwritten, recovery is often possible.

SD cards do have some unique factors that impact formatted data recovery:

  • SD cards may use proprietary interfaces and protocols without standard USB.
  • Different types of SD cards have different internal memory technologies.
  • High-speed UHS-II SD cards can be damaged more easily.
  • High-capacity 4K video SD cards have greater data density.

So specialized card readers and advanced techniques may be required. But ultimately, the ability to recover formatted SD card data depends on the physical flash chips not having been overwritten after formatting.


While formatting a USB drive or external media does not necessarily permanently erase all data, recovering erased files still requires timely action. The less a drive is used following formatting, the better the chances of recovery success.

With the right data recovery tools and techniques, formatted USB drive data can often be salvaged. But for best results, avoid further usage of the drive and contact a professional recovery service if needed.