Can you recover data from hard drive after deleting?

Yes, in many cases it is possible to recover deleted data from a hard drive, even after emptying the Recycle Bin or Trash. When a file is deleted, the reference to the file’s data on the hard drive is removed from the file system, but the actual data itself often remains intact until being overwritten by new data. With the right data recovery software and techniques, this deleted data can be recovered.

Why deleted files can often be recovered

When a file is deleted, the operating system simply marks the space that file occupies as being available for reuse. The actual data remains on the hard drive until it is overwritten by new data. This is why deleted files can often be recovered, even after emptying the Recycle Bin. The space on the hard drive that the deleted data occupies needs to be overwritten by new data to make that deleted data unrecoverable.

Factors that affect recoverability of deleted data

There are several key factors that determine whether deleted data can be recovered from a hard drive:

  • Time since deletion – The less time that has passed since the file was deleted, the higher the chances of recovery. As more data is written to the drive, deleted data becomes overwritten.
  • Drive usage – A frequently used hard drive has less recoverable data, as deleted files are more likely to have been overwritten. Less used drives retain more recoverable data.
  • File size – Larger files have a greater chance of recovery, as they take longer to be completely overwritten.
  • File system – Different file systems handle deletions differently. For example, NTFS copies parts of files to different locations on the drive, making recovery potentially more difficult.
  • Overwrite attempts – Manual attempts to overwrite deleted data reduces recoverability.

Recovering recently deleted files

If a file was just deleted recently, recovering it is relatively straightforward. Here are some options for recovering recently deleted files before they are overwritten:

  • Restore from Recycle Bin or Trash – Files deleted on Windows go to the Recycle Bin, on Mac to the Trash. Restore deleted files from here if available.
  • Use System Restore or backups – System Restore on Windows or Time Machine on Mac may allow restoring deleted files if system restore points or backups are available.
  • Undelete software – Specialized undelete software can scan the hard drive and recover files marked as deleted that have not yet been overwritten.

Recovering files manually deleted from the Recycle Bin

If a file was manually deleted from the Windows Recycle Bin or Mac Trash so it no longer appears there, recovery becomes more difficult but may still be possible if that space has not been overwritten. Some options include:

  • Data recovery software – Use powerful data recovery software that can scan for the raw data of deleted files.
  • File carving – A technique that searches the hard drive for recognizable file signatures of deleted data.

Recovering files after a format or partition

If the hard drive was reformatted or repartitioned, this makes recovery more difficult but not always impossible. Formatting a drive does not erase the data – it simply resets the file system. The data itself remains until overwritten. Some recovery options include:

  • Recovering data from the formatted partition – Data recovery software may be able to recover files by searching the reformatted partition for remnants of files.
  • Extracting data from the drive – Performing a deep scan of the entire raw drive, looking for file signatures that can then be reconstructed.

Data overwritten at the physical level

If data has been physically overwritten at the disk level even once, then the chance of recovery becomes extremely slim to nonexistent with normal software-based recovery techniques. The only options are companies that work at the hardware level:

  • Data recovery companies – There are companies that can attempt specialized hardware-level disk analysis and data extraction, but this can cost thousands of dollars and offers no guarantees.
  • Repair corrupted media – If the media itself has errors or corrupted modules, it may be possible to physically repair it first before attempting data recovery.

How data recovery software works

Data recovery software works by scanning the hard drive for traces of deleted files that have not yet been overwritten. There are two main components – a search algorithm for finding the deleted data, and a reconstruction algorithm for reassembling the files into a usable form. Here is a basic overview of how common undelete and data recovery software works:

  1. Scans and locates deleted file data – The software scans the logical file system structure, and then does a sector-by-sector search to locate data that is marked as unallocated space.
  2. Analyzes file structure – The layout of a hard drive has file system-specific structures and headers in known locations. These structures give clues about deleted file locations.
  3. Identifies file types – The software looks at patterns in the data to identify common file types like documents, images, archives, emails based on file signatures.
  4. Extracts deleted file data – Data associated with deleted files is extracted from unallocated and slack space and reconstructed based on assumptions about its file type and structure.
  5. Recovers files – The extracted data is used to rebuild deleted files and copy them to a safe location for recovery.

Choosing data recovery software

There are many data recovery software products available commercially and as freeware. Here are some features to look for when choosing recovery software:

  • Supported file systems – Make sure the software can recover deleted files from your file system like NTFS or FAT32.
  • Disk imaging – The ability to make a disk image backup is crucial for recovery success.
  • Scanning algorithms – Software should offer multiple scan options from quick to deep file system and sector scans.
  • File previews – The ability to preview files before recovering helps identify correct data.
  • Recovery options – Look for software that recovers to storage media, saves to disk images, or uploads to the cloud.
  • Ease of use – The software should make the complex recovery process simple enough for non-technical users when possible.

Physical hard drive recovery techniques

If logical software-based recovery techniques fail to recover deleted files, there are some physical hardware-based techniques as a last resort in the data recovery process. These include:

  • Chip-off – Removing and reading flash memory chips directly to extract raw data.
  • Magnetic force microscopy – Using an MFM tip to read magnetic field variations on a platter surface and reconstruct data.
  • Drive transplant – Moving the hard drive platters to an identical functional drive to read it.
  • Data exploitation lab – Forensic physical techniques like PC 3000 Portable systems to repair drive issues and recover data.

Warning: Most physical recovery techniques risk further data loss if not done properly by data recovery experts. Specialized clean rooms and equipment are required.

Best practices for avoiding data loss

While data recovery techniques allow recovering deleted files in many cases, prevention is always better than trying to recover lost data. Some best practices for avoiding data loss include:

  • Be careful when deleting files or formatting drives to avoid accidental data loss.
  • Have good, validated backups of your important files on another storage media.
  • Use archive software that supports recovering previous versions of changed files.
  • Enable Recycle Bin and Trash options to recover accidentally deleted files.
  • Store files redundantly in multiple locations like cloud storage.
  • Use enterprise-grade hardware and storage solutions designed for reliability.
  • Know that solid state drives and flash memory can have limited recoverability.

When to avoid DIY data recovery

In some cases, it is best to avoid do-it-yourself data recovery attempts and to consult a professional data recovery service instead. These include:

  • Damage to the storage media – If the physical media is corrupted or damaged, as may happen due to drops or accidents, there is risk of worsening the damage if you improperly handle it or attempt recovery yourself.
  • High value data – If the data is mission critical or high value, the risks of losing it permanently are too high for DIY attempts. Engage an expert data recovery service from the start.
  • Failed DIY attempts – If you have already tried and failed to recover the data yourself, stop. Further attempts risk overwriting more data. Pass it to the professionals at this point.
  • Specialized media – For uncommon media like tapes, floppy disks, RAID arrays, etc. it is best left to specialized data recovery services with experience in these types of media and failures.

Finding a professional data recovery service

For professional data recovery services, look for companies with:

  • Trained experts – They employ trained data recovery engineers, not just software technicians.
  • Specialized equipment – They have commercial data recovery tools and a certified cleanroom facility.
  • Experience with your media – They have expertise recovering data from the specific media type and systems.
  • Security standards – They follow rigorous standards for data security, privacy and chain of custody.
  • No fix, no fee – Legitimate firms will provide either free diagnostics or a no fee commitment if no recovery is made.
  • Strong customer reviews – Look for consistently positive customer reviews and testimonials.
Operating System File Recovery Options
Windows Recycle Bin, System Restore, Shadow Copies, Undelete software, Data recovery software
Mac OS Trash, Time Machine, Undelete software, Data recovery software
Linux Ext3/4 journal, Backup utilities, Data recovery software

Summary table of data recovery techniques

Technique Deleted Files Formatted Drive Overwritten Data
Restore Bin/Trash Yes No No
Undelete Software Yes Yes No
Data Recovery Software Yes Yes Only if not overwritten
File Carving Yes Yes Only if not overwritten
Hardware Techniques Yes Yes Only if not overwritten


While there is no guarantee of recovering lost data, in many cases deleted files can be recovered from a hard drive as long as the space they occupied has not been overwritten. The best chances of recovery are by using data recovery software as soon as possible after deletion, before too much new data is written to the drive. However, if data loss occurs due to physical hard drive damage or failure, seeking professional data recovery assistance may be required for any chance of successful recovery. Following good backup practices remains the best way to avoid needing data recovery in the first place.