How do I recover files from an external hard drive that needs to be formatted?

What causes an external hard drive to need formatting?

There are a few common reasons why an external hard drive may need to be formatted:

  • File system corruption – The file system keeps track of where data is stored on the drive. If this gets corrupted, the drive may not be readable by your computer anymore.
  • Bad sectors – Over time, parts of the hard drive platter can go bad and prevent data from being read. Formatting marks those sectors as unusable.
  • Accidental format – The drive may have been formatted accidentally, deleting all the data.
  • Drive errors – Sometimes errors can prevent the drive from being used properly, and formatting is required to fix those errors.
  • Changing file system – You may need to format to change the file system from FAT32 to NTFS or vice versa.
  • Drive maintenance – Formatting cleans up the drive by removing invalid and temporary data.

So in summary, formatting is often required when the file system or physical drive components become damaged or corrupted. The formatting erases all data but also clears out errors so the drive can be used properly again.

How does formatting erase data?

When a drive is formatted:

  • The existing file system structure is erased. This structure keeps track of where data is located on the drive.
  • The drive is logically divided up into sections to store data.
  • A new empty file system is written to manage the empty formatted sections.

So formatting effectively deletes all file system tracking of where your data is stored. The data itself remains on the drive in most cases, but the drive no longer knows where to access it.

This is why formatting leads to data loss. Your computer and OS can no longer locate your files after a format.

Can you recover files after formatting?

Yes, in many cases you can recover files from a formatted external hard drive.

When you format a drive, the actual data is not immediately erased from the drive platter. Only the file system structure is erased.

The data remains intact in most cases until it is gradually overwritten by new data added to the reformatted drive. So formatting does not actually delete files right away – it just deletes file system structure.

As long as the formatted drive is not used much after the format so that existing data is not overwritten, recovery should be possible.

Why does the data remain after formatting?

There are a few reasons why the actual data is not immediately erased when formatting a drive:

  • It takes time – It can take a long time to completely overwrite and erase an entire drive. So for efficiency, the format only overwrites file system data.
  • The format is intentional – The purpose of formatting is specifically to erase file system data, not all user data.
  • Performance – Going through and overwriting all user data would impact performance significantly.

So in general, the format process is optimized to be fast and just erase file system structure. This leaves most user data intact initially.

How can I recover data after formatting?

There are two main ways to try recovering data from a formatted external hard drive:

1. Use Data Recovery Software

Data recovery software is the best way for DIY formatted drive data recovery. It can:

  • Scan the drive and identify existing files and data.
  • Piece file system data back together to restore file structure.
  • Extract and recover damaged and deleted files.
  • Allow you to preview found files.
  • Recover data to another drive.

Popular data recovery software options include:

  • Recuva – Free Windows data recovery with deep scan options. Great for recovering documents, media, and other common files.
  • EaseUS Data Recovery – Affordable data recovery for Windows with extra features like corrupted file repair.
  • Stellar Data Recovery – Advanced data recovery for full drive crashes and severe file corruption.
  • Disk Drill – Mac and Windows data recovery with quick and deep scan modes.

These tools make it easy for anyone to recover formatted drive data themselves. Just install the software, connect the formatted drive, scan, and recover your files.

2. Use a Data Recovery Service

For more complex data loss situations, you may need to turn to a professional data recovery service. These services can:

  • Handle drives with electrical/mechanical damage using specialized tools.
  • Work with drives that have severe corruption.
  • Extract data from drives with failed controllers or firmware damage.
  • Access platters directly in a cleanroom environment if needed.

Professional data recovery essentially takes apart the drive and accesses the platters directly to extract the raw data. This gives them the best chance of recovering data in serious situations.

The downside is the high cost – often $500 to $1000+ for professional recovery services. But for very important or large amounts of lost data, the cost may be warranted.

Tips to Increase Chances of File Recovery from a Formatted Drive

Follow these tips when trying to recover files from a formatted external hard drive:

  • Avoid using the drive – Don’t save anything to the formatted drive. This can overwrite your old data.
  • Don’t reformat the drive again – Reformatting will overwrite more data and lower your chances further.
  • Connect the formatted drive to another computer – This ensures that computer doesn’t try accessing the drive.
  • Use read-only recovery software – Read-only scans don’t risk overwriting data.
  • Recover to another drive – Don’t recover files back to the same formatted drive.
  • Create a drive image first – Cloning the drive protects it from further changes during recovery.

Following these precautions will help avoid any additional data loss while trying to recover your files.

Can You Recover Files After Formatting Without Software?

It is possible but very difficult to recover formatted drive data without using data recovery software.

Software automates many complex aspects of data recovery:

  • Finding all existing files and file fragments.
  • Rebuilding file system structure.
  • Extracting and repairing damaged/corrupted files
  • Bypassing any corruption or OS problems preventing access.

Doing this manually would involve:

  • Studying raw hexadecimal or binary data from the drive platters.
  • Trying to identify file headers, metadata, and contents.
  • Reconstructing full files somehow.
  • Copying the raw data to another drive very carefully.

As you can imagine this is extremely complex, time consuming, and error prone without software. You would need advanced skills with drive hardware and low level formats as well as tons of patience.

So for any average user, data recovery software is realistically required to recover files from a formatted drive. But technically advanced IT pros can potentially manually recover some data if absolutely needed.

Can Formatting Be Undone?

No, the formatting process cannot be undone. When a drive is formatted:

  • The old file system structure is erased.
  • A new empty file system is written.
  • The drive is ready to be overwritten by new data.

The only way to revert back to the pre-format state would be if the entire drive data and file system structure was backed up previously.

So formatting cannot be undone directly – the only option is to extract whatever data still remains using recovery methods.

How to Avoid Needing to Recover Files from a Formatted Drive

You can avoid needing to recover lost data after formatting by:

  • Be very careful when formatting drives – Double check you have the correct drive selected before formatting.
  • Backup important data – Regularly backup drives to protect important files.
  • Check drives for errors – Use built-in tools to scan drives for problems.
  • Watch for signs of failure – Slow performance and strange noises can indicate issues.
  • Replace older drives – Older drives are more likely to fail and need formatting.

Prevention is always the best solution! Backups and drive health monitoring can help you avoid needing data recovery entirely in most cases.

Can You Recover Files After Full Format vs Quick Format?

A full format takes longer and overwrites more data than a quick format. But files can potentially be recovered after either method.

Quick Format

– Faster, typically used on external drives
– Only overwrites file system structures
– Leaves all user data intact
– Highest chance of file recovery

Full Format

– Slower, more commonly used on system drives
– Overwrites all file system structures
– Overwrites areas tagged as free space
– Lower chance of recovery than quick format
– But user data in allocated space still remains

So while a full format overwrites more areas in free space, it does not overwrite all user data areas. Both formatting methods leave existing file data available for recovery, just in different amounts.

Quick formats have a higher success rate for recovery. But even after a full format, unused areas containing files can still be recovered.

Can Files Be Recovered After Reformatting or Partitioning a Drive?

Reformatting or repartitioning a drive involves restructuring the drive in some way:

  • Reformatting – Changing the file system from NTFS to FAT32, or vice versa.
  • Repartitioning – Changing the partition layout, sizes, number of partitions.

In both cases, the existing file system structure is erased and rewritten. However, the actual user data areas are unaffected. The data itself remains on the drive.

So similar to a quick format, reformatting and repartitioning erase file system structures but leave user files intact and recoverable.

Should I Format a Failing or Corrupted Drive?

If an external hard drive is failing or corrupted, formatting may seem like a good solution. But you should avoid formatting the drive if possible, to increase chances of data recovery.

Formatting should only be done as a last resort in these cases:

  • Try repairing errors without formatting first – Use built-in repair tools like CHKDSK to fix issues.
  • Recover data before formatting – If repairs fail, recover data before reformatting.
  • Only format if drive is unusable – Formatting should be the last option.

Formatting may temporarily fix a corrupted drive and allow recovering some files. But more data will be unrecoverable if the drive has already been formatted once.

So avoid repeatedly formatting a failing drive. This will overwrite more data each time that cannot be recovered.

Can You Recover Files after Factory Resetting a Hard Drive?

Factory resetting (or secure erasing) a hard drive wipes all data by overwriting the entire drive. This leaves almost no chance for file recovery.

Factory reset tools like Parted Magic bypass the operating system and directly access and overwrite all drive sectors. Some tools may perform multiple overwrite passes too.

So unlike formatting, a factory reset actively destroys all data rather than just removing file system structures. Once reset, the chance of any file recovery is extremely low.

Attempting data recovery from a factory reset drive would only potentially yield fragments of files that may still remain. Most files would be unrecoverable due to being completely overwritten.


While formatting a hard drive erases all file system data, your actual files still remain intact in most cases – until gradually overwritten.

So with the right recovery software and careful handling, you have a very good chance of recovering deleted files from a formatted external hard drive.

Avoid further usage and formatting of the drive, and you should be able to rescue important documents, photos, videos, and other personal data.

Just be sure to act quickly before too much new data gets written to the formatted drive which may overwrite your original files. Carefully preserving the drive after formatting is key.

With the right tools and techniques, you can likely recover almost all of your files despite a format erasing the file system. Don’t give up hope – your data is likely still there and recoverable with a high success rate in most situations!