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

Quick Answers

If an external hard drive needs to be formatted before you can access files on it, there are still ways to try recovering those files first. Here are some quick answers:

  • Use data recovery software like Recuva or EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard to scan the drive and recover files before formatting.
  • Connect the drive to another computer and run recovery software from there if needed.
  • Copy the drive to another external drive or cloud storage to create a backup first.
  • Avoid writing new data to the drive before recovering files.
  • Formatting the drive should be a last resort if data cannot be recovered otherwise.

What Does It Mean When an External Hard Drive Needs to Be Formatted?

When you connect an external hard drive to your computer and get a message stating the drive needs to be formatted before use, it typically indicates one of two main problems:

File System Corruption or Damage

The file system that organizes and manages data on the drive has become corrupted or damaged. This could be due to improper ejection of the drive, a problem during the drive’s last use, physical damage, or other systemic issues. The computer cannot communicate properly with the damaged file system.

Incompatible File System

The drive was formatted with a file system (like exFAT or NTFS) that your computer’s operating system does not recognize. For example, a drive formatted for macOS will prompt for reformatting when plugged into a Windows PC. The opposite is also true.

In both cases, formatting the drive erases the existing file system and data on the drive and rewrites a new blank file system for proper functionality. This prevents access to any files stored on the drive until reformatting.

Can Data Be Recovered from a Drive Needing Formatting?

If the drive is indicating it needs to be formatted, accessing the files directly through your computer will not work. However, the data still physically exists on the drive platter unless it has been overwritten. This means recovery is often possible before reformatting using data recovery software.

When Formatting Is Required

In some cases, formatting the drive is required as a necessary step before files can be recovered:

  • If the drive has a completely unrecognized file system, reformatting may be needed so the drive is accessible and recovery software can scan it.
  • If there is a mechanical fault with the drive, a full format (not quick) may resolve it and allow data recovery attempts.
  • A drive encrypted with BitLocker will need decrypted before recovery software can read data.

Avoid Unnecessary Formatting

However, avoid formatting the drive if possible. Unnecessary formatting can make data recovery much harder or impossible in some cases:

  • Formatting overwrites the file system, which can permanently delete file records and markers used for recovery.
  • Recovering formatted data has lower success rates and lost file names/structures.
  • Each format writes more changes and reduces the recoverability of old data.

How to Recover Files from External Drive Before Formatting

If the external hard drive is indicating a reformat is required, use the following steps to maximize chances of data recovery before formatting the drive:

1. Stop Using the Drive

As soon as you receive the format warning, stop any activities involving the drive. More interaction increases risks of:

  • Writing more data that overwrites deleted files.
  • Physically damaging the drive and platters.
  • Making file recovery harder if formatting is needed.

2. Recover Data Using Software

Use data recovery software to scan the external drive and extract recoverable files before any formatting.

Top options like Recuva and EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard can restore deleted files and recover data despite the format warning. Follow the steps below:

  1. Download and install recovery software onto a working computer.
  2. Connect the problem external drive to this computer.
  3. Run the recovery program and scan the external drive.
  4. Preview found files and select those to recover.
  5. Choose a save location like internal drive or cloud storage.
  6. Recover files from the external drive to this safe location.

3. Try Advanced Recovery Methods

If basic recovery software cannot extract files from the drive, try more advanced options before formatting:

  • Clone the drive and attempt recovery on the clone instead.
  • Check for physical issues and repair as needed.
  • Contact a data recovery service for technical manual recovery.

4. Format the Drive as a Last Resort

Only format the external drive after exhausting other file recovery methods. Reformatting should be a last resort. Copy any files recovered elsewhere first.

To format an external drive:

  1. Backup files recovered already to another secure location.
  2. Use Windows Explorer or Disk Management to access drive properties.
  3. Select “Format” and choose file system type.
  4. Begin the formatting process.

Can Files Be Recovered after Formatting?

If the external hard drive has already been formatted, data recovery becomes much more difficult but is still possible in some scenarios until data is overwritten.

Recovering From a Quick Format

A quick format of an external drive simply erases the file system while leaving underlying data intact. Files remain recoverable:

  • Run data recovery software to scan drive and extract original files.
  • Success rates depend on extent of file system damage before formatting.
  • Complete original file structures may not be recreatable.

Recovering After Full Format

A full format erases the entire drive space. However, until new data is written over, partial file recovery is possible:

  • Fragments of old files not overwritten yet can be detected.
  • Recovery is unlikely to fully recreate original files.
  • Success depends on amount of new data written after formatting.

Best Practices to Avoid Needing Data Recovery

You can follow certain practices to help avoid situations of needing intensive data recovery when external hard drives fail or need formatting:

  • Always safely eject the drive before disconnecting.
  • Create backups of important files on multiple drives or cloud storage.
  • Avoid unnecessary reformatting which can make recovery harder.
  • Check for and fix physical damage or connection issues.
  • Restart computer fully if drive is not recognized properly.

Why Is Data Recovery Needed for External Drives?

External hard drives frequently need data recovery and rescue for a few reasons:

Portable and Transported Frequently

The portable nature of external drives means they are more likely to suffer physical damage from bumps, drops, debris, liquids, and other hazards that can corrupt data. Effects may not show up until later use.

Vulnerable Connection Points

External drives use connection points like USB and Firewire that are less stable interfaces than internal SATA connections. Connections can fail or get severed abruptly leading to damage.

Shared Among Multiple Computers

Drives used on multiple computers have higher risk of contracting viruses, incompatible file systems, and access conflicts leading data issues.

Left Connected Long Term

External drives that remain connected for very long periods rather than temporary use accumulate errors over time increasing risk of corruption.

Hold Important User Data

External drives often contain personal data like photos, financial files, documents, and other unreplaceable information that cannot be lost when recovery is needed.

Can Hard Drives Be Fixed without Formatting?

An external hard drive indicating it needs formatting may potentially be fixed and recover data without actually formatting in some cases.

Repair File System Errors

If file system damage is the issue, errors may possibly be repairable using tools like:

  • CHKDSK in Windows to check and fix basic file system problems.
  • fsck in Linux/MacOS to verify and repair ext4 file system issues.
  • Disk repair tools like Disk Warrior that rebuild directory structures.

Replace Damaged Drive Components

For physical damage causing the format error, replacing damaged components can allow recovery:

  • Swap damaged circuit boards with matching working ones.
  • Repair or switch damaged USB ports/connectors.
  • Fix motor or actuator issues preventing drive spin up.

Consult Data Recovery Experts

In difficult cases where DIY fixes are unsuccessful, professional data recovery services have advanced tools and techniques that may fix issues without formatting and rescue data.

Can Lost Files Be Recovered After Reformatting?

If an external hard drive has already been reformatted, recovering lost files becomes much trickier and has lower success rates, but various methods may still work in some circumstances.

Reformat Using Same File System

If the drive was reformatted to the same file system (like NTFS to NTFS), existing data has a higher chance of remaining detectable.

Avoid Writing New Data

Preventing any new data being written to newly formatted drive will avoid overwriting old data still recoverable.

Use Advanced Recovery Techniques

Advanced techniques like forensic recovery tools may find fragments of recoverable data if reformat was quick format.

Repair Drive First

External drive errors like physical damage should be repaired first before attempting recovery from a formatted drive.

Tips to Avoid Losing Data When External Drive Needs Formatting

Follow these tips to maximize preventing permanent data loss when an external drive needs formatting:

  • Recover data first with software before formatting, if possible.
  • Clone drive before formatting so recovery can be attempted on clone.
  • Avoid quick reformat and use full format only if needed.
  • Never format ‘on-top’ by reformatting a formatted drive again.
  • Disconnect reformatted drive immediately and recover data after.
  • Do not save new data onto freshly formatted external drive.


While an external hard drive prompting for formatting often causes panic, there are still opportunities to recover the data on the drive before taking that last resort step. Using data recovery software, trying repairs of file systems or physical components, and other methods can often extract old files. However, quick action is required before reformatting to maximize success.

In a worst case where the drive has already been formatted, recovery becomes much harder but still possible in some scenarios if reformat was quick or no new data has overwritten the old files yet. Either way, always recover what you can first before attempting any reformat of an external drive to avoid permanent data loss.

Method Success Rate Cost
DIY data recovery software Moderate Low
Professional data recovery service High Expensive
Drive repairs Situational Varies