How do I restore from an external hard drive backup?

Restoring files from an external hard drive backup can be a lifesaver if you’ve experienced data loss or failure of your main computer hard drive. External hard drives provide a convenient way to store backup copies of your important files. When needed, these backup files can be restored to your computer or to a new hard drive.

Why use an external hard drive for backup?

External hard drives are affordable, portable storage devices that can hold large amounts of data. For backing up important files, they offer distinct advantages over other backup media:

  • High capacity – External HDDs are available in capacities up to 10TB or more, enough to hold huge numbers of files.
  • Fast data transfer – External hard drives connect via fast interfaces like USB 3.0/3.1, eSATA or Thunderbolt.
  • Easy connection – External drives connect easily using a USB, eSATA or Thunderbolt cable.
  • Portability – External HDDs are compact and lightweight so you can store them in a safe location offsite.
  • Compatibility – External hard drives can be used to backup files from almost any computer OS.
  • Cost effective – Price per GB makes HDDs a affordable backup medium.

Because of these advantages, external hard drives are recommended for:

  • Backing up your computer’s internal hard drive.
  • Storing duplicate copies of important files.
  • Creating an archive of older files.
  • Removing backups offsite for protection.

Choosing an external hard drive

If you don’t already own one, you’ll need to purchase an external hard drive large enough to hold the files you want to backup. When choosing one, consider these factors:

  • Capacity – Choose a drive with enough capacity to hold all the files you want to backup, with room to spare for growth. For backups, you typically want at least 2x your data size.
  • Connectivity – Faster interfaces like USB 3.0/3.1, Thunderbolt or eSATA allow quicker backup and restore times. Make sure your computer is compatible.
  • Portability – If you plan to store backups offsite, choose a compact portable HDD that’s easy to transport.
  • Reliability – Check product reviews and warranties to find reliable HDD models ideal for backup.
  • Security – Some external drives include encryption and password protection to secure your backup files.

Some popular and highly-rated external hard drives for backup include:

External Hard Drive Details
Western Digital My Passport 2TB-5TB portable HDD with USB 3.0 and hardware encryption.
Samsung T5 Portable SSD Fast 500GB-2TB external SSD with USB 3.1 and AES encryption.
Seagate Backup Plus Hub 4TB-10TB desktop HDD with front USB hub and USB 3.0/2.0.

Backing up your files

Once you have your external hard drive, you can backup your important files using backup software running on your computer. Here are some things to consider when backing up your files:

  • Backup software – Use built-in Windows backup tools like File History or a third party utility like Macrium Reflect to automate backups.
  • File selection – Choose which folders and file types you want to backup. Documents, media, system files and installed programs are common inclusions.
  • Backup schedule – Set up a recurring schedule for automated backups daily, weekly or monthly.
  • Incremental vs full – Full backups capture everything each time while incrementals backup only changed files since the last backup.
  • Destination – Designate your external HDD as the backup destination drive.
  • Security – Enable encryption and/or password protection to secure your backed up files.

Automating your backups to run on a schedule makes the process effortless and ensures your files stay protected in case you forget to manually backup.

Restoring files from backup

In the event of data loss, failed hard drive, or when moving files to a new computer, you can restore files from your external hard drive backup using these general steps:

  1. Connect the external HDD – Connect your backup drive to the computer via USB, eSATA or Thunderbolt.
  2. Locate backup files – Browse the external drive and locate the stored backup files and folders.
  3. Select files to restore – Choose which backup files and folders to restore to your computer or new hard drive.
  4. Restore files – Use your backup software’s restore features to copy files from backup to your main hard drive.
  5. Original or new location – Choose to restore files to their original or a new folder location.

More specific steps for restoring backups depend on the software utility you use to create the backups. Review your backup software’s documentation for detailed restore instructions.

Restore using Windows File History

If you use Windows’ built-in File History tool to backup files, follow these steps to restore files and folders:

  1. Open the Start menu and select “Settings” > “Update & Security” > “Backup” to launch the File History control panel.
  2. Connect your external hard drive used for File History backup.
  3. In the File History window, click “Restore personal files” to enter the restore file browser.
  4. Navigate the folder structure and tick the checkboxes next to files and folders you want to restore.
  5. Click the big green “Restore” button to start restoring files to their original or a new location.

Restore using Macrium Reflect

To restore a Macrium Reflect full backup image to a new hard drive or location:

  1. Install Macrium Reflect and connect the external HDD containing your backup images.
  2. Launch Macrium Reflect and click “Restore” in the main menu.
  3. Under “What to restore,” browse your backup drive and choose the backup image file you want to restore from.
  4. Under “Where to restore to,” choose the destination drive and location to restore the image to.
  5. Click Next and confirm settings. Click Finish to begin the restore process.

Troubleshooting restore issues

In some cases, you may encounter issues when trying to restore files from external hard drive backup. Here are some potential problems and their solutions:

External drive not detected

If your backup drive isn’t being detected by your computer, try the following:

  • Reconnect the USB, eSATA or Thunderbolt cable to make sure the connection is solid.
  • Try connecting the external HDD to a different USB port on your computer.
  • Plug the external drive into another computer to see if it is recognized there.
  • Check for any loose connections and try a different cable if available.
  • Update your USB or Thunderbolt drivers from your computer or motherboard manufacturer’s website.

Backup archive is corrupted

If your backup archive appears corrupted or won’t open, attempt these solutions:

  • Use disk scanning software to check the external drive for errors and fix any found.
  • Recreate the backup archive if possible and make sure the backup completes without errors.
  • Restore from an alternative backup if available.
  • As a last resort, reformat the external HDD and start backups from scratch.

Individual files can’t be found

If some files seem to be missing from the backup when restoring, try the following:

  • Search the backup folders and image carefully as files may have been reorganized in backup.
  • Restore again using a different restore program like Windows File History.
  • Review backup logs to see if the missing files were actually backed up.
  • If needed, restore the full backup archive to a separate location to browse for the missing files.


Restoring from external hard drive backup provides an essential recovery option if your computer system fails or important files are accidentally lost or deleted. Follow best practices for setting up reliable backups on an external HDD, storing it safely offsite, and properly restoring files when needed. With the right backup plan and recovery process, you can minimize any disruption and quickly resume business as usual.

Some key tips include:

  • Choose a high capacity external HDD with fast transfer speeds for backup.
  • Use reputable backup software to automate the backup process.
  • Store the external drive offsite to protect from disaster or theft.
  • Document your backup process including hardware, software and steps used.
  • Regularly verify backups for completeness and integrity.
  • Understand how to properly restore backups before you actually need to.

Following best practices for backing up to and restoring from an external hard drive will provide vital protection for your irreplaceable files.