Is it really possible to recover data after format?

Formatting a drive or storage device is often seen as a surefire way to permanently erase all data. When files are deleted or a drive is formatted, the references to those files in the file system are removed, making them no longer accessible through normal means. However, the data itself often remains intact in the physical storage until it is overwritten by new data.

So is it really possible to recover data after a format? The short answer is yes, at least until the storage space is reused. With the right tools and techniques, dedicated recovery specialists can retrieve previously inaccessible data from storage that has been formatted or erased. Here’s an overview of how data recovery from formatted storage works and what your options are if you need to rescue important files.

How Formatting Affects Data

When a drive is formatted, the file system information describing the files on that drive is erased and rewritten. The storage is also divided into segments for the operating system and applications to use. Any files that were on the drive before formatting appear to be gone, and the space seems empty from the perspective of the operating system.

However, formatting does not actually touch the existing data on the drive. All of the 1s and 0s representing user files are still physically there after a format, even if they are no longer accessible through normal means. Think of it like a library – formatting effectively erases the library’s card catalog, but all of the books are still sitting there on the shelves.

Full vs Quick Format

There are two main types of formatting, full and quick. A full format scans the entire drive sector by sector, checking for and repairing any bad sectors. It also fully erases the file system information and writes new empty file system structures to the disk. This process can take several hours depending on the drive size.

A quick format simply initializes a new empty file system on the disk and clears the existing file references – it does not actually scan or erase any existing data. For basic drive repurposing, a quick format usually suffices. But for more sensitive situations like selling or disposing of a drive, a full format is more appropriate to better ensure data is not reachable.

Data Recovery After Formatting

Skilled data recovery experts use specialized tools and techniques to attempt extracting data even after formatting. Here is an overview of the recovery process:

Media Evaluation

The formatted media is first evaluated to determine the file system and properties like the size and partitioning. This gives clues about the structure of the data on the physical disk and how to approach reading it.

Scan Drive for Remaining Data

The entire formatted drive is then scanned sector by sector to detect remaining file system data and rebuild file system structures. Advanced recovery tools can interpret file system information even after a format to determine if intact files remain on the disk.

Extract Files

With the rebuilt file system structure, in many cases the existing data on the disk can be extracted out into separate recovered files. The feasibility depends on the amount of data remaining and whether sections of files are corrupted or damaged.

Repair Recovered Data

Often recovered data is incomplete or corrupted. Data recovery experts use advanced techniques to repair recovered files, recover as much data as possible, and get them into a usable state.

Factors Affecting Recovery from a Formatted Drive

Several factors influence whether a successful recovery is possible from a formatted drive:

Time Since Format Occurred

The less time that has passed since the format, the greater the chances. As new data is written, it starts overwriting the existing data, making recovery progressively more difficult over time.

Full or Quick Format

A full format cleans more existing data from the disk compared to a quick format, lowering recoverability. However, data remnants often still exist even after a full format.

Nature of Use After Formatting

How the drive was used after being formatted also matters. Minimal usage with only a few new files written is ideal. Heavy usage with lots of new data written likely overwrote old data extensively.

File System Type

Some file systems like FAT have simpler structures that are easier for data recovery tools to interpret after a format compared to more complex systems like NTFS.

Can You Recover Data After Formatting?

In summary, recovering data after formatting is difficult but certainly possible in many cases until the storage space is overwritten. However, there are some caveats:

  • No guarantees: There is no way to know for sure how much data can be recovered until attempting the process.
  • No easy fixes: Recovering data after format requires expertise – standard data recovery software cannot do it.
  • Costly service: Professional formatting recovery is expensive – expect to pay $500 or much more for the attempt.

But when critical data is on the line, formatted recovery can be worth the time and cost. Just act quickly before new data overwrites more of the device.

Tips to Avoid Needing Formatted Data Recovery

While recovery is sometimes possible after formatting, prevention is always the best approach:

  • Backup, backup, backup! Keep multiple backups of important data to avoid ever needing recovery.
  • Store sensitive data properly, like using encryption and access controls.
  • Before formatting, double check drives for any data that needs backup or transfer.
  • When disposing drives, do a full format or secure erase to better protect leftover data.

Following strong backup practices is the surest way to avoid needing formatted recovery services down the road. But if disaster does strike, at least recovering data after formatting may be an option with the right approach.

Professional Formatted Data Recovery Services

While do-it-yourself formatted recovery is possible in some cases, for business-critical and sensitive data, a professional service is worth utilizing. Experts have access to advanced tools and techniques that give the best chances for a successful recovery.

Some key capabilities of professional format recovery services include:

  • Clean room facilities preventing any further data damage.
  • Specialized tools and software optimized for formatted recovery.
  • Decades of R&D into advanced data recovery techniques.
  • Experience with complex RAID systems and enterprise storage.
  • High success rates even for difficult NTFS recovery cases.

Professional services can often recover data when consumer-level tools would fail. However, costs range from $500 to $3000+ depending on the drive size and recovery complexity.

Finding a Reputable Service

Choosing a qualified recovery company is critical, since you are entrusting them with your sensitive data. Consider the following when evaluating services:

  • Years of experience with proven past performance.
  • Strong security standards for handling clients’ drives and data.
  • Certified clean room facilities.
  • Upfront estimates and clear pricing policies.
  • Positive client reviews and a solid reputation.

Avoid any company that promises guaranteed results or asks for large upfront payments. A trustworthy provider will clearly explain the formatted recovery process and provide an estimate grounded in past case experience.

When to Avoid Formatted Data Recovery

While formatted recovery can seem enticing, it is not always the right course. In some cases, it may be wiser to accept the data is permanently lost.

Scenarios where avoidance may be better include:

  • Prohibitively expensive for the value of the data.
  • Highly sensitive data like medical records and PII.
  • Storage was also physically damaged or heavily overwritten.
  • Mass storage systems like large RAID arrays.
  • Old drives with obsolete interfaces or file systems.

For large or highly complex storage solutions, recovery costs can easily exceed $10,000 with lower success odds. At some point it is not worth the extreme costs for data that may ultimately be unrecoverable.

Methods for Secure Data Disposal

On the flip side, if you want to permanently destroy data rather than recover it, there are methods for that too. Some techniques to irreversibly erase data include:

  • Degaussing: Uses strong magnetic fields to scramble and erase data.
  • Physical destruction: Literally destroying the platters and electronics.
  • Data wiping: Uses software to overwrite all data repeatedly.
  • Crypto erase: Encrypts a drive then securely deletes the key.

For individual drives, physical destruction or data wiping software are simple options. Large data centers may use high-power degaussing for fast drive erasure. With the right technique, even a data recovery service cannot resurrect the information.

Recovering Data from the Recycle Bin or Trash

One simpler form of data recovery is retrieving files from the Recycle Bin or Trash. When you delete files normally, they get moved to this holding folder instead of being immediately erased from the drive.

As long as you have not emptied the Recycle Bin, it is usually straightforward to restore deleted files from there. However, you still need to act quickly, because the Bin is often cleared automatically over time. Once emptied, the data would require more complex recovery techniques.

Trying data recovery software is the next step when seeking deleted files that are no longer in the Recycle Bin. But this is still less intensive than formatted recovery, since it simply looks for active data on the drive rather than rebuilding file system structures. Just avoid writing new data until after attempting to recover deleted files.


While formatting logically erases files, the data itself still resides physically on the storage until overwritten. Therefore, with the proper tools and technique, recovering data after formatting is possible for skilled recovery professionals. However, data recovery from formatted storage remains challenging, expensive, and without any guarantee of success. The best protection is comprehensive backups, so you never need take the risks of post-format recovery to begin with.