What happens to files deleted from a flash drive?

Quick Answers

When a file is deleted from a flash drive, the operating system typically only removes the file’s entry from the file table and marks its clusters as available for reuse. The actual data remains on the physical drive until it is overwritten by new data. So with the right software, deleted files can often be recovered.

Flash drives, also known as thumb drives or USB drives, are small storage devices that use flash memory technology. They connect to computers and other devices via a USB port. Flash drives are portable, rewritable, and able to hold data without power, making them convenient for transferring and backing up files.

A common question many flash drive users have is: what happens when you delete a file from a flash drive? Does the file completely vanish? Or can you recover deleted files somehow? In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at what happens when you delete files from a flash drive and explore whether data recovery is possible.

File Deletion Basics

When you save a file to a flash drive, it is physically stored in flash memory cells. To keep track of where files are located, the flash drive utilizes a file system – most commonly FAT32 for smaller drives or exFAT for larger ones. The file system maintains a file table that contains entries for every file indicating its name, location, size and other attributes.

Here’s what happens when you delete a file from a flash drive on a high level:

  1. The operating system removes the file’s entry from the file table.
  2. The OS marks the clusters occupied by the file as available for future writes.
  3. The actual file contents remain intact in the flash memory until overwritten.

So when a file is deleted, the data isn’t immediately erased. The space it occupies is simply marked as available to reuse. The file appears deleted in the operating system, but the contents still reside in the flash memory until replaced with new data.

File Deletion in-Depth

Now let’s look at the file deletion process in more detail.

Removing the File Table Entry

When you delete a file, the first thing the operating system does is remove its entry from the file table. This makes the file inaccessible through standard interfaces like the file explorer. Without that file table entry, the OS has no way to locate it or discern its name and directory path.

Once removed, the file appears to be deleted as far as the user or operating system are concerned. However, the actual contents are still intact on the physical storage for now.

Freeing Allocated Space

Along with the file table entry, the OS frees up the clusters that were allocated to the deleted file. Flash memory is divided into small chunks called blocks. Multiple blocks make up a cluster, which is the smallest amount of space that can be allocated to files.

When a file is saved, enough clusters are assigned to it based on its size. When deleted, these clusters are marked on the allocation table as available and can be rewritten with new data. But the original data in them remains in place until actively overwritten.

Overwriting with New Data

The final step occurs later on when the OS or an application writes new files to the same clusters previously used by deleted files. The new data overwrites and replaces the old data in those clusters. Only then is the original deleted file actually erased from the flash memory.

However, that may not occur right away. In many cases, some or all of a deleted file’s data clusters remain untouched for an indefinite period. As long as they aren’t overwritten, the deleted data persists.

File Deletion Process Summary

In summary, here is the full sequence of events when deleting a file from a flash drive:

  1. File table entry is removed, making file seem deleted to OS.
  2. Clusters allocated to file are marked as available for reuse.
  3. File contents remain in flash memory intact.
  4. At some point, new data overwrites the clusters, erasing original contents.

Understanding this process is key to answering our original question. Since the data remains on the flash drive until overwritten, there is a window of opportunity for recovering deleted files, as we’ll discuss next.

Recovering Deleted Files from a Flash Drive

If the deleted file’s contents remain accessible on the drive, is it possible to recover them and restore the file?

The answer is yes! Since the original data still resides on the flash memory until the clusters are reused, special utilities can be used to attempt recovery of deleted files. However, there are some important factors that influence success:

Overwrite Status

As mentioned earlier, if new data has been written to the clusters where a deleted file was stored, it is essentially gone for good. But if all or part of the file’s data clusters have not been overwritten, recovery should be possible.

Time Elapsed

The less time between when a file was deleted and when recovery is attempted, the better. As more new files are written to the drive over time, the likelihood increases that critical data clusters will get overwritten.

File Fragmentation

Heavily fragmented files with data spread across many clusters are harder to recover than contiguous files with data in neighboring clusters. More fragmentation means more opportunity for critical clusters to be overwritten.

Quality of Recovery Tool

Specialized data recovery software maximizes the chances of successfully restoring deleted files. Tools range from free utilities with limited capabilities to professional software with advanced file carving algorithms.

Data Recovery Software

Let’s look at some specific data recovery programs capable of retrieving deleted files from flash drives and other storage media.


Recuva by Piriform is a popular free data recovery tool for Windows able to restore files that have been accidentally deleted from flash drives, hard drives, and other storage devices. It offers a wizard-guided interface and is able to recover various file types including documents, photos, videos, and emails.


TestDisk is an open source utility that can recover lost or deleted files from hard drives, flash drives, memory cards, and other media. It’s available for Windows, Linux, and macOS. TestDisk attempts to locate lost partitions and make non-booting disks bootable again.

Disk Drill

Disk Drill is a professional data recovery app for Mac and Windows. It scans storage media for trace remnants of deleted files and uses advanced methods to reconstruct files from fragments. Disk Drill can recover hundreds of different file types like documents, music, videos, archives, and pictures.

Stellar Data Recovery

Stellar Data Recovery performs safe and thorough scans to recover lost or inaccessible data not only from hard drives but also from iOS and Android phones, USB drives, SD cards, and other media. It offers several advanced scanning modes tailored to different data loss scenarios.

Best Practices

While data recovery tools make it possible to restore deleted files in many cases, there are some best practices users should follow to be extra cautious about losing important flash drive data:

  • Always safely eject the flash drive before removing it.
  • Have at least one backup copy of important files stored in a separate location.
  • After deleting files, run the flash drive through a recovery tool as soon as possible to see if they can be undeleted before being overwritten.
  • When disposing of an old flash drive, perform a full format or use a wipe utility like Eraser to thoroughly erase data.


In summary, when a file is deleted from a flash drive, the file system simply marks its space as available for reuse. The actual data remains intact in the flash memory until overwritten by new files at a later time. This means powerful data recovery software can often successfully retrieve deleted files, depending on factors like how much time has passed and whether critical clusters have been overwritten.

So with the right tools and techniques, recovering deleted files from USB flash drives is typically possible, giving users a second chance when important data is accidentally erased.