What will be deleted if you format a hard drive?

Formatting a hard drive erases all data stored on the drive and prepares it for use with a new operating system installation. This process removes all files, folders, programs, software, and the operating system itself. After formatting, the hard drive is left completely blank and empty.

What is Formatting a Hard Drive?

Formatting a hard drive is the process of preparing the hard drive for use by erasing all data on the drive and setting up a new file system. This process removes all user data, programs, software, and the operating system from the hard drive.

When you format a hard drive, the file allocation table (FAT) or new technology file system (NTFS) partition structures on the drive are recreated. This erases all directory entries and prepares the drive to store new files. Any bad sectors on the drive are mapped out. Essentially, formatting completely wipes the hard drive clean.

Why Format a Hard Drive?

There are several reasons you may need to format a hard drive:

  • To securely erase all data before disposing of an old hard drive
  • To resolve performance issues or errors caused by corrupted files or bad sectors
  • To reinstall the operating system from scratch
  • To change the file system from FAT32 to NTFS or vice versa
  • To remove a computer virus or malware infection
  • To prepare a new, blank hard drive for use

Formatting completely erases and reinitializes the hard drive, providing a fresh start for installing an operating system and programs.

What Data is Deleted During a Format?

When you format a hard drive, absolutely everything stored on the drive is deleted including:

  • The operating system and system files
  • Installed software, programs, and applications
  • Personal files such as documents, photos, music, and videos
  • Program and game save files
  • Emails, internet history, and bookmarks
  • User profiles, preferences, and settings
  • The Recycle Bin
  • Any data stored in partitions or drives other than the main system partition

In essence, the entire contents of the hard drive are erased. The only things that remain are the hard drive itself, the firmware, and any partitions or logical drives defined as part of the hard drive architecture. But all user data will be deleted.

Common File Systems Deleted During Format

When formatting a hard drive, you will be prompted to choose a new file system for the drive. The most common file systems deleted during a format include:

  • NTFS (NT File System) – The standard Windows file system used for hard drives since Windows XP. Optimized for performance on Windows systems.
  • exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) – Used on some removable media like USB flash drives and SD cards. Compatible with both Windows and Mac.
  • FAT32 (File Allocation Table) – The older Windows file system used prior to NTFS. Still used on some removable media for compatibility.
  • Ext4 (Fourth Extended File System) – The most common Linux file system. Used by most modern Linux distributions.
  • Btrfs (B-tree File System) – An advanced Linux file system focused on fault tolerance, repair, and easy administration.

The file system defines how data is stored and retrieved on a drive, so reformatting writes a new empty file system to organize the blank drive.

Erases Partitions and Their Contents

In addition to deleting all data stored on the main hard drive partition, formatting also erases any other partitions on the hard drive and their contents. This includes:

  • Recovery partitions created by PC manufacturers to restore Windows
  • OEM partitions used by device manufacturers to store apps or tools
  • Hidden diagnostic and recovery partitions
  • Linux dual-boot partitions
  • Any other custom user-created partitions

The contents of every partition and logical drive defined on the hard drive device will be deleted during a format.

Securely Erases Hard Drive Data

Formatting is an effective way to permanently erase data on a hard drive and prevent recovery. When you format a drive, the file table links to the stored data are erased, making the existing data very difficult to retrieve.

However, it is still possible advanced recovery software could partially reconstruct some deleted files if the drive sectors have not been overwritten. For the most secure option, you can use disk wiping software or hardware disk degaussers to overwrite the drive sectors with random data patterns.

If you need to securely erase sensitive data before recycling or disposing of an old hard drive, using a dedicated disk wipe tool provides the greatest protection against forensic data recovery attempts.

Reformats Logical Drives

Within the hard drive, logical drives or volumes are formatted with a file system to store files in a usable way. Formatting a hard drive will reformat all defined logical drives, including:

  • The main system partition (typically C:\ drive)
  • Other partitions like D:\, E:\, F:\, etc.
  • RAID volumes
  • Volumes created using Logical Disk Manager

Every allocated volume and assigned drive letter will be deleted and reformatted. Dynamic disks will be reset to a blank state.

What is NOT Deleted When Formatting a Hard Drive?

While formatting resets the hard drive and erases data, there are a few things that are not touched by the formatting process:

  • The hard drive itself – The physical platters, heads, motors, and connections remain intact.
  • Hard drive firmware – The pre-programmed controller logic and instruction sets stay unchanged.
  • Hard drive partitions – The basic partition table defining logical drives is overwritten, but the partitions remain defined unless specifically deleted.
  • Master Boot Record (MBR) – The MBR may be rewritten, but drive architecture info stays.

So the basic hardware architecture, partitions, and firmware are unaffected. Only the contents of the partitions and volumes defined on the drive are erased.

Can Data be Recovered After Formatting?

In most cases, data cannot be recovered after a hard drive format because the links between file names and data locations are destroyed. However, there is a small chance limited data fragments can be recovered with advanced forensic tools:

  • Data remnants may exist in the disk slack space and gaps between partitions.
  • Old files may be partially recoverable if new data has not overwritten them.
  • Traces of formatted data structures may allow partial reconstruction of old files.

For the average user, formatting is sufficient to erase data. But those requiring high security should use drive wiping software or physical disk degaussing instead.

Can You Recover Files After Quick Format?

On Windows, you have the choice between a full format and a quick format when erasing a drive. A quick format simply erases the file tables and marks the disk space as available. It does not scan for bad sectors. Files remain intact but are no longer accessible.

A full format scans the drive for errors, which helps ensure data recovery is more difficult. However, advanced recovery software can still potentially restore some deleted files after a quick format if the original data has not been overwritten.

Steps to Recover Files After Formatting Hard Drive

If you accidentally formatted your hard drive and need to recover lost files, follow these steps:

  1. Stop using the drive immediately to prevent overwriting data.
  2. Scan the drive with data recovery software to find recoverable files.
  3. Preview found files to identify those you want to restore.
  4. Select the desired files for recovery and save them to another drive.
  5. Scan and repeat as needed to check for additional recoverable data.

The sooner you run data recovery after a format, the greater your chances of retrieving your files. But you may still recover data even weeks later in some cases.

Can You Reformat a Hard Drive Without Losing Data?

It is not possible to reformat a hard drive without losing the data stored on it. When reformatting, the file system structures are rebuilt, which erases all user files. There are a couple alternatives that can change file systems without data loss:

  • Convert File System – Tools like Convert in Windows or FSCK in Linux allow converting between file systems like FAT32 and NTFS non-destructively.
  • Partition Without Formatting – Using disk management tools, you can create separate partitions on a drive without having to reformat or disturb other partitions.

But a true reformat or clean install requires erasing the drive. So always back up your data before reformatting a drive or partition.


Formatting a hard drive erases all files, folders, programs, software, and the operating system. It resets the hard drive to a blank, factory-like state. While advanced recovery methods may retrieve remnants of deleted files, formatting effectively wipes the hard drive clean of user data for reuse.

To summarize, here’s what is deleted when a hard drive is formatted:

  • All personal files and folders
  • Installed software and applications
  • The operating system
  • Program preferences and settings
  • Recycle Bin contents
  • Emails, internet history, and bookmarks
  • Partition and volume contents

So before formatting, be sure to back up any data you need to save. After formatting, the hard drive is empty and prepared for a new OS installation and file storage.