Where do my photos go when they are permanently deleted?

When you permanently delete photos from your device or online services, you may wonder where they actually go and if they are truly erased. The answer depends on where the photos were stored and the deletion method used.

Photos stored on your device

For photos stored locally on your smartphone, computer, camera, or external hard drive, deleting them sends the files to the recycle bin or trash folder. The files are marked as deleted, but not fully erased yet. Your device operating system keeps them available in the recycle bin in case you change your mind and want to restore them.

To fully delete photos from a device, you need to empty the recycle bin. When you do this, the operating system removes the file directories and unlink the photos from the file system. The photo files are overwritten with new data to prevent forensic recovery.

Here is a quick summary:

  • Deleting photos sends them to the recycle bin
  • Emptying the recycle bin fully erases them by overwriting the data
  • Deleted photos cannot be recovered if the recycle bin is emptied

Photos stored in the cloud

For photos uploaded online to cloud storage services like Google Photos, iCloud, Dropbox or social media like Facebook, deleting them removes visibility and access but does not immediately erase them.

Most cloud services keep deleted photos in their system for a period of time ranging from 30-90 days. This allows users to restore accidentally deleted photos. It also gives the service time to fully remove it from backups and servers.

During this grace period, deleted photos remain in cloud storage but are not accessible through regular interfaces. They are flagged for permanent deletion. Once the retention period expires, the cloud service deletes all copies from their servers and backups.

Here are the key points to remember:

  • Deleting online photos marks them for deletion but does not instantly erase them
  • Cloud services keep deleted photos for 30-90 days before final removal
  • After the retention period, all copies are deleted from cloud servers and backups

Does deletion completely erase photos?

Deleted photos are recoverable from devices or cloud services only for a limited window of time. But could traces remain even after permanent deletion? Let’s examine a few aspects.

File recovery

As we saw earlier, local device operating systems and cloud services take steps to thoroughly overwrite and erase deleted photo files. This removes the photo data at the file system level.

However, with specialized forensic data recovery tools, traces of deleted files can sometimes be recovered. This requires access to the physical storage media and advanced expertise.


Photos contain metadata – information about the image such as date, camera, settings and location. Some metadata could remain with cloud services even after photo deletion.

For instance, facial recognition data used by services like Google Photos may not be immediately deleted when you remove photos. However, cloud services make reasonable efforts to delete associated metadata eventually.


Cloud services take backups for disaster recovery and business continuity purposes. Deleted photos could continue to exist in backups for some time.

Companies make considerable efforts to remove deleted user data from backups through backup pruning, encryption and storage system design.

Cached copies

Photos that you delete could still be cached in the cloud service’s network edge servers and CDNs for performance. These cached copies are cleared out through regular cache invalidation processes.

In summary:

  • With great effort, traces of deleted photos could still exist
  • Cloud services work to remove all associated data
  • For all practical purposes, deleted photos are permanently erased

When are deleted photos removed permanently?

It’s clear that both local devices and cloud services take measures to permanently delete photos when requested by users. But when exactly does this permanent deletion occur?

Local device deletion

On smartphones, computers and external storage devices, deleted photos are permanently erased when you empty the recycle bin folder.

At this point, the operating system completely removes file system links to the photos. The storage sectors where the photos resided are overwritten with new data.

Cloud service deletion

For cloud services, the retention period after deletion determines final removal. This is typically 30-90 days but can vary between services.

Service Retention Period
Google Photos 60 days
iCloud Photos 30 days
Dropbox 90 days
Facebook 30 days

Once the retention period after photo deletion expires, cloud services permanently remove all copies from their servers and backups.

Can you recover permanently deleted photos?

If photos are deleted from local devices and cloud services through standard interfaces, recovering them becomes impossible after permanent deletion.

Here are the factors that prevent recovery of permanently deleted photos:

  • File data is overwritten by the operating system
  • File system links are destroyed
  • Cloud retention period has expired
  • All server and backup copies are erased

While advanced data forensics tools exist, they typically cannot recover deleted files after they have been overwritten. Most users do not have access to forensic data facilities either.

For photos deleted through standard means, permanent deletion generally implies complete irrecoverability.

Can deleted photos still exist online?

Even if you have permanently deleted photos from your devices and cloud accounts, could copies still exist somewhere online without your knowledge?

Here are some scenarios where deleted photos could still remain online:

Social media sites

If you posted photos on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Flickr and then deleted them, copies may still exist in caches and backups even after deletion.

Social sites take reasonable efforts to honor deletion requests. But occasionally copies remain for technical reasons beyond the standard retention period.

Web caches and archives

Search engines like Google keep cached copies of web pages containing your photos. Specialized web archives like Archive.org store historical copies of sites.

Web caches and archives maintain deleted photos if the source URL is removed before the cache/archive update cycle. This can happen in rare cases.

Unauthorized copies

If other users downloaded or re-shared your deleted photos, those copies could exist without your knowledge. This is hard to prevent or track.

In summary:

  • Traces may remain in social media backups
  • Web caches and archives occasionally retain deleted photos
  • Unauthorized copies are out of your control

Best practices for permanently deleting photos

While complete deletion of online photos is challenging, following best practices helps minimize traces left behind:

  • Delete photos from all devices and cloud services to remove all known copies
  • On devices, empty recycle bins to fully erase files
  • Wait for the cloud service retention period after deletion to expire
  • Remove photos from web caches/archives using removal tools if possible
  • Contact social media sites reporting any unwanted retained copies

Additionally, tweak your privacy settings to minimize photo visibility. Limit sharing photos publicly online to reduce unwanted copies.

Following these precautions helps ensure deleted photos cannot be easily recovered by most parties.


When you permanently delete photos the standard way, they become practically irrecoverable. Local devices overwrite the photo files, while cloud services erase them completely after a retention period.

Traces may still remain in rare cases like social media backups. But for all practical purposes, your deleted photos have been effectively erased and cannot be easily restored or accessed.

Exercising caution about where you share photos and who can access them goes a long way to prevent unwanted copies lingering online. Following best practices around deletion helps avoid nasty surprises down the road.

So in summary:

  • Deleted photos are overwritten on devices and erased from the cloud
  • Irrecoverable by normal means after permanent deletion
  • Traces remain only in exceptional cases if at all
  • Limiting photo sharing and using best deletion practices keeps you safe

With this understanding, you can rest assured your deleted photos are generally gone for good!