How to Recover Data from a Broken USB Flash Drive

David Morelo
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Recover data from broken flash drive

Before the advent of affordable USB flash drives, transferring data between computers was much more difficult than it is today. But just because flash drives let us easily carry gigabytes of data in our pockets doesn’t mean they don’t have their fair share of shortcomings, including limited durability. 

Indeed, for such commonly used portable storage devices, USB flash drives can be broken almost too easily, which is particularly disconcerting if you rely on them for storing important data. 

In many cases, however, it’s possible to recover files from a broken flash drive using data recovery software, and the goal of this article is to guide you through the process and equip you with the information you need to achieve desired results.  

What Are the Signs of a Failing USB Flash Drive? 

broken flash drive

Instead of attempting to recover data from a broken flash drive, your goal should be to recognize early signs of a failing USB flash drive and transfer your files to a different one before it stops working completely. Here are three common signs of a failing USB drive that you need to watch out for: 

  • Slow data transfer speeds: If your USB flash drive suddenly stops being able to achieve data transfer speeds it’s supposed to achieve, then there might be something wrong with it. To verify this, connect it to a different USB port and see if anything changes. 
  • Error messages: The “USB device not recognized” error message is just one of many possible error messages that you might see when attempting to connect a failing USB flash drive to a computer. While there’s no need to panic the first time you see an error message, ignoring reoccurring error messages is definitely not a good idea.  
  • Wrong storage capacity: Failing USB flash drives sometimes show the wrong storage capacity, such as 27 GB instead of 32 GB. If the storage capacity is still wrong even after reformatting, then it’s very likely that the flash drive isn’t working correctly. 

If you encounter any of the above-described signs of a failing USB drive, we strongly recommend you backup your data as soon as you can because you never know when the drive decides to stop working completely. 

Why USB Flash Drives Stop Working?  

There are several reasons why a working USB drive can become a dead USB drive. Data recovery from a broken USB drive can be extremely problematic, but it’s not necessarily impossible. It all depends on why the USB drive stopped working.

Physical Damage

Recovery difficulty: High 

Even though USB flash drives are tiny, there are some parts that can break very easily, such as the USB connector. Even a slightly bent USB connector can lead to major connection issues and all kinds of error messages. There’s also the danger of damage caused by power surges, water, and other enemies of delicate electronic components. 

Physically broken USB drives that can’t even be recognized correctly are usually impossible to recover with data recovery software. To retrieve files from a USB that is broken, it’s necessary to contact a repair service with specialized equipment and have them transfer the flash memory chip to a healthy donor USB flash drive. 

Excessive Number of Read and Write Cycles

Recovery difficulty: Medium

All storage devices that rely on flash memory cells fail eventually because the floating gate transistors inside them, which store individual bits of data, rely on a thin layer of oxide to tunnel electrons in and out. This oxide layer wears down over time, causing transistors to lose their ability to store bits. 

It’s estimated that the typical USB flash drive can withstand between 10,000 and 100,000 write/erase cycles, which can translate into anywhere from a few months of use to a few decades, depending on how heavily the flash drive is used. The good news is that flash memory cell failure doesn’t immediately lead to data loss and drive failure because modern flash drives are smart enough to detect bad memory cells and avoid them. 

Viruses and Other Malware 

Recovery difficulty: Medium 

Malware creators are well aware that a single USB flash drive is often shared between many computers and users, which is why there are so many viruses and other types of malware that target flash drives. Usually, they simply use flash drives to spread as far as possible, but they sometimes fail to do so without corrupting the existing data. 

Because malware can behave highly unpredictably, it’s difficult to recommend a single universally applicable way how to recover files from a flash drive that has been infected with malware. To be extra safe, you may want to create a complete byte-to-byte backup of the flash drive and store it someplace safe. Just make sure to remember that the backup contains malware so you don’t accidentally allow it to spread. 

How to Recover Data from a Broken Flash Drive?

With the right data recovery software, broken flash drive data recovery is not only possible but also relatively straightforward. Here’s how to perform it on Windows and Mac. 

Make Sure the Flash Drive Is Recognized Properly 

First of all, you need to ensure that the flash drive is properly recognized by your computer. If your computer isn’t able to see the flash drive, neither will your data recovery software of choice. 

Is your flash drive recognized, but you see the “format your drive” pop-up window? Then you need to close the pop-up window and proceed with broken USB stick data recovery by following the steps described in the next section of this article. 

Only when your computer doesn’t see the flash drive at all (perhaps because the metal connector is crushed, making it impossible to physically connect the flash drive without causing the USB port on your computer to become broken) it’s time to contact a professional data repair service and let them take care of the problem. 

Use Data Recovery Software to Get Back Your Files 

The job of data recovery software is to analyze flash memory sector-by-sector to locate and recover all deleted and lost files. Such software is available for both Windows and Mac, but not all data recovery applications perform equally well

When recovering files from a USB flash drive, you need to select data recovery software with excellent support for all file systems in the FAT family (exFAT, FAT32, FAT16, FAT12). The software should also support all commonly used file formats and be intuitive and affordable. 

Disk Drill meets all these criteria, which is why we recommend it to all Windows and Mac users, regardless of how much previous experience with broken USB stick data recovery they have.  

Windows

Step 1. Download and Install Disk Drill for Windows 

Install Disk Drill for WindowsFirst, download Disk Drill for Windows and install it on your computer. You can download the basic version for free and use it to recover up to 500 MB of data.  

Step 2. Connect Your USB Flash Drive and Launch Disk Drill

Connect USB drive to pc

Next, connect the USB flash drive to your computer and wait until it’s recognized. Then, launch Disk Drill and give it a few seconds to detect all available storage devices. 

Step 3. Scan the USB Flash Drive and Select Your Data 

Scan usb drive for deleted files

Select the USB flash drive and click the Search for lost data button. Wait until Disk Drill finishes scanning. You can then browse found files and select each file that you want to recover. 

Step 4. Recover Your Data to a Different Drive 

Recover files from flash drive

Finally, click the Recover button and choose a recovery location on a different storage device than your USB flash drive. Click OK and confirm that your files have been safely recovered to the specified location. 

Mac

Step 1. Download and Install Disk Drill for Mac 

Install Disk Drill for Mac

The first thing you need to do is download Disk Drill for Mac, open the installer file, and drag the application to the Applications folder.  

Step 2. Connect Your USB Flash Drive and Launch Disk Drill

Connect flash drive to macbookYou can then connect the USB flash drive to your Mac and launch Disk Drill. When you launch Disk Drill for the first time, you will be asked to give the app some permissions, which are necessary to recover lost files.  

Step 3. Scan the USB Flash Drive and Select Your Data 

Scan flash drive

In the main Disk Drill window, you will see all available storage devices, and you need to click the Recover button next to your USB flash drive to scan it. When the scan is over, select which files you want Disk Drill to recover. 

Step 4. Recover Your Data to a Different Drive 

Recover files deleted from usb drive

To complete the data recovery process, click the Recover button one last time and select a suitable recovery location. 

David Morelo
David Morelo is a professional content writer in the technology niche, covering everything from consumer products to emerging technologies and their cross-industry application.
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12 years experience in software development, database administration and hardware repair.