How to Recover Data from a Dead SD Card in 5 Steps

David Morelo
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Recover data from dead SD Card

Thanks to modern high-capacity SD cards, there’s no reason to think twice before pressing the shutter button when recording video or taking pictures of important events and everyday moments. But what do you do when an SD card with hundreds or even thousands of pictures and other data stops working? You follow the steps described in this article to recover the dead SD card and get your data back! 

Signs of a Dead SD Card

Dead SD cards can be divided into two broad categories, and you need to determine which category your dead SD card falls into to figure out the best way to fix it and get your data back. Don’t worry: you don’t need to know how SD cards work to diagnose your issue. Just look for common signs of a dead SD card

Physically Damaged SD Cards

As the name of this category suggests, physically damaged SD cards have suffered some kinds of mechanical damage that prevents them from working properly

Common signs of physical damage include

  • Visibly damaged plastic housing 
  • Worn out pins 
  • Crushed flash memory chip 

Unfortunately, it’s typically not possible to recover a dead SD card that has been physically damaged, especially if the flash memory chip itself is no longer in one piece. That’s why it’s important to always store SD cards in a protective case and follow the SD card data loss prevention tips described at the end of this article. 

Logically Damaged SD Cards

Logical damage is sometimes referred to as corruption, and it always somehow relates to the file system and how it organizes the data stored on the SD card. 

Common signs of logical damage include:  

  • The “SD card is not formatted” error message. 
  • I/O device errors. 
  • Missing files or directories. 

The good news is that logically damaged SD cards are not really dead memory cards, even if they are not detected properly. In most cases, it’s possible to recover data from a logically damaged SD card using SD card recovery software. Such software analyzes the SD card sector by sector instead of relying on the information provided by the file system, which may be incomplete or corrupted. 

How to Recover Files from a Dead SD Card

To recover files from a dead SD card (SD, SDHC, SDXC) you need to use a data recovery software application with support for all commonly used file formats and file systems. Disk Drill is a good example because it’s exceptionally easy to use and makes it possible to recover up to 500 MB of data for free (Windows only).

Install Disk Drill

Download Disk Drill from its website and install it on your computer. Disk Drill runs on all computers with Windows 7 SP1 or newer, and there’s also a version for Mac. To increase the chance of successful recovery, don’t connect the dead memory card until Disk Drill is installed.
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Launch Disk Drill and select your SD card

Connect the dead memory card to your computer and launch Disk Drill. If the SD card was detected properly, you should see it listed in the main window. Select it and go to the Info tab to see more information about it to confirm that you’ve selected the correct storage device.
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Scan your SD card

If you’re certain that you have the right storage device selected, go back to the Recovery tab and click the Search for lost data button. Disk Drill will begin running all recovery methods in the optimal order, and all you need to do is give it some time to finish.
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Select files for recovery

Once the scan of your SD card is complete, you can click the Review found items button to see all recoverable files. Use the filters on the left to zero in on specific file formats and take advantage of the preview feature (hover the mouse cursor over a file and click the small eye icon) to recover only important files. You can add files to the recovery queue by clicking the small checkbox next to each file you want to recover. Click the Recover button.
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Tip: If you want to recover all files from the dead SD card at once, don’t click on any checkbox and instead click the Recover all button in the bottom-left corner. 

Get your files back

Finally, specify the recovery directory. Never recover any files to the same location from which you’re recovering them because you could overwrite them. Fortunately, Disk Drill will tell you if you’ve selected a suitable location or not.
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Help: My SD card was not detected!

If you can’t select your SD card because it wasn’t detected properly, try the following: 

  • Use a different SD card reader.
  • Update the reader’s drivers. 
  • Perform the recovery on a different computer.
  • Inspect the SD card for physical damage. 
  • Check if the SD card is unlocked. 

Tips to Prevent SD Card Data Loss

While Disk Drill makes it easy to recover lost data from logically damaged SD cards, it can’t do anything about physically damaged SD cards—and neither can any other data recovery solution! That’s why you need to do as much as possible to prevent SD card data loss, and following the tips below is a great start: 

  • Use multiple SD cards: It might be tempting to purchase a single large SD card or micro SD card that can store thousands of images and multiple hours of high-definition video footage, but it’s much safer to use multiple smaller SD cards. As we’ve already explained, it’s not easily possible to fix a dead micro SD card or even a regular SD card that has suffered mechanical damage, so the best thing you can do is minimize the amount of data you can potentially lose by dividing it between several different memory cards. 
  • Back up your data: If you don’t want to lose your data, back up it before it’s too late. It takes just a minute or two to connect and SD card to a computer and transfer all files from it, so don’t delay this simple task because you’ll hate yourself if something happens to your data. 
  • Format SD card in your camera: There’s a good reason why virtually all cameras can format SD cards as well as erase all files at once. By formatting your SD card in your camera, you ensure that it has the right file system, which is essential when it comes to preventing data loss caused by file system corruption. 
  • Pay extra for quality: When buying SD cards, avoid the bargain bin and instead pay extra for quality. Saving a few dollars by buying an SD card of questionable quality is a horrible deal, especially if you factor in the cost of SD card recovery software applications. 
  • Don’t use corrupted cards: If your SD card starts showing signs of corruption, such as input and output errors or the dreaded “this drive needs to be formatted” message, you need to stop using it as soon as possible and start using it again only when the corruption has been fixed. 

By following these five simple tips, you should be able to avoid SD card data loss. If you do experience it, however, remember to use Disk Drill as soon as possible to recover your data. 

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.