How to Recover Files from a Formatted Hard Drive: Mac and Windows

Robert Agar
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Recover files from formatted hard driveFormatting a drive or partition is a fairly common task that computer users are called upon to perform from time to time. Unfortunately, if you make a mistake and format the wrong drive or partition you are looking at a substantial data loss scenario. The good news is that you can recover data from a formatted drive if you follow some simple guidelines and use the right tools.

How to Recover a Formatted Drive on Windows or Mac

The most important thing you can do to increase the probability of a successful recovery is to stop using the device immediately. When you format a disk, the operating system removes logical access to the data, but it is still physically present on the device until it is overwritten with new information.

Method 1: Use Disk Drill Data Recovery Software

Disk Drill data recovery software is a reliable and user-friendly solution that can recover data from a formatted drive or partition. Windows users can recover up to 500 MB for free with the tool, and all trial versions of this commercial data recovery solution let you preview the data that can be recovered.

We will look at the procedures for the Windows and Mac versions of the tool separately, as they have some slight differences. In both cases, do not use the formatted disk for the download or installation of the application. Restore the data to a different device to prevent accidentally overwriting the data you wish to recover.

Windows systems:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill for Windows.install disk drill on pc
  2. Connect the formatted external hard drive.
  3. Launch the program and select the disk or partition from the app’s display. Click the Search for lost data button to initiate the scanning the formatted drive
  4. Preview the found files and select the ones that you want to files found on drive
  5. Click the Recover button and select a new location for the restored files. As mentioned, do not use the original disk to save the recovered data.recover files from formatted hard drive

MacOS systems:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill for Mac.
  2. Connect the accidentally formatted external hard drive if necessary.
  3. Start the application and choose the disk or partition from the app’s list. Click the Search for lost data button to scan for deleted mac hard drive from list
  4. Preview the found files and make your selections for recovery.preview files in disk drill
  5. Click the Recover button to perform the recovery. Select a new storage location on a different drive. Then click Next.recover files from mac hard drive

Method 2: Use Freeware Solutions

TestDisk and PhotoRec are companion freeware products that may be helpful in recovering from a formatted drive or partition. TestDisk is used to recover partitions and will not get back the files that were stored there. PhotoRec handles that part of the equation.

To recover files with PhotoRec follow these steps:

  1. Download and install the PhotoRec. Don’t use the formatted drive.
  2. Extract the downloaded file archive.
  3. Launch the application by clicking on photorec_win.exe.
  4. Select the storage device you wish to scan using the arrow keys. Press Enter on your keyboard to proceed.
  5. Select the partition you wish to scan using the arrow keys. Press Enter to scan it.
  6. Select the right file system and press Enter. In most cases, PhotoRec will automatically suggest the correct option.
  7. Choose whether you want to scan only unallocated space or the whole partition.
  8. Select a destination to save the recovered files to. Press C on your keyboard when you’re done.

Photorec files recovery

These freeware tools support many operating systems and filesystems and may be worth a try if you are determined to use a free solution. They are much less intuitive to use than Disk Drill and should be used with caution if important data is in play.

Method 3: Restore Data from Backup

The only reliable way to recover files from a formatted drive is with the use of a backup that was made before you performed the operation. An accidentally formatted drive presents a prime example of why you need to take backups of your system frequently.

Both macOS and Windows provide free backup and restore tools that you should be using regularly to protect your valuable data. Here’s how to recover files after formatting a hard drive with a backup.

macOS systems

Mac users can use the built-in Time Machine backup and recovery application to protect their data with backups. Perform the following steps if you need to use the backup storage media to restore files from a formatted drive.

Time machine backup

  1. Connect the storage media containing the Time Machine backups to your Mac.
  2. Open a Finder window in the folder where the files you need were last stored.
  3. Open Time Machine by clicking the clock icon on the menu bar.
  4. Use Time Machine’s on-screen navigation to find the files you want to recover.
  5. Press the Space Bar to preview the file.
  6. Select the files you want to recover.
  7. Click Restore to recover the item.

Windows systems

Windows has different backup and restore programs based on the version of the OS you have installed on your computer. Here are the steps to use when recovering from a backup on Windows systems.

Windows 10

File history on Windows 10

  1. Open File Explorer and then open the folder containing the items you want to restore.
  2. Click the Home tab on the ribbon at the top of the folder.
  3. Click the History button which starts the File History program.
  4. Choose the items you want to restore. You can select folders, individual files, or multiple files.
  5. Use the navigation pane to locate the version of the data you want to recover.
  6. Click the Restore button.
  7. Select how you want to handle naming conflicts.
  8. Close the window when you are finished recovering your files.

Earlier Windows versions

Backup and restore feature on Windows

  1. Open the Start menu and type backup in the search box.
  2. Select Backup and Restore.
  3. Click the Restore my files button.
  4. Locate the files you want to recover in the Restore Files dialog box.
  5. Select the location where the files will be restored. Do not use the original disk or partition to protect against file corruption.
  6. Choose what to do with duplicates files.
  7. Click the link to open the folder to View Restored files.
  8. Click Finish to close the dialog box.

Can I Recover Data From a Formatted Hard Drive?

Generally, you can recover data from a formatted hard drive, but there are some factors to consider. The specific type of drive and how you went about the process impact your ability to get data back from a formatted hard drive. Here are some factors that influence the chances of recovering data after a reformat of a drive or partition.

1. Is the device a solid-state drive (SSD)?

Your computer’s storage is provided with either a hard disk drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD). The two types of devices store data very differently which impacts the feasibility of recovering it after a format is performed. An HDD uses mechanical platters that store information magnetically. When files are deleted from an HDD, logical access is removed but the physical data is still on the disk. Data recovery software can be used to restore the lost files.

SSDs use flash memory to store data and perform deletions on blocks of memory rather than individual files. TRIM technology has been developed to provide a more efficient means of deleting data on SSD drives. Unfortunately, this technology makes it harder or impossible to recover deleted data with recovery software. In many cases, you will have to rely on a backup to restore a formatted SSD drive.

2. How was the device formatted?

How you format the disk can impact your ability to restore it with data recovery software.

  • Quick format – A quick format deletes files from the disk or partition and rebuilds the filesystem. Data is not erased and can be recovered with recovery software.
  • Full format – Full formats add a step that checks for bad sectors. In older operating systems, this was the only difference between a full and quick format. Newer operating systems fully erase data and overwrite it with zeros during a full format which makes it impossible for it to be restored with recovery software.


Robert Agar
Freelance Writer at Self-employed specializing in technology-related subjects. Extensive experience in IT with a focus on backup and recovery, disaster recovery, cloud computing, databases, and data management.
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Senior Data Recovery Engineer. Master's degree in Physics, Information Technology for Science Experiments