How to Recover Files From a Formatted Hard Drive

Robert Agar
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Recover files from formatted hard drive

Formatting 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.

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. 

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.

If you stop using the disk, the data can be retrieved using data recovery software. Continued use of the disk or partition runs the risk of overwriting the data you want to recover, making it impossible to ever get it back. 

Here are some factors that influence the chances of recovering data after a reformat of a drive or partition.

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.

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.

Why Would I Format My Drive?

Formatting a drive can be done for a variety of reasons. Here are some of the most common ones.

  • Erasing all data on the drive before selling it or using it for another purpose. For instance, you may have been using a disk for storing a backup of your images and now need to use it to hold large multi-media files.
  • Preparing for a new file system. You may want to format a drive or partition to change the underlying filesystem on your computer.
  • Getting a disk ready for a new operating system installation. If you were using a disk with a macOS system, you will need to format it before using it with your Windows machine. 
  • Repairing a corrupted drive may require you to format the device.

How to Recover a Formatted Drive on Windows or Mac with Data Recovery Software

Here are the steps you need to recover data from a formatted drive or partition using Disk Drill data recovery software. We also offer some suggestions for free tools that may be able to help you resolve your data loss issues.

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.
  2. Connect the formatted external hard drive if one is being used for the recovery.
  3. Launch the program and select the disk or partition from the app’s display.
  4. Click the Search for lost data button to initiate the scanning process.Start scanning process
  5. Preview the found files and select the ones that you want to recover.Preview the files
  6. 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 deleted files

Mac 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.
  4. Click the Search for lost data button to scan for deleted data.Scan the hard drive
  5. Preview the found files and make your selections for recovery.Choose the files for recovery
  6. Click the Recover button to perform the recovery.
  7. Select a new storage location on a different drive.
    Recover deleted files

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. 

Testdisk data 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.

Why Choose a Paid Solution?

Everyone prefers a free solution when it is available. The problem is that free software often has limitations or reduced functionality that does not serve you well when trying to recover a formatted hard drive. It very possible that you just potentially lost a lot of valuable data and getting it back is a high priority. It might not be the time to be overly concerned with the cost of a reliable and efficient software solution rather than opting for the least expensive alternative. 

Free solutions often have primitive interfaces that complicate the recovery process. This is especially true for the average computer user who is not well-versed in the intricacies of data recovery. A command-line interface introduces the chance of further mistakes that render the data on the formatted drive unrecoverable. 

Disk Drill’s intuitive user interface enables you to recover lost data with a few simple clicks. It eliminates any additional and unnecessary stress from the already stressful situation of attempting to recover data from a formatted drive. You may only get one chance to do this and you want to use an effective solution, especially if it was important data that inadvertently was formatted.

Alternate Method for Recovering Data From a Formatted Drive

Unfortunately, most of the native operating system methods used to restore individual deleted files cannot be used to recover a formatted drive or partition. You will not be successful trying to undo the formatting with the Mac Command-z or Windows Ctrl-z commands. The data that was previously on a formatted hard drive is not sent to the Recycle Bin or Trash Can, so that option is not available to you either.

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. You certainly should backup your computer before you engage in potentially damaging activities such as formatting a disk or partition. In some cases, having a backup may be the only way you can recover data from the device.

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.

On 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.

What Types of Drives can be Recovered?

With data recovery software or valid backups, you can restore formatted internal disks as well as recover formatted external hard drives. You will have the most success using data recovery software with hard disk drives due to the way they store information. As mentioned in a previous section, there are issues with recovering data from a formatted SSD drive that may result in backups being your only solution.

Disk Drill can also be used to recover data on formatted flash drives, pen drives, and memory cards. The program works with SD, SDHC, CF and other storage cards used in digital cameras and mobile devices. Connect them to your computer and let Disk Drill scan the media to recover your lost data. 

The storage space on a hard drive or SSD can be divided into sections or partitions that can be treated as separate from the rest of the drive. Creating partitions allows you to use different parts of your disk to store data using different file systems. You can even keep an alternate operating system on a single computer by segregating them to different partitions which act as virtual disks. 

Formatting a partition simply means that the formatting process was only performed on a portion of a drive or disk. When you format a partition, only that part of the disk is affected. Formatting the disk formats all the partitions that had been created on that disk. Disk Drill can be used to recover completely formatted disks or individual partitions by selecting them in the tool’s disk list.

Minimizing the Risk of Lost Data

You have seen the word backup many times in this article and, hopefully, you understand the importance of this practice. Backups are your best defense against data loss that can occur for any reason. It’s widely known that many computer users don’t take the time to worry about backups until disaster strikes. At this point it is too late. 

Don’t be one of those users. If you don’t currently back up your computer, start today. And always make sure to take a special backup of your system before formatting a disk or partition. You can’t have too many backups of important data.

Formatting a disk or partition is an activity that is initiated by a human user. We all make mistakes, and it is very easy to type a drive letter into the format command. We suggest you take your time when formatting disks and verify the syntax before executing the procedure. A little extra vigilance combined with a good backup can go a long way toward keeping your data safe.

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.
Approved by
Senior Data Recovery Engineer. Master's degree in Physics, Information Technology for Science Experiments