There are many ways to lose a file. You might accidentally delete it. Your hard drive could crash. Your backup service could have an error and lose your files. The Boogeyman might eat it.

The good news is, there’s always the possibility of getting these files back. You just have to do exactly the right thing at the right time and have luck on your side!

What Happens When Files Get Deleted?

See, when you delete a file, it doesn’t disappear. It’s still sitting on the drive. You’re just allowing the computer to overwrite the data at that particular location. So if you catch your mistake soon, you have a chance.

What you don’t want to do:

  • DO NOT shut down the computer.
  • DO NOT continue to use the computer for normal tasks.*

*This includes searching the web for file recovery software.

Following those rules means there’s much less of a chance of the file being overwritten.

An Ounce of Prevention…

I’m sure you know the saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

If you had your files backed up on an external hard drive and an online backup service, it wouldn’t matter if you deleted a file off your hard drive. You could just replace it with one of the backup copies.

But even the most careful people make mistakes now and again, and the point of this article is to actually dig down and recover the deleted file itself.

File Recovery Software

The first step is to use file recovery software. There are quite a few programs out there that will find and recover deleted files, and many of them are free. Here are the popular ones:

Handy Recovery

The most popular choice for serious recovery is Handy Recovery. It’s the only paid software on this list, but at $39, it’s easily worth the price if it saves an important file.

It can recover files damaged by virus attacks, power failures, software errors, and files from deleted and formatted partitions (even if the files were already removed from the Recycle Bin.)

In use, it’s basically like Windows Explorer but with one key difference – the fact that it shows current files as well as any deleted files!

But if you want to have good software on hand and don’t want to pay for it, you’re in luck. These next ones are all freeware.


Recuva comes from the makers of CCleaner, so you know it’s good. And it’s free! You can download one of two versions: a normal one to install, and one that’s portable (i.e. it will run off a USB flash drive.)

The interface is easy-to-use and lets you search for files or browse to the exact location if you remember where the file was stored. For each file it finds, it shows a red, yellow, or green dot beside it, indicating the likelihood of recovery.


Restoration is another piece of free software which scans your hard drive for sectors containing files marked for deletion. When it finds any, it copies those files to available disk space on your hard drive. This differs from Recuva in that it restores all the deleted files it finds.

Restorian works with FAT and NTFS formatted drives as well as digital camera memory cards, great if you accidentally deleted a photo from your camera.

You can run this without installing it, so I like to carry it on a flash drive – then you’re always ready with that flash drive at a moment’s notice if you need to recover a file. It’s especially handy if you are known as “the computer guy” and you’re helping a friend who deleted something.


UndeletePlus can quickly scan a computer or storage medium (flash drives, cameras, etc.) for deleted files and restore them on command.

What sets it apart is the very user-friendly interface, which makes this the best choice for anyone afraid to attempt recovering a file. You might have better success with Restorian or Recuva, though.

MiniTool Power Data Recovery

Power Data Recovery is a very powerful tool that comes in a free version allowing up to 1GB of file recovery. It has tons of features, but it’s still easy to use like Recuva.

This is definitely one to try.

Data Recovery Services

If your hard drive is in serious trouble and you don’t want to attempt fixing it yourself (sometimes by hands-on disassembly,) move on to the experts at dedicated data recovery companies.

For example, is the hard drive making weird noises like clicking and grinding? If so, there’s a good chance that’s from physical damage that’s hard to fix at home. This is common if you dropped a laptop or external hard drive or knocked one off a desk onto a hard floor.

These services require you to send them your hard drive for analysis and recovery. A Google search turned up a few places offering this service for about $199 (with no fee if no data is recovered.) Expect to pay at least that much. I’ve seen quotes of over $1000 before.

Didn’t backup your files in time? It might seem like the end of the world, but you can get through it by doing one of two things: 1) cry about it or 2) recover the lost files.

If you want to cry about it, talk to your psychiatrist. If you want to recover your deleted files, read on…


How to Recover Deleted Files

Aside from hiring a data recovery specialist to the tune of $1000 or more, the next best thing is a piece of file recovery software designed to recover lost or deleted files after an accident. One such program is called Handy Recovery.

To summarize Handy Recovery into one paragraph, it is easy-to-use data recovery software designed to restore files accidentally deleted from hard disks and floppy drives. It can recover files damaged by virus attacks, power failures, software faults, and files from deleted and formatted partitions – even if the files were already removed from the Recycle Bin!

The cool thing with Handy Recovery is that is acts just like Windows Explorer, except that it shows all the files on your disk, even the deleted ones.

If that sounds like what you need, you can download a 30-day trial or just purchase the software for a mere $39.

Or do you need a completely free program? If so, try the file recovery software called Recuva. You get it for free, but it is in beta, meaning there’s a small chance of finding a minor bug.

There is also a program called Restorian, which allows you to undelete files that were removed from the recycle bin or directly deleted from within Windows. It runs without being installed, so that’s cool.


Dealing With Real Damage

If you dropped your laptop or external hard drive or fried your computer so you can’t access it, a piece of software isn’t going to cut it. This is when you need to call in the professionals and say good-bye to your hard-earned money!

Physical damage is not my area of expertise, but I know it’s expensive and lacks guarantees, so I make sure my laptops and external drives are always backed up with an online backup service which supports file versioning (rather than deletes the old file versions,) giving me the option to restore a changed or deleted file.


Tips For Before Your Recovery Attempts

  • If your hard drive makes weird noises, call in the professionals (see “Dealing With Real Damage.”)
  • Stop using the computer as soon as you delete something. (This makes it less likely that the file will be overwritten.)
  • Do not shut down the computer!
  • Have a flash drive on hand that contains file recovery software.
  • When you have deleted a file, run recovery software off of said flash drive.


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