USB flash drives, also known as pen drives and thumb drives, are great for exchanging photos with friends, transferring documents between computers, and backing up small files. 

Perhaps because they are so versatile yet so fragile, many Mac users want to know how to perform flash drive data recovery. In this article, we describe several tried and tested solutions that you can use to recover data from any flash drive on Mac in no time.   

Is There a Difference Between Deleting Files and Formatting? 

Deleting files vs formatting

When you delete a file from a USB flash drive, other files remain unaffected. When you format a USB flash drive, all data stored on it becomes deleted. What’s more, deleted files are typically moved to Trash before they are permanently deleted, making their recovery straightforward. 

Many people don’t realize that it’s impossible to format a device and change its file system without wiping it clean. When they finally realize their mistake, all data is gone and nowhere to be found. The good news is that it’s possible to recover files from a flash drive that has been formatted on Mac, and we describe how later in this article. 

To avoid having to format your USB flash drive in the future, when you already have lots of files on it, choose the right file system based on your file size and portability requirements. 

Common Flash Drive File Systems

File system Maximum file size Description 
NTFS16 EBThe default file system of Microsoft Windows. Not officially supported by Apple. 
HFS+ 8 EBA journaling file system developed by Apple for macOS. Not officially supported by Microsoft. 
APFS8 EBA modern alternative to HFS+, with improved support for encryption and focus on flash-based storage devices. Not officially supported by Microsoft.
FAT2 GBOne of the simplest file systems supported by macOS and Windows. Not used much anymore because of its limited maximum file size. 
FAT324 GBAs its name suggests, FAT32 is an improved version of FAT, doubling the maximum file size limit. FAT32 is supported by both macOS and Windows.  
exFAT16 EBDesigned to work on macOS and Windows systems, exFAT is an excellent choice for larger flash drives because it supports files up to 16 EB (exabytes = 16 million terabytes).

Common Reasons Why Files Disappear from Flash Drives 

Before we explain how to recover files from USB drives on Mac, let’s go over some of the most common reasons why files disappear from flash drives: 

  • Accidental deletion or formatting: All it takes to delete important files from a flash drive is one wrong click. If you notice your mistake immediately, you should be able to retrieve your files from Trash, but files that are no longer in Trash can be recovered only with the help of Mac USB drive data recovery software.
  • Moving between different operating systems: Whenever you move a flash drive between different operating systems, you risk file system corruption because not all systems store data exactly the same. Usually, file system corruption can be fixed by running First Aid on the storage device, but it can also lead to data loss if left unrepaired. 
  • Improper ejection: It’s important that you always properly eject your flash drive before removing it from your Mac to avoid interrupting a write operation running in the background.
  • Software failure: Software developers are capable of writing amazing software applications, but even they sometimes make mistakes, and some of their mistakes can cause files to disappear from flash drives.
  • Hardware damage: If you use a USB drive with a damaged connector, you shouldn’t be surprised when you lose important files. To protect your files, keep your USB drive away from dust and water and, if possible, avoid carrying it loosely in your pocket with keys and spare change.

Regardless of why you need to recover deleted files on a flash drive, you’ll be able to get the job done using the methods described in the next section. 

How to Recover Files from a Flash Drive on Mac 

Now that we’ve explained the most common reasons why files disappear from flash drives, it’s time for us to describe two solutions for their recovery. 

Solution 1: Check the Trash Folder 

Trash Icon

Recently deleted files can often be found in the Trash folder. If that’s the case in your situation, you’re in luck because flash drive recovery on Mac from the Trash folder is a very simple process. 

To recover files from USB drive on Mac using Trash:

  1. Open Trash by clicking on its icon, located on the right side or bottom of the Dock. Open the Trash Folder
  2. Go through Trash and look for the files you want to undelete. Select them by either pressing and holding the command key and then clicking the files or by holding the left mouse click and dragging the cursor around them.  Recover files from trash
  3. Click on any of the selected files, hold the click, and drag your mouse to another folder or your desktop. 

Solution 2: Use Mac USB Drive Data Recovery Software 

USB data recovery softwarePermanently deleted files that can’t be restored from Trash can still, in most cases, be retrieved using special USB data recovery software for Mac. Such software analyzes the entire USB flash drive and looks for any recoverable data. Depending on which software solution you choose, you can expect it to recover as much as several hundred different file formats. 

Supported File Formats 

Video File Formats Audio File Formats Image File Formats Document File Formats
3G2 / 3GPP2 / 3GP / 3GPP, AVI, FLV, M4V, MKV, MOV, MP4, OGM, WEBM, WMV, and others.  AAC, AIF, AIFC, AIFF, FLAC, M4A, MID / MIDI, MP3, OGG, OGA, RA, WAV, WMA, and others AI, BMP, CR2, DNG, ICO, JPG, NEF, NRW, PCX, PNG, PS, PSD, SVG, TIFF, and others.  DOC / DOCX, EPUB, FB2, HTML, LYX, MOBI, PAGES, NUMERS, PPT / PPTX, RTF, XLS / XLSX, XLM, and others. 

Leading USB recovery software for Mac lets you preview many file formats before recovery, helping you decide which files you want to get back and which you can safely leave behind. 

Popular USB Data Recovery Software Solutions 

  • Disk Drill: This easy-to-use is designed to recover files from USB on Mac with just a few clicks while delivering professional results. It supports over 400 file formats as well as all major storage devices, including USB flash drives from Samsung, SanDisk, Kingston, and all other manufacturers. Included with Disk Drill are useful backup and data protection utilities that greatly increase the value of this USB data recovery software. The free version of Disk Drill can preview all recoverable files, and you can upgrade to Disk Drill PRO for just $89.00. 
  • TestDisk: Available for just about every operating system and compatible with all external and internal storage devices, TestDisk is a leading open-source data recovery software. Besides recovering deleted files, it can help restore lost partitions and/or make non-booting disks bootable again. Its only major downside is the fact that it doesn’t have a graphical user interface, making it less suitable for casual users who don’t feel comfortable using Terminal. 
  • Data Rescue 5: Designed to meet the needs of regular home users and professionals alike, Data Rescue 5 is a capable software application that can recover files from flash drives on Mac and Windows. In addition to its data recovery capabilities, Data Rescue 5 offers a useful drive cloning feature that you can use to duplicate a potentially failing USB flash drive onto a healthy drive. 

How to Recover Files from USB with Disk Drill for Mac

Disk Drill Icon

If you’ve never recovered deleted files before, it’s completely natural to feel intimidated by the process, afraid of causing more harm than good. In this section, we want to show that data recovery of a USB drive on Mac is something anyone can do—no expert knowledge or skills required! All you need is a capable free USB recovery software application for Mac. 

To recover files from a USB stick with Disk Drill for Mac

  1. Download, install, and launch Disk Drill. 
  2. Click the Recover button next to the USB stick you want to recover.Recover button for USB Stick
  3. Wait until Disk Drill finishes analyzing it. 
  4. Look inside the recovery folders and locate the deleted files using the preview feature.Preview files before recovery
  5. Specify where you want Disk Drill to recover the deleted files and click Choose.
  6. Select each file you want to recover and click the Recover button.Recover Selected Files

Files that cannot be recoveredWhy Can’t Some Files Be Recovered? 

Unfortunately, data recovery is an unpredictable process, and you may not always be able to recover all lost files. 

Generally speaking, files can be recovered until they are overwritten by new files. That can happen nearly instantly or after several months and even years—it all depends on the size of your USB drive and how much you use it. For example, if you accidentally format a 2 GB flash drive and write 2 GB of new files to it, it’s almost guaranteed that none of the original files will be recoverable. 

Physical damage may also jeopardize the recovery of deleted files and even render the entire flash drive useless. Unfortunately, there’s not much regular home users can do to repair a physically damaged USB flash drive because any such repair requires specialized equipment and plenty of experience. 

Another thing that complicates file recovery on some Macs is the lack of USB ports. For example, the latest MacBook Air offers just two Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports and an audio jack—no full-size USB port available. Fortunately, all you need to recover files from a USB flash drive on a Mac that doesn’t have a full-size USB port is a suitable dongle.

How to Prevent Data Loss from USB Drive?

Prevent Data Loss from USB Drive

Preventing data loss from a USB drive doesn’t require any special skills or expensive software. You just need to treat your USB drive responsibly and keep in mind the following five tips: 

  1. Use your USB drive responsibly: If you keep important files on your USB drive, you need to use it responsibly, which means properly ejecting it before you physically remove it from your computer and taking care not to interrupt any active read/write operations before they finish.
  2. Keep your USB drive away from dust and moisture: Physical damage can wreck a USB drive in an instant, and it’s often impossible to repair it. To prevent it, keep your USB drive away from dust and moisture and always use the included cap to protect the USB connector.
  3. Back up your files from time to time: Just because most people use USB sticks as cheap and handy backup devices doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t back up your files from time to time. It’s always much better to lose a day’s or a week’s worth of work than everything.
  4. Defend your computer against malware: Malicious hackers love USB sticks because they make it easy for them to spread their malware from one computer to another. To prevent your USB stick from becoming a host for a virus or some other digital parasite, use a reliable anti-malware solution.
  5. Don’t rely too much on a single USB drive: Considering how affordable USB drives are, there’s no reason to rely on a single and risk losing gigabytes of data at once. Instead, buy multiple USB drives and use each for a different purpose. That way, even if one of them stops working, the data loss won’t be terrible.

With these five tips, you can prevent data loss from a USB drive and avoid the loss of time and valuable data associated with it. But even if you do lose important files, remember that you can always recover them using USB recovery software.