How to Recover Data From an External Hard Drive on Mac

Recover data from external hard drive on Mac

Data loss these days is rare. With local device storage, external hard drives, and cloud backups, our data is usually in more than one place. However, data loss can still happen and it’s important to know how to recover data in the event that we have lost important information.

In this article, we’re going to look at how to recover data from an external hard drive on Mac and other methods that can be used to get data back after it has been deleted.

What if My Mac Can’t Recognize My Hard Drive?

mac external hard drive

The first thing that we need to do is make sure that our Mac can recognize our external hard drive as we can’t start data recovery without our Mac being able to see it. If your external hard drive is showing up already, then you can move down to Recovering Data From an External Hard Drive on Mac.

If you plug your external hard drive into your Mac and nothing happens, don’t worry the drive most likely isn’t broken. There are some steps that we can take to try and get the external hard drive to be recognized.

Do keep in mind though, that external hard drives can fail even though it is not likely. They’re mechanical devices with moving parts which over time, can stop working if they have been subjected to damage or have failing components.

Before we come to that conclusion though, here are some ways to try and get your external hard drive to mount to your Mac.

Is It a Windows Formatted Drive?

If you were using the hard drive on Windows, your Mac won’t be able to read it unless it has been formatted to the macOS file system. If you were using the hard drive on a Windows machine, it would be a good idea to plug it into a Windows computer and see if it is showing up there.

Fix 1: Restart Your Mac

As cliche as it may sound, restarting your Mac can fix a lot of issues on its own. The simple “turn it off and back on again” is a good way to troubleshoot issues and should allow for the hard drive to mount to your Mac.

Step 1. Unplug your external hard drive from your Mac.

Step 2. Restart your Mac.

restarting your mac

Step 3. Once your Mac has booted back up, plug in the external hard drive and see if it is functioning correctly.

Fix 2: Check Your External Hard Drive’s Connection

The issue could also be something as simple as the cable that you’re trying to use to connect the hard drive to your Mac. Cables do fail, if you have a spare around, try using that instead and see if that fixes the issue.

It could also be the port on your Mac. Try plugging the external hard drive into another port and see if the hard drive mounts to your computer.

Lastly, if you’re using an adapter or dongle try plugging the external hard drive right into your computer and see if that fixes the issue. If you need the dongle due to a connector compatibility issue, try using a different dongle or plug it into another computer.

Fix 3: Reset NVRAM

NVRAM in short, stores settings that you have made on your Mac. It won’t change the configuration of your System Preferences, but it stores things such as sound settings, time zone information, and settings related to hard drives.

Resetting your NVRAM could solve the problem of your hard drive not being recognized by your Mac and it only takes a few steps to reset it.

Step 1. Shut down or restart your Mac.

Step 2. Once your Mac starts back up, immediately press and hold Option, Command, P, and R all together at the same time.

Your Mac will then start back up again and you can let go of the keys at this point. Check and see if the external hard drive is now being recognized by your computer.

When I worked at an Apple Store, this would fix common issues for customers and it is a simple way to troubleshoot why your external hard drive may not be mounted to your Mac.

Repair the External Hard Drive Using Disk Utility

Hopefully, the external hard drive is now showing up on your Mac. If it is, it would be best to repair it using the First Aid tool which can be found in Disk Utility, and then we can try and recover the data from it.

Disk Utility has a feature called First Aid which will find and repair disk errors. First Aid can find and repair errors related to the formatting and directory structure of the external hard drive which could increase the chance of external hard drive data recovery on Mac.

Repairing it first will lead to a better chance of having successful data recovery and will improve the health of the hard drive itself.

Step 1. Plug-in your external hard drive.

Step 2. Launch Disk Utility and find the external hard drive.

external hard drive in disk utility

Step 3. Run First Aid on the External Hard Drive.

Now we can move onto data recovery solutions.

How to Recover Files by Checking the Trash

Before troubleshooting the external hard drive for data recovery, you may be able to find some of the lost files in the Trash on your Mac. This would be the easiest way to find lost files and it’s always worth checking and seeing if you can find your files here as it’s really easy to recover them.

When you delete a file on your Mac or your external hard drive, it will go into the Trash. The trash is in place to make sure that you have an extra layer of security when deleting files from various storage devices.

Recovering files from your Trash is super easy and the files will stay there forever unless you have your Trash set to empty on its own. If you want to set your Trash to empty on its own, you can do so by going to your Finder preferences.

In the steps below, we’re going to look at how to recover files from the trash which only takes a couple of steps and is super easy to do.

Step 1. Click the Trash icon on your dock.

selecting trash

Step 2. Once you have opened your Trash, select the files that you would like to recover. After you have selected them, right-click on them and choose Put Back.

put back files

The files will then be put back to the original place that they were before they were deleted. Most of the time, this is the method that you will be able to use to recover files, and trying to access your external hard drive won’t be necessary.

If you have already emptied your Trash or have it set to empty after 30 days, then we can move onto Time Machine as the next method for recovering data from your external hard drive.

How to Recover Files Using Time Machine

Every Mac comes with Apple’s built-in Time Machine tool which allows us to take a look into our external hard drive and recover files and put them right back onto our Mac.

Step 1. Plug-in your external hard drive.

Step 2. Launch Finder and then open Time Machine.

Step 3. Once within Time Machine, we can recover files from an external hard drive on Mac by either using the up and down arrows or use the date slider at the lower right-hand side to scroll through different dates and times.

time machine mac

Step 4. Simply find the date that you think that you last had the data that you’re wanting to recover, and then navigate through the Finder and locate the file. You can then click on Restore and put that file back onto your Mac.

Time Machine is great because it’s easy to understand, takes only a few steps, and has a graphical interface that isn’t cluttered with things that don’t need to be there.

External Hard Drive Data Recovery Software

If you were unable to recover data using Time Machine, don’t worry! There are other options for recovering your data. In this section, we will look at how to recover deleted files from an external hard drive using third-party data recovery software.

Disk Drill allows us to recover data from an external hard drive. If the external hard drive isn’t working or if you accidentally deleted a file off of it, we can scan the drive and try to find the data that was lost. If you’re wondering “How do I recover files from an external hard drive that’s not detected?” sometimes Disk Drill may be able to see the external hard drive, even if Time Machine can’t.

Step 1. Launch Disk Drill.

Step 2. Select your external hard drive as the device to scan.

selecting external hard drive in disk drill

Step 3. Wait for the scan process to complete.

Step 4. Browse through the contents and checkmark the items that you would like to recover. You will then want to click the blue Recover button in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.

recovering data from within disk drill

Step 5. After clicking on Recover, you will then have to choose a recovery destination for the files to be saved to.

That’s it! Disk Drill is great at helping you recover files from an external hard drive if you can’t find them on the drive or if the drive is failing.


Knowing how to recover files from an external hard drive on Mac is an essential skill to know when it comes to the data on your computer. It will save you tons of money as you won’t have to pay a computer technician to recover your data and you don’t have to worry as much about losing your data on your Mac.