How to Recover Deleted Files from a Hard Drive on Mac

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Hard Drive and Macbook

Data loss on Mac hard drives can happen due to multiple reasons: corruption, accidental deletion, formatting, virus attacks, and more. Even disconnecting your drive without properly ejecting it first can result in data loss. For most users, it’s bound to happen at least once.

Fortunately, modern operating systems and commercial software arm users with multiple ways to address this issue – and in many cases, fully restore their lost data. This article covers 5 of the best methods to restore your deleted files from a Mac hard drive. Read on.

Method 1: Restore Deleted Files on Mac from Trash

Whenever you delete a file, it gets moved to the Trash folder. Depending on your settings, it will then be automatically deleted after 30 days or remain until you delete it again from the Trash folder.

You can open the Trash folder (~/.Trash) by clicking its icon on your dock. If for some reason it’s not there, you can also find it in your Home folder – it’s a hidden item, so you’ll need to hit (CMD + Shift + >) to display it.

To Recover Deleted Files from Trash:

Step 1. Click on the Trash icon in the Dock.hard drive recovery software for mac

Step 2. Select the files you want to recover.

Step 3. Right-click on them and select “Put Back” to recover them from Trash.best hard drive recovery software for mac

While you’re at it, you can empty the Trash folder to free up storage space on your hard drive. Just make sure that you’ve restored all important files because emptying the Trash folder makes data recovery more difficult.

If you deleted files on an external hard drive, you’re probably panicking since you won’t find them in the system’s Trash folder. Fortunately, Mac also creates a Trash folder on external hard drives, located on the drive itself. It’s just hidden, so you’ll need to use the (Shift + CMD + >) key combo to reveal it. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step 1.Connect your external hard drive to your Mac.

Step 2.Open Finder and navigate to your external drive. Then, press (Shift + CMD + >) to display hidden items, including the deleted data.
Finder external drive folder showing hidden items

Step 3.Open the .Trashes folder, then open the Trash folder.
Finder external drive hidden trash folder

Step 4.Right click the files you want to restore, and click “Put Back.”
Right-click menu on a file in the external drive trash folder

Unless you set the Trash folder to automatically delete items in 30 days, Finder keeps storing them while you have enough space

Method 2: Use Data Recovery Software

When files get deleted (even from the Trash folder), that data is not completely erased from the drive. It still lives inside the file system, marked to be overwritten by new data. Data recovery software is able to extract and rebuild that data, allowing users to recover the files intact.

For this article, we’ll be using Disk Drill – not only does it have excellent ratings as a data utility, it’s also super easy to use so we often recommend it to our readers (who are usually a mish-mash of computer geeks and non-tech-savvy users). Here’s how to use it:

Step 1. If you’re recovering data on an external hard drive, plug it into your Mac.

Step 2. Download Disk Drill for Mac from the official website.

Step 3. Install Disk Drill.
If possible, install it on a different hard drive than the from which you want to recover deleted files. If you want to recover deleted files from external hard drive on Mac, you should install Disk Drill on your internal hard drive, and the other way around.
mac hard drive recovery software

Step 4. Launch Disk Drill and click the Recover button next to the hard drive from which you want to recover deleted files. Wait for Disk Drill to finish scanning the selected hard drive and present you with a list of files available for recovery.mac hard drive recovery software 2021

Step 5. Select which files you want to recover and select the location where you want them to be stored.recover deleted files from external hard drive on MacAgain, the location shouldn’t be on the same hard drive where the deleted files are located.

Step 6. Click the Recover button again to begin the data recovery process.

The above steps are ideal for recovering data from an external hard drive. They will still “work” for an internal drive, it’s not the ideal method. Here’s why. Whenever a file gets deleted, it still exists in the file system, but it’s marked to be overwritten by new data. So, even just downloading and installing Disk Drill onto that drive may overwrite the existing data you want to recover.

This behavior makes it a bit harder to recover internal hard drives. Since we usually install and launch our operating system using the internal drive, new data gets downloaded to it all the time (even in the background). So, we’ve prepared some alternative solutions that work around this behavior and give you a better chance to recover all your data intact.

Option A: Run Disk Drill via Recovery Mode

Running Disk Drill via recovery mode means you can scan and recover data without booting into the operating system. This is a great option if you’re recovering your system drive and only have access to one Mac machine. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Launch Recovery Mode. If you’re using an Intel-based Mac, press (CMD + R) as your MacBook powers up. If you’re using an Apple Silicon Mac, hold the power button until you see “Loading startup options”, then click “Options”, then “Continue.”Once you’re in the recovery tools window, click Utilities > Terminal. Then, type the following command press return:
    sh <(curl http://www.cleverfiles.com/bootmode/boot.xml)

    Terminal window downloading Disk Drill in Recovery Mode

  2. This command will launch Disk Drill as if you were running it as a program on your computer like normal. Select your system drive, then click “Search for lost data” to proceed with recovery.
    Disk Drill drive selection window
  3. Wait for Disk Drill to complete its scan, then click “Review found items.”
    Disk Drill scanning process
  4. You can hover your mouse beside each file to access the preview button.
    Disk Drill preview demo
  5. Select the files you want to recover, then click “Recover.”
    Disk Drill file selection screen
  6. Set your external storage device as the destination for your recovered data, then click “OK.”
    Disk Drill destination selection dialogue box

Option B: Install Disk Drill Portable on an External Storage Drive

Installing Disk Drill on an external storage device is a better option if you have access to another Mac. Just like Option A, you can avoid overwriting any data since you’re not downloading and installing Disk Drill on that drive. You’ll also be able to carry around your “portable” data recovery software with you.

  1. Plug in your external storage device to a working Mac.
  2. Download and begin installing Disk Drill.
  3. Once you are prompted to drag Disk Drill into the Applications folder, open Finder and drag the Disk Drill icon onto a folder in your external storage device instead. This will install a fully-functioning Disk Drill program on that device.
    Drag Disk Drill icon from installer window to external drive
  4. Plug in your new Disk Drill USB drive to the Mac you want to recover data from.
  5. Open System Preferences >  Security & Privacy. Click on the Privacy Tab, and select “Full Disk Access” on the left sidebar. Make sure Disk Drill is included (or add it).
    Drag Disk Drill icons to full disk access menu
  6. Launch Disk Drill by opening double-clicking its icon in the folder where you installed it on your external drive.
    Disk Drill icon in external drive folder
  7. At this point, you can follow the same steps that we wrote in the last section. Disk Drill will behave exactly the same as if you installed it on your system drive (minus the overwriting part). Again, make sure to save your recovered data to a DIFFERENT drive than the one you just scanned. If your “Disk Drill USB drive” has enough space, you can save your data there.

Method 3: Recover Deleted Files on a Mac with Time Machine

Time Machine is a powerful built-in backup and restore utility for Mac. Unfortunately, Time Machine only makes backups for internal drives by default – to have created a Time Machine backup for an external drive, you would have had to physically connect it and change configurations in the app. This is unlikely to be the case during sudden data loss, so we’ll just walk you through the steps of recovering data on an internal hard drive.

Time Machine allows you to make file-based backups (called snapshots), as well as create a backup disk of your entire drive.

To recover files from Mac hard drive via snapshots:

Step 1. Open Time Machine preferences from the Time Machine menu in the menu bar.how to restore deleted files from external hard drive on Mac

Step 2. Navigate to a time before you deleted the file using the arrow icons on the right.

Step 3. Click on the Finder window and select the files you want to recover.

Step 4. If you want to, you can press the spacebar on your keyboard to preview a selected file.

Step 5. Click the Restore button to recover the selected files.

If you were able to set up Time Machine to create a backup disk of your entire system using an external drive (see System Preferences > Time Machine), you can use Migration Assistant to recover it. Here’s how:

Step 1.Plug in your Time Machine backup disk.

Step 2.Launch Migration Assistant by opening Finder > Applications > Utilities > Migration Assistant.
Migration Assistant icon in Finder Applications folder

Step 3.On the window that appears, click “Continue.”
Migration Assistant initial window

Step 4.Select “From a Mac, Time Machine backup or Startup disk”, then click “Continue” on the bottom-right corner of the window.

Step 5.Choose your Time Machine backup, then click “Continue.”

Step 6.Select the backup you want to restore, then click “Continue.”

Step 7.Tick the checkbox to the left of the information you want to restore, then click “Continue.” Depending on how much data is to be transferred, the process could take up to a few hours.

Method 4: Use Professional Data Recovery Services

If everything we’ve tried so far has failed, it’s possible that your drive has been physically damaged. In such cases, software is not going to help you. Professional Data Recovery services stemmed from the demand for high grade data recovery for individuals, businesses, and organizations. They have the right equipment, the right experts, and a sterilized lab to safely take apart drives.

If this is the first time you’ll be using a professional data recovery service, here’s what to do:

  1. Research about data recovery services near you. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:
    • A reliable recovery company will not give you a “per GB” price for their services. Data recovery is too complicated for that type of pricing.
    • The service should have a certified cleanroom in which it performs its recoveries. Lack of a cleanroom is probably enough reason to look elsewhere.
    • You should not be charged if the recovery is unsuccessful. For example, the CleverFiles Data Recovery Center (the same company who created Disk Drill) has a “No Data No Charge” guarantee.
    • Look for a service with a high recovery rate. This is a case where user reviews may be very helpful in finding a reputable recovery service.
  2. Have an initial consultation. Contact the recovery service of your choice and describe the problem, as well as the data you hope to recover. Depending on the service, they might give you a free estimate right then and there.
  3. If they don’t offer free estimates, then you’ll get it after shipping it to the center for a technical evaluation. Once it arrives, the recovery team will identify the problem, determine the success rate of recovery, and provide an estimate.
  4. Some data recovery centers require you to sign a waiver before they proceed (covering matters such as the guarantee to pay, whether or not the customer is authorized to proceed with a company-owned drive, etc.). Then, the wait begins.
  5. After the procedure, the data recovery center will send your drive back to you with a receipt.

Can You Recover Data From a Corrupted or Damaged Hard Drive?

Yes, you can still recover data from a corrupted or damaged hard drive – but you have to act immediately. The more you use that drive, you may corrupt it further or cause more data loss. The process is also quite different between external and internal drives, as internal drives usually store the operating system.

Due to this, we’ll be covering corrupted drive recovery for internal and external drives separately.

Recover from a Corrupted External Drive

The first step is to create a disk image of your data, so that we can recover hard drive data on your Mac without interacting with the actual drive.

  1. Download and install Disk Drill.
  2. Connect your external drive to your MacBook.
  3. Launch Disk Drill by opening Finder > Applications > Disk Drill.
  4. On the left sidebar, select Byte-to-byte backup. Then, select your external drive from the list, then click “Create a backup.”
    Disk Drill select drive for byte-to-byte backup
  5. On the dialogue box that appears, come up with a file name and select a save location for your backup. Make sure to choose a folder on your MacBook, NOT your external drive – otherwise, you risk overwriting data and/or corrupting the drive further. Then, click Save and wait for the backup to complete.
    Disk Drill byte-to-byte backup save destination window
  6. Now that your data is saved to a disk image, you can use Disk Drill to scan and restore it. First, locate your backup file and double-click it in order to mount it as a disk.
    Right-click menu on a byte-to-byte backup file
  7. Open Disk Utility by opening Finder > Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility and check if the size of the backup file is correct.
    Disk Utility backup file size
  8. Now you can launch Disk Drill (Finder > Applications > Disk Drill) and scan your backup disk as if it were a regular drive.
    Disk Drill select backup image for scanning

Recover from a Corrupted Internal Drive

Recovering a corrupt internal hard drive is a bit tougher. In some cases, you won’t be able to boot into macOS, which means you won’t have access to the user interface. We found three proven ways to work around it:

Option A: Scan the Drive Using Disk Drill in Recovery Mode

If your system drive won’t boot, you can still recover your data as long as you can access Recovery Mode. We provide a step-by-step guide on how to do it in this article. Jump to the section How to Run Disk Drill via Recovery Mode.

Option B: Connect Your Mac to Another Mac Using Target Disk Mode (Sharing Mode)

If you have access to a working Mac, you can connect your Mac and recover your data using Sharing Mode (for Apple Silicon Macs) or Target DIsk Mode (for Intel-based Macs). Here’s how to do it:

  1. Connect your corrupt Mac to a working Mac using USB, USB-C, or Thunderbolt cables. You may need a FireWire adaptor.
  2. For Intel-based Macs, power off your computer then start it up while holding T. For Apple Silicon Macs, press and hold the power button until you see “Loading startup options” on-screen. Click “Options”, then click “Continue.” Click Utilities > Share Disk, select your system drive, then click “Start Sharing.”
  3. On an Intel-based Mac, you can start dragging files to and from the disk folder using Finder. If you’re using an Apple Silicon-based Mac, open Finder and continue with the next steps.
  4. On the Finder sidebar, click “Network.”
  5. In the window that appears, double-click your corrupted Mac.
  6. Click “Connect As”, click “Guest”, then click “Connect.”
  7. You can proceed with transferring the files via Finder.

Option C:Turn Your Internal Drive into an External Drive

If the first two methods fail, the last option is to purchase an enclosure – this will allow you to turn your internal drive into an external drive. You can then connect it to another Mac, which might be able to read it on Finder. Otherwise, you can use a data recovery tool like Disk Drill to scan it as an external hard drive.

This option is only available for MacBooks that have removable hard disk drives, which were released before 2015.