How to Recover Disappeared Desktop Files on Mac: All the Methods

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desktop files disaapeared on mac

Many Mac users feel their souls leave their bodies the first time they find that their files and folders disappeared from their Mac desktop. Fortunately, this is a common problem and there are multiple ways to restore those files.

In this article, we cover all possible methods including advanced search, undeleting, and even data recovery software… We condensed everything into easy-to-understand mini-guides so you don’t get lost along the way. Read on.

Where Did the Desktop Files Go?

The location of your desktop files depends on what caused them to disappear in the first place. These are the most probable locations of your missing files and folders:

👀💭 iCloud Drive
The #1 reason for desktop files not showing on Mac is a problem related to how iCloud lets you choose which files and folders get uploaded to the Drive, and how that data gets relocated depending on your remaining available storage. If you have enough storage, they’ll usually stay on your desktop or some other local location on your device. Otherwise, you will probably find them somewhere in your iCloud Drive.

Often, Mac desktop files disappear after updates, as it’s just one in a sea of dialogue boxes that let you customize your new installation. If you upgraded your OS recently, or you remember making changes to iCloud, this might be your problem.

📁 “Relocated” Folders
Whenever you upgrade your OS, it relocates your files into their proper folders on the new installation. However, some files fall through the cracks. These are housed in “Relocated” and “Previously Relocated” folders on your Mac.

💻 Anywhere On Your Mac
Sometimes, files and folders simply get misplaced. The methods listed below include advanced search instructions that should find them, no matter where they are on your Mac.

How to Recover Files that Disappeared from Desktop

For this article, we’ve listed 6 different methods on how to recover desktop files on Mac. We start with the most specific and most common problem and solution, then we go down the list to more general data recovery methods – basically, we have you covered. With that out of the way, let’s start.

Method #1 Look for Your Desktop Files on iCloud

By far, this is the most common reason for Mac users finding everything disappeared from their desktop. Apple has been experimenting with iCloud to optimize their growing installation files and limited storage upgrade options. To restore desktop from iCloud, follow these steps:

Check Your local iCloud Folder

Step 1:First, double-check your iCloud folder for your files. On the Apple menu bar, click Finder > Preferences…, and check the box beside “iCloud Drive.”
Mac finder preferences window

Step 2:Open Finder > iCloud Drive, then check if your files missing from desktop are there. You can copy-paste them to a local destination or to an external drive if you want to be extra cautious. Proceed to the next section.
local iCloud folder

Restore Your Files From the iCloud Website

Step 1:Open your browser, go to iCloud.com, and log into your account.

Step 2:Open Finder > iCloud Drive, then check if your files missing from desktop are there. You can copy-paste them to a local destination or to an external drive if you want to be extra cautious. If you can’t find them, move on to step 3.
iCloud Drive folder on the iCloud website with a pointer towards the desktop folder

Step 3:Return to your iCloud homepage (iCloud.com).

Step 4:On the top right corner of your screen, click your account name, then click “Account Settings.”
iCloud website showing a user logged into his main iCloud page, with a pointer towards account settings

Step 5:Scroll down the page and click “Restore Files” on the bottom left corner under “Advanced.”
iCloud account setting page with a pointer towards the recover files link

Step 6:On the popup that appears, use the checkboxes to select which files you want to restore. You can also use the “Select All” option on the lower left corner of the file list. Use the sorting button on the top right corner of the file list to narrow down your search if needed. Once you’re satisfied with your selection, click “Restore.”
iCloud web page popup that lets you select which files to recover, with pointers towards the sorting option, checkboxes, and the restore button

Step 7:Wait for the confirmation then click “Done.” You can then check your desktop files and folders if you were able to successfully restore your Mac desktop.
iCloud web restored file confirmation

Method #2 Check the Trash Folder

After confirming that iCloud isn’t the problem, we start considering human error. The first place to look is the Trash Folder, as you may have accidentally deleted your files.

Step 1:Open Trash Bin by clicking the Trash icon on your dock (usually the right-most app) or by opening Finder > Press (CMD + Shift + G). In the empty field, type “Trash.”
Finder go function opening the trash folder

Step 2:To restore desktop files on a Mac from the Trash folder, right-click the item and click “Put Back.”
Mac Trash folder with a pointer towards the put back command for a file

Method #3 Try to Find the Missing Files on Your Mac

Sometimes, our files might not actually be missing or corrupted – they might have just been misplaced. There are 3 ways you can look for your files:

Relocated Items

Whenever you upgrade your macOS, some files might not be moved to their new locations – this is where you’ll find them.

Step 1:Go to Finder > Press (CMD + Shift + G). In the field that appears, type /Users/Shared/ and press enter.
Finder go command, with the /users/shared/ path in the text field

Step 2:Look for the “Relocated Items” and “Previously Located Items” folders and browse through their contents to find your files. Apple even leaves a useful guide in some of the folders, as highlighted in the screenshot below.
finder shared folder with a preview of Apple's relocated items text guide

Spotlight Search

If you remember the names of your missing files, you can try searching for them using Spotlight Search (CMD + Space).

Finder Advanced Search

If you don’t exactly remember the file name but you know the file type (or any other details), you can try using Finder’s advanced search.

Step 1:Open Finder > Press (CMD + F)

Step 2:On the first dropdown bar, choose the parameters to base the search on. On the second dropdown bar, define those parameters. For example, in the first bar you could select “Kind”, then on the second bar, select “Music.”It will open a third bar, where you can narrow down your search even further. You can also click the + button at the far right side of the advanced search bar to add as many details as you can remember.
Mac Finder window with an outline highlighting the advanced search bar

Method #4 Toggle Mac’s Stacks Feature

If your files weren’t misplaced, they instead could be hidden – inside “stacks”, a file organization feature by Mac. To check if this is the case, follow these steps:

Step 1:First, make sure you’re on your desktop. On the menu bar at the top of the screen, click “View.” If you’re not using the stacks feature, you should see no checkmark beside the “Use Stacks” option. Move on to Method #5.
Mac Finder View function with a pointer towards the unchecked use stacks option

Step 2:If there is a checkmark beside the “Use Stacks” option, then you have the feature activated. You can either uncheck it, or check your desktop stacks to see if you can find your files.
a stack of documents on the desktop

Method #5 Restore Previous File Versions Using Time Machine

Time Machine is a useful backup and restore utility that can copy entire volumes and take local “snapshots” of your device’s usage timeline. In other words, it can access the state of your laptop at an earlier point in time.

Step 1:Open the System Preferences app by clicking its icon on your dock or using Spotlight Search (CMD + Space > Type “System Preferences”), then click Time Machine.
System preferences window with a pointer towards the time machine app

Step 2:At the bottom of the window, check the box beside “Show Time Machine in menu bar.”
time machine preferences window with a pointer towards the option to show time machine in the apple menu bar

Step 3:On the Mac menu bar at the top of your screen, click the Time Machine icon and click “Enter Time Machine.”
Apple menu bar showing the time machine options with a pointer towards the enter time machine button

Step 4:Use the arrows on the right of the screen to browse through snapshots and see if you can locate your files.
time machine snapshots window with pointers towards the snapshot browsing arrows and the restore button

Method #6 Use Data Recovery Software

If you still can’t find your data, they might have been accidentally deleted. Data recovery tools make it super easy to recover deleted files and folders, even if they’ve been removed from the Trash folder. We’re specifically using Disk Drill for this article because it’s one of the few premium tools that offer a lifetime license instead of monthly or annual subscriptions. It’s a great option for civilian users at home.

Step 1:Download and install the Disk Drill Mac app from Cleverfiles’ official website.

Step 2:Select the drive where your desktop files and folders are located (on a default Mac system, it’s on the same disk as your OS installation). Then, click “Search for lost files.”
Disk drill window with a pointer towards the OS drive

Step 3:Allow Disk Drill to finish the scanning process or go ahead and browse the files it already found by clicking one of the file type categories. To view all the data Disk Drill found, click “Review found items.”
disk drill window showing file categories with a pointer towards the review found items button

Step 4:While browsing your data, you can easily preview any file by hovering your mouse beside the file name and clicking the eye icon that appears.
disk drill found file with an outline highlighting the preview eye button

Step 5:Sort through results by using the file type folders in the sidebar and the search bar at the top right corner of the window. Check the box to the left of the files you want to recover, then click “Recover.”
disk drill file browsing window with an outline highlighting the file categories sidebar and a pointer towards the search bar

Step 6:You’ll be greeted by a popup where you can choose where your files will be recovered. Disk Drill will usually give you a warning if you’re attempting to recover your files to the same drive, so plug in a USB stick just in case.
disk drill popup where you can choose your recovery destination folder with a pointer towards the the ok button

Disk Drill Basic for Mac does not offer free recovery, but it does offer unlimited free file preview. This is an important feature for making sure that it’s safe to do a DIY recovery on a drive.

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