It’s one thing to recover recently deleted files that may still be present in the Trash folder, and it’s something else entirely to recover overwritten files whose original versions have been deleted from a Mac some time ago. If you’re currently trying to solve the latter issue, this article is just what you need because it explains three different—but equally effective—ways to restore overwritten files. 

What’s the Difference Between Deleting and Overwriting?

Deleting files

Let’s say that you have five images in your Pictures folder. What you see when you open the Pictures folder are five icons with thumbnails and file names. You can think of these icons as references to certain data stored on your hard drive. When you delete one of these icons, you’re only deleting the reference, while the actual data remains stored on your hard drive until it is eventually overwritten by new data. 

Where Do Overwritten Files Go?

Okay, but what happens when you overwrite an image called Cat.jpg with an image that’s also called Cat.jpg? In that case, the reference to the original file is replaced with the reference to the new file, but the data the original reference pointed to remain on the hard drive until new data is written in its place. 

Modern operating systems like macOS do this because it’s considerably more efficient than replacing the reference and overwriting the data in one go. For starters, the new file could be considerably smaller than the original one, so it wouldn’t even be possible to overwrite it. More importantly, however, it takes less time to change a simple reference than it does to shuffle a large number of ones and zeros. 

Does Overwrite Mean Delete?

Yes and no. If you’re talking about deleting the reference to the original data (the icon and everything it represents), then overwrite does indeed mean delete. But if you’re concerned with the actual data stored on the hard drive, then overwrite doesn’t necessarily mean delete—at least not immediately. 

In many cases, it takes days, weeks, and even months for the original data to be overwritten. Until that happens, the data can still be recovered with the help of special data recovery software, which can be extremely useful if you don’t create backups on a regular basis. 

Top 3 Methods to Recover Accidentally Replaced Files

If you need to recover a replaced file on a Mac, then you have several methods to choose from. We recommend you go through them in the order we present them in this article because that’s how you can achieve the best data recovery results with the least amount of effort. 

Method 1: Local Backups

Local backups are the most convenient method to recover a file that was accidentally saved over because you don’t need any third-party software to get back the original file. 

To retrieve a file replaced with another file with the same name from a local backup, you might be able to just copy it from your backup location using Finder, but most Mac users rely on Time Machine, Apple’s backup software application distributed as part of macOS. 

Time Machine creates incremental backups of files on your hard drive and selected locations, and it lets you go back in time and recover any older version with a few simple clicks. Here’s how: 

Step 1. Open the Folder with the Overwritten File in Finder

Folder with the Overwritten File

Start by opening Finder and navigating to the folder with the overwritten file. You can quickly open Finder from Spotlight (Command + Shift) or by clicking on its icon in the Dock. 

Step 2. Launch Time Machine from the Menu Bar

Enter Time Machine

You can now click the Time Machine icon located in the Menu Bar and choose Enter Time Machine. Almost instantly, Time Machine will display the most recent version of the selected folder in front of all previous versions that have been backed up. 

Step 3. Select and Recover the Original File

Restore the Original File

To undo a replaced file with Time Machine, all you need to do is select an older version of the folder with the overwritten file, highlight the file, and click Restore. 

Method 2: Cloud Backups 

You can, of course, also recover overwritten files on Mac without Time Machine. For example, many cloud backup services keep a history of changes made to files, allowing their users to quickly and easily restore older versions of files. 

One such cloud backup service is Dropbox, and what’s great about it is that you can use it to store up to 2 GB of files for free. To recover an overwritten file from Dropbox, you don’t even need access to the Mac computer the file was stored on. All you need is a web browser and a minute of spare time. 

Step 1. Open Safari and Log In to Dropbox

Log In to Dropbox

Launch Safari or any other web browser and log in to your Dropbox account. You may be asked to provide a second form of authentication, depending on whether you’ve activated two-factor authentication. 

Step 2. Select the File You Want to Recover

Select the File for recovery

You now want to navigate to the folder where the overwritten file is located and open the most recent version of the file. Click the three horizontal dots from the right toolbar and select Version history. 

Step 3. Get Back the Original Version

Restore the Original Version

Click on the version you want to restore. Preview the file to verify that you’ve selected the right version and click Restore. That’s how to recover replaced files on Mac using Dropbox, but other cloud storage services work similarly. 

Method 3: Recovery Software

The previous two methods are highly reliable, but they work only if you had been diligently backing up your files prior to the data loss incident that has prompted you to read this article. If you don’t have a backup from which you can retrieve a file that was overwritten, there’s still one last method you can try: recovery software. 

Recovery software can find files whose references no longer exist because they have been overwritten. That’s because recovery software scans the entire hard drive sector by sector, using advanced algorithms to detect recoverable files in the vast sea of ones and zeros. 

Disk Drill is a great example of recovery software for Mac that you can use to quickly and painlessly recover replaced, and here’s how it works.  

Step 1. Download and Install Disk Drill

Disk Drill Installation

Before you download the free version of Disk Drill, make sure you have a suitable storage device ready because you don’t want to save it to the same location where the overwritten file is located since that could make it impossible to recover. You can then install it just like any other third-party Mac application. 

Step 2. Scan Your Mac

Scan the drive

Launch Disk Drill and click the Recover button next to the storage device where the overwritten file is located. Disk Drill will scan it and present you with a list of recoverable files. 

Step 3. Select and Recover the Original File

Recover an overwritten file

Select the overwritten file and click the Recover button again. Disk Drill will ask you to specify a recovery location. Again, select a different location than the one with the file you’re trying to recover.