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How to recover deleted files from a usb stick: a step-by-step guide

Author: Vlad Brown

Data recovery specialist, guest author, journalist.

Updated on 03/14/2019

Sad statistics: files often disappear from a USB flash drive. We'll show you how to quickly and efficiently recover files deleted from a usb stick and what programs will help you to recover data from a compact storage device.

By the way, these methods are applicable not only to usb memory sticks, but also to sd cards of mobile phones and digital cameras.

At the end of the article we'll answer the readers' questions. You're also welcome to ask them. It's preferable to ask questions related to the topic of the article (how to recover photos from a usb stick, are there any chances to recover data from corrupted usb or what to do with a memory stick, etc.)

And before you ask, please read the guide. Here is the content:

First steps after deleting files

If you find out that the data has been removed, put the USB flash drive aside. Try not to panic and make no fuss. Some key points you should learn before getting down to recovering data:

  1. Deleted files are marked as "available for overwriting", but actually they have not been disappeared from the usb flash drive. They can easily be returned with the help of any recovery-program.
  2. During the recovery phase do not use the flash drive as intended and do not copy files into it. This will increase the chances of finding deleted data. Thus the more information will be recorded before the recovery, the less are the chance to find anything.
  3. NEVER install recovery software into the device/ drive where you scan and search for files. Choose another drive/ removable device for the installment.

The main causes for the disappearance of files from a usb stick

Here are the most common causes, from the simplest to the most complex:

  1. Damage because of the virus is one of the most frequent causes. Files are not deleted, they are hidden from the user. Fortunately, it's easy to return the hidden files into the usb stick by checking the device for viruses and removing malware. You can read below how to recover corrupted USB.
  2. By deleting files to the Recycle Bin and emptying it afterwards. Also it's one of the common ways to say goodbye to the files on a usb stick forever. However, with the help of special recovery programs signature data can be found and recovered.
  3. Random, wrong or intentional usb stick formatting. This situation is more complex, and to recover data after such "manipulations" is problematical. In this case proven tools that search for deleted files can help us again.
  4. Mechanical damage. In most cases, the deleting of the files is permanent. Only qualified professionals can help you in this case. Unfortunately it's impossible to recover a usb stick on your own.

Checking a usb stick for viruses that can hide all files

If you haven't deleted any files and you don't know the reason for their disappearance you should check whether they were hidden by malware.

Firstly, disable the system option 'Show hidden files, folders, and drives'. To do this:

  1. In the search box on the Windows taskbar, type 'folder'
  2. Select 'Show hidden files and folders' option from the results.
  3. In settings section 'Advanced settings', select 'Show hidden files, folders, and drives' option. Click 'OK' to confirm.
  4. After some time check if there are new files that have appeared without your permission on the usb stick.
usb rec 01

usb rec 02

Secondly, turn on the displaying of Windows system files. To do this:

  1. Open Windows Explorer (type 'Explorer' in the search bar) and click on the application icon
  2. Select File Explorer Options - View tab
  3. Uncheck 'Hide protected operating system files' option
  4. Click 'Yes' to confirm.
usb rec 03

If the files still have not appeared, you need to check all the sections of the stick for viruses and remove the malware. This can be done with the help of free antiviruses, for example, Dr Web CureIt.

Restoring files deleted from a usb stick with the help of Unformat

What to do if the files are not hidden, but have been actually erased by the user or lost after formatting? Let's try to recover the usb stick data with the help of the software. Unformat will help us. It has a step by step wizard, so follow the instructions.

1. Install and run the application on a PC.

Download Unformat

2. Click on 'Physical devices' tab and select the usb stick from the list. Click the 'Next' button.

usb rec 04

3. Specify the types files you want to recover, the depth of scanning and other parameters that affect the chances of detection.

4. Recover the data deleted from the usb stick and save it to a drive.

memory stick recovery via Unformat app

Have the files been corrupted? Let's try Recuva

Errors may appear while opening the files that have been partially recovered from a usb stick. The degree of damage depends on the extension and the type of the corrupted / damaged items.

So, for the recovered image partial loss of digital information may be significant: you'll only see a fragment of the photo or image, the file will be unsuitable for display or personal use.

Сases with archives (RAR, ZIP) are more hopeful: some archivers allow you to recover the archive content in the case of a partial loss of the information.

As for a corrupted video, the damage of the structure will result in large squares and dead pixels in certain parts of the video after you open it.

There are two options:

1. Activate the 'Always Superscan' option in the Unformat program.

2. Try to recover files from memory stick again by using other programs for recovery after drive / partition formatting, for example, Recuva.

Download the free version of Recuva

usb rec 06

Advise. By enabling the deep scan option in Recuva, you'll increase the chances of recovering deleted from the usb stick files. The scanning may last for several hours (be patient!).

Frequently Asked Questions

The files had been recovered, but I didn't find what I needed on the usb stick. Are there any ways or any programs to deal with this problem?

First of all, I advise you to go through all the steps from the instruction again. It is possible that after deleting the files you have copied other data into your usb stick (or either the operating system did it without your knowledge).

Also, if you have formatted the usb stick, go and read [the article on file recovery after they have been formatted].

I was working with a flash drive and accidentally deleted a file into the Recycle Bin. Then I emptied the Recycle Bin and the file disappeared. What should I do? Are there any chances to recover data from the usb stick?

You can read the manual on how to recover data after emptying the Recycle Bin (as well as on quick formatting / deleting by clicking Shift + Del):

How to recover files deleted from the Windows Recycle Bin

I found my old usb stick (I haven't used it for 2 or 3 years). What are the chances to recover the files after such a long period of time?

It doesn't matter how long ago you have deleted the file, the only important thing is whether anything has been copied onto the flash-memory after deleting. If yes, than the probability of recovering reduces in accordance with the changing of the file table on the usb-drive. So it's likely that all the data or at least some part of it can be recovered.

I found almost everything I was looking for on the usb stick. But the problem is that certain types of data have never been recovered. Moreover, that was the most important data. Have I done something wrong? Program Unformat.

It is likely that you haven't specified all the file types for the usb stick scanning. It is better to mark all the options. The search will take more time, but it will significantly increase the chances of recovery. If normal scan does not help, use the Deep Scan option in Recuva.

After I inserted a usb stick into a usb port a window poped up saying that I needed to format the flash drive, but I needed the data stored on it. How to make sure that the data won't be lost: download the files and restore the usb drive.

Ignore the message about formatting, in any case do not agree. Run any recovery-program (Recuva or Unformat) and then scan the drive using the recovery wizard.

Copied the files from the usb stick into my PC (there were about 3000 photos). When I removed the usb stick, the photos disappeared. Can I recover deleted photos now ?

If you have only moved (not copied) pictures to the hard drive, check them on the computer. If the photos are missing, install Recuva or Unformat, insert the usb stick into the laptop / computer, try to find the files using the recovery wizard.

Didn’t manage to restore files? Send us a question

Describe your issue using our feedback form. Give us details on where the files were deleted from, when and how, and we will try to give you an answer. Besides, your question will clarify and make more complete questions by other users, which is of great help for us in making our recovery guides more helpful.

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