Disaster! Your hard disk has crashed and you forgot to back up your important files! Or maybe you’ve accidentally emptied the Recycle Bin, permanently deleting files you desperately need. Here’s the first thing you should do: stop panicking. IT professionals recover deleted files every single day. They do so by following these best practices for every file recovery job. If you want to maximize your chances for recovering most or all of your deleted files, you should follow them too.
Still with us? Good. We’ll get to how to recover deleted files, even after you empty them from your Recycle Bin. But for the skimmers, we have some more do nots to emphasize before we get to the how-tos.



1.  Stop Using the Disk Immediately

This is critical! If the disk has been formatted or the file has been deleted, writing to the disk drastically reduces your chances of recovery. Even reading from the disk may overwrite portions of the deleted file. If the disk has been damaged, the risk is even higher. Reading from a damaged or corrupted disk can cause further damage or render certain sectors completely unreadable. Do not use the disk until your files have been recovered.
If possible, unmount/eject the drive.

2. Recover Data from Another Computer

Starting up, rebooting, and shutting down a computer results in a significant amount of read/write activity. So, if the deleted or lost file is on your system disk, then you are increasing the risk of permanent file loss simply by turning your computer on or off.
If you are comfortable with cracking open your computer, go ahead and pull out the hard drive and put it in a USB or FireWire hard drive enclosure. Enclosures cost about $10 and let you connect an internal hard drive to another machine as if it were a regular external hard drive.
This is probably overkill for small file recovery jobs. But if an entire hard disk is corrupt or failing, this will help you recover the most files possible.
Don’t want to physically remove the hard disk? Check out the next tip.

3. Create an Image of the Disk

This is a best practice for heavily damaged disks, unbootable disks, and reformatted disks. Even if you do physically remove a disk, creating an image of a disk is a good idea. Using a tool like R-Drive Image, you can create a file that is an exact, sector-by-sector duplicate of the drive. This is called a disk image. Write the disk image directly to another drive (a USB drive or a memory card). Remember: do not write files to the drive you are recovering from—even if it’s for file recovery purposes.

The beauty of R-Drive Image is that it comes with a bootable version which can be launched from a CD. This allows you to access your system disk without booting it.
Once you have the disk image saved to a USB drive or SD card, perform your file recovery on the disk image rather than the drive itself.
This is standard damage control practice for data recovery professionals. It allows you to read/write from the image without risking further data loss on the original drive.

4. Run a Raw File Search

A good file recovery utility will be able to automatically detect the file types and folder structure on deleted or damaged drives (provided that the damage is not too severe). But the performance of even the best data recovery software can be improved if you can specify what you are looking for. A “raw file search” lets you scan for certain file signatures in order to find specific types of files. For example, if you know that you are looking for JPEG files deleted from your digital camera’s memory card, you can run a raw file search that scans for the file signature that’s common to all JPEG’s created by Nikon cameras.
Running a raw file search or search for known file types can help you recover files that get passed over during a basic file recovery scan. A good file recovery utility will have a few digital signatures already programmed in. But you can also create custom known file types. Read this tutorial for details on advanced raw file searches.

5. Backup Often

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Scheduling regular backups—whether to another hard drive or the cloud—will save you from the anxiety of an emergency data recovery job.


As with any catastrophe, keeping a cool head and taking the appropriate actions after a hard disk crash or accident file deletion can help you avoid making the situation worse. Follow these tips (especially number 5!) to prevent losing your files forever.

Back to the main page