I Deleted a File by Mistake. Can I Get It Back?


I got carried away and mistakenly hit “Yes” when I was prompted about deleting a file — except it was the wrong file! Can I get it back? If so, how?

I think anyone who has used computers for any length of time has been where you are now. I know I have, and more than once.

The answer to your question is “Maybe.” It depends on a lot of things.

Stop — just stop

First — and this is important — stop using the disk that had the file.

To increase the likelihood that the file can be recovered, stop doing things that write to the disk.

Many programs write to the disk as they exit, so leave them running.

Don’t browse the internet, since the browser writes to disk as you browse.

Recycle Bin

First things first: look in the Recycle Bin.

If you deleted the file using Windows File Explorer (or many of the standard Windows controls), the file might not actually be deleted. It may have been moved into the Recycle Bin.

If you find it there, right-click on it and click on Restore. It will be moved back to wherever it was originally. Move it out now, because once the Recycle Bin is emptied, the file is truly deleted, and things get harder.

If your file wasn’t recycled — perhaps because you deleted it in a Command Prompt, some other program deleted it, or you were holding the SHIFT key down when you deleted it in Explorer — this is referred to as a “permanent” delete. However, it might still be recoverable.


Undelete

Deletion does not overwrite the data in your file. All it does is say “OK, this disk space over here, that used to be a file? You can use it for other things now.”

The contents of a file don’t disappear from your hard disk until it’s overwritten by something else. That’s why it’s so important to stop doing things to the disk that contained the file. Any writing to the disk after you’ve “permanently” deleted a file could overwrite its contents.

There are many “undelete” utilities available. A Google search on “undelete files” returns a long list of utilities. I currently recommend Recuva, which will scan your disk and display all the files that can be recovered.

Remember I said don’t write to the disk? Search for and download an undelete utility using a different computer entirely, and use a USB thumb drive or other media to take it to the computer experiencing problems. If you can run it from the USB drive directly, that would be ideal, since installing it writes to the hard disk — which we’re trying hard to avoid.

If you’re lucky and you haven’t written anything to the hard disk since the file was deleted, the undelete utility may be able to recover it for you. If you have been using the disk, then it’s a roll of the dice. It depends on how much has been written to the disk, where on the disk it was written, and where on the disk your now-deleted file used to reside. It might work. It might not.


Big (expensive) guns

There is one last hope, but it’s expensive, time-consuming, and only for the most dire of circumstances.

It is sometimes possible, using advanced data recovery techniques, to recover data even after it’s been overwritten. It requires sending your hard drive to a data recovery service, which uses special equipment and techniques.

And you’d write a fairly large check.

There are many factors involved, and it’s not as simple as seen on TV, but it can be done — sometimes.

Prevention is so much easier

My ultimate recommendation? Regular backups.

I have saved hours by recovering a deleted file from my backups.

There are so many ways a regular backup protects you; accidental deletion is just one of them.

Originally published as I Deleted a File by Mistake. Can I Get It Back? on Ask Leo!