Deleting an important file by accident sets the stage for a panic attack, unlike any you’ve encountered before. It could be a work-related file you need to deliver within minutes or perhaps even a book you’ve spent weeks or months trying to finish – all of a sudden, empty space is all that remains.
If all this sounds like something you’ve experienced before or want to avoid encountering at all costs, this step-by-step guide on how to recover lost files on Windows is for you.
Step 1: Check Whether the File Has Disappeared Due to Misplacing It
Believe it or not, when such a scenario happens, it could be due to something as simple as misplacing the file rather than deleting it. So before you let your heart start pounding, do a simple search in File Explorer. If you can’t remember the exact filename, try searching for its contents (yes, File Explorer allows for it).
Step 2: See Inside the Recycle Bin
If you were unable to find the file by searching for it, try looking inside the Recycle Bin. In case you’ve already placed a ton of rubbish in there, it may be harder to find, but don’t fret! That’s what the search bar in the upper right corner is for.
Alternatively, you can also sort the contents by name, date, size, or other preferred ways. If you’ve had this happen to you, check whether you’re using automated cleanup programs that may in certain cases place files in the Recycle Bin without you knowing (see if you can disable this).
Step 3: Check If You Have a Copy Inside Your Backups
If there’s anything you can learn from the experience, it’s this: always make backups of your files regularly. This way, you’ll have a way to restore them should the need arise (and if it does, you can copy and paste the file right back to its original destination). In case you don’t have any backups on hand, keep on reading.
Step 4: Fire Up File Recovery Software
You should only undertake this step if everything else has failed. However, please bear in mind that, depending on the situation’s unique circumstances, this won’t be possible every single time. For instance, if you’re using a traditional magnetic hard drive, you’re most likely in the clear (but do make sure to start the file retrieval process as fast as possible to avoid overwriting the data by accident).
On the other hand, if you’re using a solid-state drive, this option won’t be available to you due to how they work (they’re built for speed, so they immediately erase leftover data).
Important: if you’ve determined that file recovery is the way to go in your case, shut down the PC immediately! On another PC, download and burn a live CD image with file recovery software on it. This will maximize the chances of a successful retrieval (the less time you spend using the affected computer in the meantime, the better).
If you want to make the process a bit more convenient (but introduce some risk into the equation), you can install a file recovery app straight on the affected PC. With a little bit of bad luck, however, you could render the file unrecoverable.
Step 5: Seek Out Professional Data Recovery Services
Even if every step you’ve taken toward data recovery has failed you up to this point, there is one last thing you can try: professional data recovery services. But don’t forget that the other rules we’ve laid out still apply, so if you haven’t already, make sure to turn off the affected computer as soon as possible. Once this is done, either take out the hard drive yourself or bring the entire device with you.
However, relying on these kinds of services is the ultimate last resort, as they can cost you upward of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Be advised you’ll be charged for their work even if they’re ultimately unable to help you.
There is also the privacy aspect of this – by handing over the contents of your hard drive, you let another person access whatever it is you’re storing. So in the future, you may consider learning about what is my IP, how to protect identity online, and how to encrypt files.
Being unable to find the file you’re looking for can indeed be a scary situation to face. But if you take the time to learn the appropriate manner in which to respond, you’ll be able to get it back in no time.