How to Recover Deleted Files on Your Mac

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Almost everyone has accidentally deleted a file. Whether it’s family photos or important documents, all files are just data on your hard drive, and that data doesn’t exactly disappear after it’s deleted. There are many ways to recover them after being sent to the trash.

Today we’re going to show you a few ways to recover those files, because even when items are deleted, they don’t always completely disappear. And hopefully if one of the methods doesn’t work, one of the others will.

Keep regular backups to prevent deletion in the first place


macOS’s Time Machine has a great built-in way to automatically manage backups. If you have an old external hard drive lying around (or spare money for a new one), plug it in, then go to System Preferences > Time Machine > Select Backup Disk. You can select your external hard drive and enable automatic backups.

Time Machine securely backs up your computer’s data to your external hard drive, and you can go back in time through older versions of your files.

If you don’t trust your old hard drive (or want an additional offsite backup), you can always use something like Arqwhich lets you back up to the cloud using your own AWS S3 instance, Google Drive, or Dropbox.

Check the trash

Hitting “Delete” does not actually delete the files. It sends them to the Trash, which you have to empty manually to get rid of them permanently.

The trash can is usually located at the end of your dock. Right-click on it and click on the “Open” command. It should give you a list of files you’ve deleted recently, at least since the last time you emptied it. And if you haven’t emptied it in a while, it might save you some disk space.

Check other trash cans

If your file was stored on a USB flash drive or external hard drive, these have their own recycle bin, you can check for deleted files. They’re hidden by default, though, so you have to dig a little deeper.

Whenever you use an external drive, your Mac creates a set of hidden folders starting with a dot to help the drive work better with macOS. One of these hidden folders is “.Trashes” and it contains the trash of this drive.

Enable Hidden Files in Sierra or Later

If you’re using macOS Sierra or later, you can show hidden files in Finder by just using SHIFT+CMD+. keyboard shortcut (this is the period key).

If you are using an older version of OS X

You can enable hidden files in Finder by running the following commands in Terminal. Press Command + Space and type “Terminal” to bring it up. At the prompt, paste these two lines one at a time, pressing Enter after each line:

defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles TRUE

killall Finder

After running these commands, you should be able to see the “.Trashes” folder. You can even empty it from Finder to free up space on a USB flash drive.

If you want to stop showing hidden files (they are hidden for a reason, and there are a lot of them), you can run the same commands again in Terminal, but replace “TRUE” with “FALSE” on the first line :

defaults write com.apple.finder AppleShowAllFiles FALSE

killall Finder

That should clean things up for you.

If all else fails, use Disk Drill

Even when you empty your Trash, deleted files are not immediately removed from your hard drive. Instead, macOS marks them as free space. Your data is still there until it is overwritten by something else. This means that if you have an application that can read the files directly from your hard drive, you can fully recover them if you do it quickly enough after deletion.

A tool that does this very well is disc drill. It scans your hard drive for any files still waiting to be overwritten and retrieves them for you, bringing your documents back from the computer grave.

Note that any extra data you put on your hard drive can overwrite files, so if you’re very careful, download Disk Drill to another computer and put it on a flash drive. The last thing you want is for the download to overwrite the data you want to recover.

When you first open it, Disk Drill will ask you to select your disk and perform a scan. Select OS X if you want to scan your primary disk. The scan may take a few minutes, but once complete you will be presented with a list of recently deleted files. Many of them are junk, but if you know what you’re looking for (pictures, for example), you can sort them and open whatever folders you want. Most files should be in your home directory with your name on it.

Once you find the files, right-click on them, choose “Recover” option, and then select the directory where you want to save the recovered files. Ideally, you should use an external drive to prevent other files from being overwritten. For this demo, I just used my hard drive, and it worked fine.


If all goes well, you should see your recovered files appear in the directory you chose. I deleted a screenshot on my desktop, emptied the recycle bin, then I was able to recover it with Disk Drill, 100% intact.

Your chances of recovery will decrease for older files because your computer has had more time to overwrite them. So it’s better to act quickly after discovering that you accidentally deleted a file.

Note that you will need to purchase the full version of Disk Drill to recover files. The free version only scans the files and shows you that they exist. That’s not so bad, because at least you can verify that your files are there before you buy the app.

The exception to this is if Disk Drill is already installed, you can use their “Recovery Chest” to track deleted files and save a copy when you delete them. This ensures that whenever you accidentally delete something, you can always recover it, and it’s a completely free feature. It does use some extra disk space though, so it’s not for everyone.


Disk Drill isn’t the only data recovery tool available. PhotoRec is a free application that can recover photos and other files, although it is a bit more complicated to use. There are other business options, such as Data Rescue and EaseUS, but they all share the same price as Disk Drill. Overall, many of these tools will have low success rates, and Disk Drill is good for being able to see which files are intact before you buy.

Picture credits: Shutterstock



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