Data Recovery

How to Recover Deleted Files From a USB Flash Drive on a Mac (2021)

USB flash drives are widely used in the computing community as a means of adding storage capacity to their computers or sharing files and media with friends and colleagues. Realizing you have accidentally deleted important files from a USB flash drive can be devastating and lead to a lot of unnecessary stress.

In this article we are going to show you how to recover deleted files from a USB flash drive on a Mac. We are going to use two different data recovery software solutions to demonstrate this recovery method. The purpose of using two tools is to highlight the differences between an intuitive solution and one that demands users interact with a command-line interface.

ProTip: The most important step you can take to increase the odds of a successful USB recovery on your Mac is to stop using the device as soon as you suspect data loss has occurred. Continued use risks overwriting the files and folders that can be recovered with data recovery software.

How Data Recovery Software Works

Data recovery software retrieves deleted data by taking advantage of the way modern operating systems perform file deletions. When a file is deleted by macOS, the physical data is not immediately removed from its storage device. Instead, the operating system deletes the logical links to the data that makes it accessible to your applications. The space used by the deleted item is marked as available for use by the operating system.

As long as the data is still physically present on the storage device, it can be recovered by repairing the deleted logical links which make the files accessible again. Eventually, when the space is needed for saving new information by the operating system, the original files will be overwritten. Once this happens, recovery software will not be able to retrieve your lost files.

For this reason, it is very important to follow our advice and stop using the device as soon as you think you may have lost some data. Don’t write any new information to the USB drive until you have completed the recovery. Once your precious data is overwritten, it’s most likely gone for good unless you have backed it up.

Preliminary Recovery Steps

Before proceeding with a USB data recovery on your Mac using software, you should make sure that the files you want are not still available in the macOS Trash. The Trash is a special folder that holds recently deleted files until it’s automatically or manually emptied. If the files you need are in the Trash, a simple one-click procedure will get them back.

empty recycle bin

In addition to the main Trash folder on your Mac’s main disk, each external storage device has an individual Trash folder. While you can access the external Trash folder directly, the easiest way to check the Trash is to connect the USB flash drive to your Mac. Now, when you click on the Trash icon to open the folder, all files in the Trash on any connected device will be displayed.

open trash folder

Perhaps the files are here and you can simply right-click on them and execute the Put Back option to return them to their original location. If your files are not in the Trash, your next step is to try using software to recover data from a flash drive on your Mac.

put back files from trash bin

More information on recovering deleted data on a Mac can be found here and may help you get your lost data back.

Using Data Recovery Software to Recover Files From a USB on a Mac

Now we are going to look at the most effective way to recover deleted files from a USB on a Mac. While we are focusing on two software solutions, many others exist that may fit your recovery needs. Keep in mind our tip to not use the USB device until you have finished recovering your deleted data and do not download and install the data recovery software on it. Use your Mac’s main drive to install the software.

We chose these two products to illustrate the differences between a tool designed to be user-friendly and one that requires an individual to be comfortable entering complex commands to perform the recovery. While both methods can recover your lost data, we think you will find one a far superior solution.

Option #1: Disk Drill

Disk Drill is a comprehensive, commercial data recovery tool that can easily recover a USB drive on your Mac and get your files back safely. It supports the recovery of hundreds of different file types on virtually any type of disk-based storage device.

Use the following steps to recover lost data on a USB flash drive using Disk Drill.

  1. Download and install Disk Drill for Mac on your computer’s main drive.install disk drill for mac
  2. Connect the USB flash drive to your Mac or MacBook.
  3. Launch Disk Drill and select the USB drive from the list of available devices.
  4. Click the Search for lost data button to start scanning the device for recoverable files.Start scan your flash drive with disk drill
  5. Preview the found files and select those you want to recover. In most cases, files will be recovered with descriptive file names to help you identify them.preview found files
  6. Click the Recover button. You will be prompted to select a safe storage location for the recovered data that is not on the affected USB drive.recover files with disk drill
  7. Click OK after choosing the recovery location. Your selected files will be recovered to the designated storage area.choose the recovery location

Disk Drill is loaded with extra features that help users protect themselves from data loss and manage their storage devices. Check out a full review of Disk Drill data recovery software.

Option #2: PhotoRec

PhotoRec is a freeware data recovery product that employs a command-line interface. While the tool is free and supports many operating systems, it has not been updated recently. This means it may not provide all the recovery capabilities of a commercial product.

Use the following procedure to recover deleted files from a USB drive with PhotoRec. Many of the steps make use of a command-line driven menu from which options can be selected by the user.

  1. Download PhotoRec and extract the files to a directory on your main disk.
  2. Open the Terminal app and enter this command to start the program: sudo /[path to testdisk folder]/photorec.launch photorec
  3. Select the disk that will be recovered by entering its name such as /dev/disk1. You need to know the disk name before performing this step.select usb drive in photorec
  4. Select the partition using the command-line menu.select partition in photorec
  5. Enable the parameters you wish to enforce during the recovery process.Enable scan parameters
  6. Select the types of files to recover.Select the types of files to recover
  7. Select the type of filesystem in use.select filesystem type
  8. Choose whether to carve a partition or use unallocated space.Choose whether to carve a partition
  9. Select where recovered files will be written.select recovery path
  10. The recovery process will now proceed and return a summary of its success.recovery process protorec
  11. Files are restored with generic names and will need to be reviewed to find the ones you want to keep. You can then rename them to their original name.found files in finder

As you can see, this recovery method is more complex than that of Disk Drill. It requires information such as the disk name known to the operating system that may not be easily obtained by a user with general computer skills. PhotoRec can get your files back, but it’s not an easy process.

FAQ

PhotoRec offers a freeware data recovery tool that can help you recover deleted files from a USB drive. The steps necessary to do this are in an earlier section of this article.

Multiple reasons might be behind your USB device not showing up on your Mac including:

  • Using a bad USB port. Try another one if it is available or attempt to read the USB drive on another Mac.
  • Your Mac may need to be restarted. Sometimes this is all it takes to fix this type of connectivity issue.
  • The drive may be formatted with a file system that cannot be read by your Mac. Reformatting may help resolve this problem.

You may need to format the USB device to get your Mac to recognize it. Formatting does not physically remove the data from the drive, so after you format it, you can recover the files with data recovery software.

Conclusion

Recovering deleted files from a USB flash drive on your Mac is possible with data recovery software. You need to stop using the device as soon as you notice data loss to preserve whatever information is left on the drive so it can be recovered. We suggest that a software tool with an intuitive recovery process like Disk Drill will give you the best results with the least amount of stress. As long as you have not overwritten the data, recovery software will get it back for you. Good luck with your USB flash drive recovery!

Jeff Cochin has spent a better part of his writing career helping users recover lost data from their personal and work devices. When not describing the best way to avoid a costly data loss, Jeff likes to spend time outside and go on short cycling adventures.
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