Data Recovery

How to Recover Deleted Files on Mac: 5 Essential Methods for 2021

As a hardworking student or professional using a Mac to get some work done, accidentally deleting your files can feel like a death sentence. Thankfully, there are several ways you can recover deleted files on a Mac. The technology for recovering files has gone so far that you can practically do this by yourself.

In this article, we’ll teach you how to undelete files on a Mac and even recover permanently deleted ones.

Is It Possible to Recover Deleted Files on a Mac?

Absolutely! It is possible to recover deleted files on macOS. The process and likelihood of the recovery will depend on how you deleted them, but there’s a big chance they’re still somewhere in your HDD or SSD. Granted, it can be tricky to recover files from an SSD because of a process known as TRIM.

In a nutshell, TRIM periodically cleans deleted files from your SSD and marks that piece of storage as cleanly as possible, to make it optimal for writing in new files. This makes the data writing process much quicker and extends the life of your SSD at the cost of virtually replacing your old data into a cleaner canvas. This makes the probability of data recovery in SSDs after permanent deletion low, but never zero.

Aside from TRIM, your files aren’t permanently deleted after pressing the Delete button. They can either be stored in your Trash, saved as a backup with Time Machine, or simply in your storage, ready to be overwritten.

Deleted files aren’t literally deleted from your hard drive. They’re usually just removed from your folders and then marked with a tag that says, “Please overwrite me whenever you want.”

Until your deleted files have been overwritten by more recent files, there’s a possibility that it’s still there on your hard drive just waiting to be recovered.

The Different Ways to Delete Files and What They Mean

Before we begin with the steps, let’s first clear two misconceptions that we’ll be tackling in this article.

Delete vs Permanently Delete

There are two ways to delete files on a Mac. You can either use the Delete button to send them to your Trash or delete them permanently through a Mac keyboard shortcut. The keyboard shortcut for permanently deleting your files is through Option + Command + Delete.

While the Delete button will just send your files to the Trash, clearing your Trash will permanently delete those files.

Are Permanently Deleted Files Gone Forever?

No. Permanently deleting your files through the shortcut simply means skipping the Trash and permanently deleting your access to those files. Despite that, these files are still on your hard drive, just with the “overwrite me” tag we talked about earlier. You can still recover permanently deleted files on a Mac if they have not been overwritten yet.

5 Proven Ways to Restore Deleted Files on Mac

There are five proven ways to recover or restore deleted files on a Mac.

Method #1: Undo Command

First off, let’s see if we can undo what you just deleted. A simple undo command could revert the files you just deleted and then put them back to their respective folders.

Here are two ways to do the undo command:

  • Press Command + Z on your keyboard.
  • Click on Edit at the Apple Menu bar and select Undo.

Method #2: Check the Trash

  1. There are two main ways to open your Trash:
    Look for the Trash icon in the Dock. By default, this will be all the way to the right.
    Press Command + Shift + G to open the Go To Folder finder and then type in “~/.Trash”.

You can also use the Terminal and type in “open .trash”, but the methods above will do more than enough to get past this first step.go to trash folder macos

  1. Once the Trash application is open, look for the files you want to recover. You can sort the files in the Trash by date, type, and name, so just adjust these and browse through until you find what you’re looking for.Trash folder macos file recovery
  2. If you found the files you want to recover, simply right-click the file and then select Put Back. That’ll move your file back to its original location, before you deleted it.put back option for files recovery macos

Method #3: Data Recovery Software

If your files weren’t in the Trash, then they were most likely permanently deleted. As we mentioned before, permanently deleted files are still on your hard drive, but you just can’t access them through normal means. For this step, we’ll have to use data recovery software to bring those files back to your system.

Data recovery programs are built to scan through your entire storage and index which files were permanently deleted but are still in your hard drive. As long as your files weren’t overwritten yet, you should be able to recover them in this step.

We’ve dedicated a full article to the top 10 best data recovery tools for Mac before. Today, we’re going to be using what we think is the best one for Macs: Disk Drill.

  1. Go ahead and download Disk Drill onto your Mac. Just click on Free Download to get started.
    disk drill mac data recovery software
  2. Double-click on Disk Drill once it’s downloaded to install the program. The entire installation process can take a couple of seconds up to several minutes, depending on the speed of your device. To complete the download process, a convenient interface will appear on your screen asking you to move Disk Drill into the Applications folder.
    install disk drill
  3. Now that it’s completely installed, simply launch Disk Drill and select the storage device you want to scan. Disk Drill works on the built-in hard drive or SSD of your Mac and even on external storage devices like hard drives and USBs. Simply select the drive you want to scan.
    select macos drive to scan disk drill
  4. You can choose between several types of recovery methods at the right-hand side of your screen. We recommend going with the All recovery methods option.recovery methods macos
  5. Once that’s settled, click on Search for lost data at the bottom-right corner of your screen. This entire process can take from several minutes to maybe half an hour, depending on the size of your storage device and the speed of your computer.search for lost data option macos disk drill
  6. When the scan is finished, you can review the found files on a separate window. Here, you’ll see a preview of everything that Disk Drill found in your storage, listed as Pictures, Video, Audio, Documents, and Archives. Click on Review found items at the bottom-right corner of your screen to view the recovered files.review found items file recovery macos
  7. You should be redirected to a new window with all the recovered files that Disk Drill found on your storage device. Sort the files to help you look for your folder, or search for it on the search bar at the top-right corner of your window.files recovery sorting macos
  8. Finally, select the files you want to recover and simply click on Recover at the bottom-right corner of your screen.

Disk Drill will ask you for the destination folder. This is where your restored file will be sent to once it’s recovered.

Method #4: Time Machine

Another way to recover deleted files is to restore them from a backup. Your Mac has a built-in software for this called Time Machine. This app essentially stores data of all your files, regardless if they were permanently deleted or overwritten from your storage device.

A copied version of those files is saved in the program. You’ll just need to know how to access those in order to restore your deleted files.

Disclaimer: If you never used Time Machine before or have manually backed up a folder, you may not find a backup of the file you’re trying to restore. Time Machine only restores files that were actively backed up by you.

  1. There are two ways to use Time Machine, but we’ll go through the convenient method first. Start by opening the folder of where you deleted the file.
  2. Once you’re there, click on the Time Machine icon on your Menu bar and select Enter Time Machine. If you can’t find the icon there, try checking System Preferences. Activating Time Machine will allow you to see your folders the way they used to be arranged and filled in the past. You’ll see all your files the way they were arranged on a specific day.
  3. Your screen should show the Time Machine interface. You can navigate through the interface using the arrows beside the folders or by browsing through the timeline at the right-hand side of your screen. You can even use the search field to look for your files.
  4. When you finally find the file you want to recover, simply click on it and select the Restore button below the folder interface. You might be asked for your Mac or admin password, so just type that in if prompted.

Voila! That’s the easiest way to use Time Machine to recover your deleted files from a previous backup. If you couldn’t find the Time Machine icon on your Menu bar, then here’s your fix.

  1. Open the Spotlight by pressing Command + Space and type in “Time Machine.” Run the application from there to get started. You can also open Time Machine by opening System Preferences and running it from there.
  2. With that done, look for and check the box for Show Time Machine in menu bar.

That should fix your issue about the Time Machine icon not showing up on your menu bar.

Method #5: Professional Data Recovery Service

If none of the fixes above helped you at all, it’s time to find a professional to help you recover your files. A professional data recovery service might be able to help you recover your files, especially if they’re using a premium service or data recovery tool. Some professional services won’t even charge you if they can’t recover your files, so there’s no harm in trying.

A Few Words About AutoSaves & Mac Terminal

Finally, here are a few words about some common misconceptions that get spread around when it comes to recovering deleted files on a Mac.

AutoSave is a feature that automatically saves your work for you, so you don’t have to lose progress if you accidentally close your program or have your Mac crash. By having AutoSave enabled, your files will continually save versions of itself instead of waiting for you to manually save it. While this is all good, it’s completely different from backing up your files. AutoSave does not work like backups and will not function automatically with Time Machine.

Another key difference with AutoSave is that it is a program dependent feature, meaning it’s built into the program you’re using and isn’t supplied by Apple.

It’s very important to always make a backup with Time Machine, especially on frequently used and important folders that you work with. A simple habit of creating a backup at the end of every day can save your skin when you accidentally delete your work.

Last but not the least, there’s a common step that’s often recommended for recovering files that involves the Mac Terminal. The Mac Terminal is just another interface to access the Trash in your Mac, nothing more. Using the Terminal doesn’t open a deeper level of Trash that you can check. You can do the same thing on the Terminal just like you would through the Trash application.

FAQ

Deleted items normally go to the Trash on a Mac. If you permanently delete your files through the Option + Command + Del shortcut, then it’ll immediately mark the files as ready for overwriting. These files are harder to recover, but they’re still physically stored in your storage device, just inaccessible through normal means. Permanently deleted files are ready to be overwritten with new data, but until they’re overwritten, they can still be recovered with data recovery programs like Disk Drill.
Yes, it is possible to recover deleted files on a Mac without using Time Machine. Although it isn’t a guarantee, there’s a huge chance that your deleted files are still in your hard drive just waiting to be overwritten. Data recovery programs like Disk Drill scan your entire hard drive for deleted files, and then give you the option to recover them.
You can recover deleted files on a Mac without software by using the Undo command. However, this only works for files that weren’t permanently deleted. That being said, you can also use Time Machine and the Trash to recover files without having to install a third-party application.
Yes! It is possible to recover deleted files using the Mac Terminal. However, you can get the same results if you just open the Trash application instead. Opening the Trash is much easier and there’s no need for you to learn the Terminal commands.

Conclusion

Deleting your files by accident can leave you with a heart attack. Thankfully, Apple has made it much easier for you to recover lost files on your Mac. With these five simple steps, you can restore your files through the Trash, a data recovery program, and even with a backup from Time Machine!

Mako Young is a writer for all things tech. He's been writing about Macs for years and has been using Macs for more than a decade. When he isn't reading about the latest news on Apple, he's busy studying cybersecurity, cryptocurrency, cloud computing, and other IT-related sectors.
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