HDD Mac Data Recovery
Last updated: December 12, 2023
External Hard Drive Data Recovery on a Mac

How to Recover Data From External Hard Drive on macOS

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This article is a straightforward guide for recovering data from an external hard drive on a Mac. In the sections below, we’ll teach you how to diagnose your drive and evaluate your chances of recovery based on your scenario.

Then, we’ll show you 3 methods to recover your data from your external hard drive – which we successfully tested with deleted data on formatted, infected, and corrupted devices of our own. Read on!

Can Data Be Recovered From an External Hard Drive?

In most cases, external hard drive recovery on Mac is possible. However, while trying to recreate data loss scenarios, we found that the cause of data loss greatly affects the chances of successful recovery.

To help you determine your odds, we compiled every data loss scenario that users commonly experience on external hard drives into a table along with each scenario’s probability of recovery.

If you have a Time Machine backup (that works), you’ll be able to restore your data regardless of the issues below. We prepared step-by-step instructions for you in this section.
Reasons for Data Loss Chances of Recovery
Accidental deletion Very High. Deleted file data is still stored in the hard drive’s file system, marked to be overwritten by new file data. If it hasn’t been overwritten, the data is still recoverable.
Formatting High. Similar to deleted files, formatted data remains on the drive until it’s overwritten. Perform the recovery ASAP to prevent permanent data loss.
Logical errors (file system corruption) Moderate to High. File system corruption can prevent your Mac from communicating with the drive. In less severe cases, tools like data recovery software can bypass these errors to read or recognize the drive.
Mechanical failure Low to Moderate. Head crashes, motor failure, platter damage, etc. are physical drive malfunctions. This scenario requires professional assistance.
Software malfunction High (if no physical damage). Partition table corruption, OS errors, software or firmware bugs, incompatible file systems, etc. are logical issues that simply make your drive inaccessible. Tools like data recovery software can bypass the errors to access your files.
Virus or malware attack Moderate to High. It depends on the extent and scope of the attack. Some viruses simply render your data inaccessible or delete your data without overwriting. Others may overwrite files with infected data, which results in permanent data loss.
Direct physical damage (e.g. water, drops) Low. Water, extreme temperatures, breakage, etc. may cause unpredictable behavior on your hard drive and is unsafe to recover yourself. You’ll need the assistance of professional data recovery services.
Overwriting files Very Low. Data recovery tools rely on the file data that remains on the drive to perform recovery. If the data has been overwritten by new files (e.g. you downloaded a PDF from the internet), you won’t be able to recover it anymore.
Power surges/failure Moderate. If the power surge or failure resulted in logical damage (software malfunction, corruption, etc.), you have a good chance of recovering your data. But if it caused physical or mechanical damage, your chances are lower.
Age and wear of the drive Low to Moderate. Physical wear on an external hard drive can be unpredictable due to its numerous moving parts as well as environmental factors. The older/more worn it is, the lower your chances of recovery.

3 Proven Ways to Recover Files From External Hard Drive on a Mac

As we previously mentioned, successfully recovering your data depends on correctly diagnosing the cause of your external hard drive’s data loss and using the most appropriate solution.

Due to the numerous factors you need to consider, we understand it can be hard to keep track. To help you get to the right solution quicker and increase your chances of recovery, we matched each scenario with the most suitable recovery method in the table below.

Recovery Method Best Suited For Scenarios Ease of use Success Rate
Time Machine Backup Accidental deletion, system crashes, file corruption Easy for regular users Very High if a backup is recent and intact
Data Recovery Software Deletion, formatting, partition loss, corruption Moderate (user-friendly interfaces) High, varies by software and condition of data
Professional Data Recovery Service Mechanical failure, severe corruption, physical damage No user effort is required (but time-consuming) Moderate to High, depends on damage severity

Method 1: Time Machine

Prevention is the best cure. Time Machine is a native app for macOS that allows you to make hourly, daily, and weekly backups of your data that you can easily restore.

If you’ve never set up Time Machine before and need another recovery method, click here to jump to Method 2.

What you’ll need:

  • A MacBook with Time Machine
  • An external storage device such as a USB drive, a Thunderbolt Drive, or an External Hard Drive you’ll be using to store your backup

How to backup your files:

  1. Connect an external storage device to your Mac. This will serve as your Time Machine backup drive. If you want to backup an external storage device, connect that to your Mac as well.
  2. Click the Apple button > System Settings. Then, click General > Time Machine.
    Time Machine settings in the System Settings menu
  3. Click Add Backup Disk…
    Time Machine Add Backup Disk button
  4. Select the drive you connected in step 1 and click Set Up Disk…
    Time Machine disk selection and setup menu
  5. In the dialogue box that appears, you can choose to encrypt your drive or not. Once you’re done with the setup, click Done.
    Time Machine backup disk setup dialogue
In the main Time Machine settings menu (seen in step 3), you can click the Options… button to choose which drives or data to exclude. If you see your external hard drive there, click it and click the minus sign to ensure it gets backed up.

How to restore your files:

  1. Connect your Time Machine backup drive to your Mac. Then, on the Apple menu bar, click the Time Machine button > Browse Time Machine backups.
    Time Machine browse button
  2. Navigate your external drive. Then, use the arrows on the right to browse past instances of its directory until you find the snapshots of your files and folders. Select them and click Restore.
    Snapshots of files in Time Machine

Method 2: Data Recovery Software

If you failed to create a backup and you accidentally deleted a file, it’s still most likely fully intact in your system, waiting to be overwritten by new data. But once that file is overwritten, it’s pretty much lost.

This is why it’s important to never write new files to a drive that you want to restore. In this case, data recovery software can go in and restore that file.

In cases where your drive suffered logical damage and your drive has been corrupted, data recovery software can repair the damaged partition table or file system to recover your files.

💡 Disk Drill is a data recovery software by Cleverfiles, a software team that has been dominating the space since its inception in 2009. Since then, they’ve served over 500,000 customers in over 150 countries. Disk Drill recovers deleted or lost files not only from external hard drives but also from other external media, such as SD cards or USB flash drives.
🙂 Read more about macOS version of Disk Drill in our full review.

Now, the only time that software can’t help you is when your storage device suffers physical damage. If this is the case for you, go ahead and skip to the next step.

What you’ll need:

  • Disk Drill for Mac (see below for installation instructions)
  • The affected external hard drive


Installing Disk Drill

  1. Download Disk Drill from the Cleverfiles website.
    Disk Drill app's download button on the Cleverfiles website
  2. Double-click the installer to begin setup.
    Disk Drill app installer in the Downloads folder
  3. When prompted, drag the Disk Drill icon to the icon of your Applications folder inside the setup menu.
    Disk Drill app installation dialogue box

Restoring Files on Disk Drill

  1. Open Disk Drill (Finder > Applications).
    Disk Drill app icon in the Applications folder in Finder
  2. When prompted by macOS, click Open.
    macOS warning against third-party apps
  3. Select your drive from the list and click Search for lost data.
    Disk Drill drive selection menu
  4. Wait for Disk Drill to finish scanning your external hard drive. Then, click Review found items.
    Disk Drill scan completion screen
  5. Locate your missing files in the Deleted or lost and Reconstructed sections. These categories represent different techniques used by Disk Drill to recover your data so check them both. You can use filters and the search tool if you’re looking for specific files.
    Disk Drill recovery folders, search tool, and file categories
  6. You can preview files by hovering your mouse pointer beside them and clicking the eye button that appears (the preview opens in a new window). Then, mark the boxes beside the files and folders you want to restore and click Recover.
    Disk Drill file selection column and recovery button
  7. Choose a destination on your Mac where Disk Drill will save the recovered files. Then, click Next to start the recovery process.
    Disk Drill recovery destination menu

Method 3: Professional Data Recovery Service

If all else fails and you’re desperate to recover your files, you’ll have to take your drive to a professional data recovery service. This is most likely your step #1 if your external drive suffered any physical damage that can’t be repaired by software alone.

Here’s how professional data recovery services typically go:


  1. Search for the nearest data recovery service near you. Make sure to check reviews and look at the company’s client record.
  2. You will have a free (most of the time) evaluation with the company where you should explain any damage you think your drive endured.
  3. The company’s recovery engineers will determine the failure of the hard drive and suggest the fastest and most cost-effective recovery method, as well as a quote.
  4. You’ll send your drive-through shipping or take it to the service company in person.
Some services also offer remote recovery. This is a great option if the above methods didn’t work for you and you can’t travel.

Bonus Solution: Disk Utility

Just like Time Machine, Disk Utility is a native app on macOS. You can use it to restore your entire volume to another volume – such as an external hard drive, for example.

Disk Utility creates a full copy of the restored volume to the destination volume, which means that your external hard drive will be totally erased. Please keep this in mind.

What you’ll need:

  • A MacBook with Disk Utility
  • A drive to save your restored volume


  1. Open Finder and click the Applications folder on the left sidebar and scroll down until you find the Utilities folder.applications folder with a pointer to utility folder
  2. Open the Utilities folder and locate Disk Utility.utilities folder with a pointer to the disk utility app
  3. Select the drive where you will restore a volume to one the left sidebar, then click the “Restore” button in the menu bar.disk utility window with a pointer towards restore button
  4. Select which volume you want to restore from the dropdown menu and click “Restore.”disk utility restore window and destination folder selection
Please remember that whichever drive you choose as the destination volume will be completely erased to accommodate a full copy of the volume you want to restore. Make sure you backup your data beforehand. Refer to method 1.


Even if your Mac can’t find your external hard drive, premium data recovery software like Disk Drill can actually detect it and engage with it.

To recover files from an external hard drive that won’t boot, do the following:

  1. Open Disk Drill by using Spotlight Search (CMD + Space) or by going to Finder > Applications > Disk Drill.
  2. Select the external hard drive that you want to recover. You should see it greyed out, but you can still click on it.
  3. Check the right sidebar to make sure that “All Recovery Methods” is selected.
  4. Click “Search for lost data.”
  5. Once Disk Drill completes the scan, you can look through recoverable files by file type.
  6. If you want to recover all of your files, click “the Recover All” button at the bottom of the window. If you only want to recover specific files, mark the checkboxes beside those files and click the “Recover” button at the bottom of the window.
  7. On the window that pops up, select the location where you want to restore your newly recovered files.

Before attempting to repair your drive, recover and back up your data first. Please refer to FAQ #1.

Option 1: Use Disk Utility’s First Aid Feature

  1. Open Disk Utility by using Spotlight Search (CMD + Space) or by going to Finder > Applications (left sidebar) > Utilities Folder > Disk Utility app
  2. Select the drive you want to attempt repair on.
  3. Click “First Aid” at the top right corner of the Disk Utility window.disk utility window with a pointer towards first aid button
  4. Click “Run” on the confirmation window that pops up.confirmation pop-up for disk utility first aid function

Option 2: Use the terminal

  1. Open Finder by clicking its icon on your Dock or typing it in Spotlight Search (CMD + Space).
  2. Open the Applications folder.
  3. Locate the Utilities folder and open it.
  4. Locate the Terminal app and open it.utilities folder with a pointer towards the terminal app
  5. Type this command and hit Return:
    diskutil repairVolume /Volumes/[Drive Name]

    For example:

    diskutil repairVolume /Volumes/Seagate BUP Slim BK

Option 3: Format your external hard drive using Disk Utility

Sometimes, a disk format is all you can do to repair your external hard drive. Before you do this, remember that you can recover and backup your data – even if your Mac can’t detect your drive. Please refer to FAQ #1.

  1. Open Disk Utility by using Spotlight Search (CMD + Space) or by going to Finder > Applications (left sidebar) > Utilities Folder > Disk Utility app.
  2. Select the drive you want to format.
  3. Click the “Erase” button at the top right corner of the Disk Utility window.disk utility window with a pointer towards the erase button
  4. Name your external hard drive and click “Erase.”
    erase confirmation pop-up in the disk utility window
Yes, it’s possible in some cases – but often, the best you can do is to recover your files and back them up. After that, you can format the drive without a worry, which might just save you a lot of headaches down the road.

Time Machine and Disk Utility are free native apps for the Mac. So if you’re lucky, it won’t cost you a dime. That said, Disk Drill is $89 and a one-time purchase – and for an additional $29, you can get Lifetime Upgrades. It’s affordable insurance for when the moment inevitably comes that you need a quick and reliable way to recover data.

On that note, Disk Drill Basic is 100% FREE, which means that you can first make sure that your files are recoverable before deciding to buy.

To recover files from an external hard drive that won’t boot on your Mac, try the following solutions:

  • Restore a Time Machine backup of your drive (if you created one)
  • Use data recovery software to restore your files (in case of accidental deletion, corruption, and other logical damage)
  • Hire a professional data recovery service (in case of physical or mechanical damage)
The cost to recover data from an external hard drive on macOS depends on the method of recovery. If you’re using DIY data recovery software, licenses cost an average of $60 ~ $80 (with others lower or higher). You can either be charged once, monthly, or annually, depending on the developer. In case of professional data recovery services, technicians usually charge $100 ~ $300 per hour (never hire a service that charges per amount of data recovered).


Fortunately, there are multiple ways to recover data whether your files have been accidentally deleted, corrupted, infected by malware, or even if your hard drive has been completely submerged in water.

But better yet – always back up your files. Premium recovery software like Disk Drill have backup features that are just as good (if not better) than native apps like Time Machine and Disk Utility, but those still work really well.

After all, prevention is always better than cure.

Alejandro is a content strategist and writer with a deep love for creative technology. Even though he’s been building PCs all his life, he’s become an advocate for the Mac as the perfect machine for creative professionals. He also has a deep respect for his tools and knows them like the back of his hand – if you have a problem, he knows how to fix it.
avatar approver Andrey Vasilyev Approver
Andrey Vasilyev is an Editorial Advisor at onMac. Andrey is a software expert with extensive experience in data recovery, computer forensics, and litigation. Andrey has over 12 years of experience in software development, database administration, and hardware repair.
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