Data Recovery

External Hard Drive Recovery on Mac: How to Recover Data From External Hard Drive on macOS in 2021

Deleted important files by accident? Formatted a hard drive with critical documents? Got hit by a nasty virus? Got a Mac? If this is you, we have a solution (or 3) to help you get your files back.

We’ve found 3 proven ways of recovering data from your external hard drive on Mac. Some of them are free — all of them are straightforward. Read on.

Can Data Be Recovered From an External Hard Drive?

In most cases: yes, external hard drive recovery on Mac is possible. Whenever you delete a file — even if you delete it from trash — the file still exists in your drive until it gets overwritten by other data.

This is why it’s important to not save anything to the affected hard drive before you read this article.

And in the case of “Logical Damage” – such as file corruption due to things like power outages or electrical shorts – you can still recover your data using software that repairs your files by pulling fragmented data from your drive and attempting to restore it into an intact file.

This is also the case if you accidentally formatted a hard drive and need to recover important files.

In the case of “Physical Damage,” things get a little more complicated. You’ll have to seek professional help, and we’ve outlined how the process typically goes below (method #3).

Let’s begin.

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

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 your storage drive to your MacBook.
  2. Open Time Machine preferences using either of two methods:
    1. Open the Apple Menu in the top left corner of your screen > System Preferences > Time Machine.
    2. Press CMD + Space to bring up Spotlight Search and type “Time Machine.” Choose the option linked to System Preferences.spotlight search window for time machine
  3. Click “Select Backup Disk…”time machine app window
  4. Select your storage device from the menu and click “Use Disk.”drive selection pop-up in time machine
  5. Check the box that says “Back Up Automatically.”

How to restore your files:

  1. Open Time Machine. Again, you can either do this by:
    1. Opening the Apple Menu in the top left corner of your screen > System Preferences > Time Machine
    2. Pressing CMD + Space to bring up Spotlight Search and typing “Time Machine.” Choose the option linked to System Preferences
  2. Using the timeline feature, scroll through your available backups and snapshots.
  3. Click “Restore” – you’ll be able to find your recovered files in their original folders.

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 data 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. We’ll be using Disk Drill for our second method.

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

Steps

Installing Disk Drill

  1. Download Disk Drill directly from Cleverfiles’ website.cleverfiles homepage where you can download disk drill
  2. Open the downloaded DMG file and drag the Disk Drill icon to the Applications folder.disk drill drag-and-drop installer window
  3. Your Mac will show a confirmation prompt. Click “Open.”confirmation pop-up for opening disk drill
  4. Click “Install Now” on Disk Drill’s installation window. You’ll be prompted by your system to enter your username and password.installer window for disk drill
  5. Grant Disk Drill “Full Disk Access” on your Mac. The installer actually provides an easy-to-follow guide during the installation process, but we can go through it together:
    1. Click “Open Security & Privacy.”window to grant security and privacy permissions for disk drill
    2. Click the lock icon in the bottom left of the Security & Privacy window and enter your password or use Touch ID to make changes.security & privacy window for Mac
    3. Once unlocked, scroll down on the left menu until you find “Full Disk Access” and click on it.
    4. Drag and drop the icons from the Disk Drill permissions window to the privacy menu.window to grant disk drill full disk access
    5. Make sure the checkboxes are ticked and click the lock icon again.

Previewing & Restoring Files on Disk Drill

  1. Connect the external drive that contains the files you want to restore.
  2. Open Disk Drill.
  3. On the middle pane, select the drive you want to work on and click “Search for lost data” on the lower right corner of the window.main menu window of disk drill
  4. Disk Drill will begin scanning your drive. Wait for it to finish.
  5. Once the scan is complete, you can start going through the data. Click “Review found items.”file scan and filter window for disk drill
  6. You are highly encouraged to preview the file before attempting restoration to make sure that it’s still intact. You can do so by clicking the play button (yes, you can also preview video files).disk drill file preview window
  7. Once you’ve previewed the file and are ready to restore it, click the “Recover” button.
  8. Choose the folder where you want to save your recovered file and click “OK.”disk drill window for choosing a destination folder for recovered files
  9. If you haven’t upgraded to the premium version, you’ll be prompted to do so. The free version of Disk Drill only allows users to preview recoverable files – which is still incredibly useful so you don’t have to spend your money on failed attempts.In fact, Cleverfiles (the company that developed Disk Drill) advises its users NOT to upgrade to a premium license until they’ve confirmed that their files can be previewed – which means that those files are recoverable.window that lets you upgrade your disk drill license to premium
  10. If you are a premium user, you’ll find your recovered file in the folder that you chose in Step #8. Congratulations!Disk Drill also has a backup feature that comes with a premium license – it’s more robust than Time Machine, plus it’s multi-platform! Download Disk Drill here (remember, you can use it to preview recoverable files for free).

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:

Steps:

  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

Steps:

  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.

FAQ

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 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.

Conclusion

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.
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