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7 Steps to Recover Files from a USB Flash Drive

It’s very easy to become reliant on a USB flash drive.  They’re small, they’re portable, and they’re relatively inexpensive; plus, flash drives are equally compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux, so there’s no need for complicated partitioning when taking your files from place to place.

The downside to relying on a flash drive to store your important files is that sometimes they fail.  If you’ve been keeping important files on a flash drive without a backup, a flash drive failure can feel like a disaster.  The bad news is that once a flash drive has failed, there’s very little you can do for the flash drive itself.  On the other hand, the good news is that there are actually more options than you might think for rescuing important data.

1. Stay calm and don’t panic.  It might feel like the end of the world, but even if your files aren’t showing up at all, that doesn’t mean they no longer exist.  It’s actually very rare for a flash drive to wipe itself completely: what usually happens is that a corruption in the data erases the path a computer takes to find the files.  It’s like trying to get to an island across a damaged bridge: the island is still there, but you either have to repair the bridge or find another path to get to it.  Staying calm makes it easier to see what your options are, and less likely to make a mistake that will lead to really losing your files.

2. Don’t keep trying the same thing.  It’s tempting to just take the flash drive out and put it back in again, but that’s actually a very risky thing to do.  Continuing to force the same computer to search for the files can compound the corruption in the flash drive, and lead to actual data loss.  Until you know whether or not it’s the computer causing the damage, you should avoid using the flash drive with the same computer: that way you decrease the likelihood that the computer itself will cause damage to your important files.

3. Test the flash drive with another computer.The easiest way to figure out whether the problem is your flash drive or your computer is to try the flash drive with another computer.  If you don’t have another computer in the house you can take it to work, to the library or even to a FedEx.  If another computer can read the files without any trouble, then you may have a problem with your home computer, in which case you should take it to a professional for maintenance as soon as possible so that you don’t lose data from your hard drive.  If other computers have trouble recognizing your flash drive, then you can move on to data recovery options.

4. Do not re-format the flash drive.  Both Windows and Mac OSX come with built-in options to find and fix errors in external drives.  While these can be very useful in repairing a damaged flash drive once you know your data is safe, they usually involve re-formatting the drive, which means wiping it completely clean of data in order to fix software errors.  You can try doing this after recovering your files if you want to keep using the flash drive, but if you don’t recover your data first, re-formatting the drive will cause you to lose it permanently.  Even though the computer’s built-in system can fix a corrupted drive, it’s a bad idea to use it before you’ve done everything you can to recover your lost data.

5. Search for a backup on your computer or online.  Many computers manufactured within the last couple of years have an option to automatically back up to an online cloud.  Even if you do not have cloud backup enabled, it’s becoming more and more common for individual applications to have cloud backup so that you can work on your files across multiple devices.  Apple users can frequently find their Pages and Numbers documents on iCloud, and Microsoft Office users can subscribe to Office 365.  Even some flash drives come with cloud backup software, so it is possible that your files have been backed up without you even realizing it.  You can also try searching autosave files for recent copies of your work: many software applications autosave every few minutes by default, so if you can find recent autosave files you may not lose very much data at all.

6. Try using data recovery software.  There are many software applications available that are specifically designed to recover data from damaged flash drives.  They range in price from free to very expensive, with a broad spectrum of quality and features.  The important thing to consider when you try to recover your data using an application is that you should choose one that matches your ability level.  If you’re a wizard programmer, then an application with a bare-bones user interface but multiple options for customization will be what you need.  On the other hand, if you’re a more casual computer user, go for a program with a simple user interface and more automation.  It may not be as powerful or thorough, but you run less risk of doing additional damage to your files if you stick to software you know you can understand.

7. Take it to a professional.  Of course, if you have valuable files and you’re new to this kind of data recovery, it’s always better to take your flash drive to a data recovery professional.  A professional will have access to the best equipment and will have the experience to recognize if something goes wrong during the data recovery process early enough to fix it.  If the damage is bad enough that the drive needs to be taken apart, a professionals will have the tools to do that without causing more damage.  Taking your flash drive to a professional may be a bigger up-front cost, but it’s worth it to have professional expertise on your side, and could save you money on more expensive software in the long run.

by David Molnar