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How do I recover deleted files?

We’ve all been there: You edited an important file — and accidentally deleted it. You can’t even find it in the recycle bin or trash.

Fortunately, there are a few ways to recover deleted files on all major operating systems like Windows, iOS, or Android. Read on to learn how to recover your lost files — and how you can avoid losing data.

Where do deleted files end up?

If you delete files or even an entire folder on your Windows PC or laptop, they’ll be moved to the Recycle Bin. In principle, it’s nothing more than an additional file folder in which the deleted files are stored temporarily. Simply go to the Recycle Bin and you can restore your files with their original names and without losing any data.

The files you move there are only deleted permanently if you choose to empty the Recycle Bin. But is the data really deleted once you click Empty Recycle Bin?

Although the simple answer to this question is “yes”, your data is not necessarily lost forever. Recovering it, though, may require more effort. To explain where your files end up once they’ve been deleted, let’s delve in to the world of IT a bit.

Logical versus physical file deletion

When you delete files from a file system, their entries are removed from the file directory and the operating system recognizes the memory space that these files used to occupy as “rewritable”.

In the IT world, this form of deletion is referred to as “logical deletion”. The data itself is still on the disk; the memory space freed up through its deletion is only overwritten when it’s needed to store other data. Until then, these files can sometimes be restored using special programs.

In the case of “physical deletion” (also referred to as “secure deletion”), however, the deleted data can no longer be restored — or is something that can only be achieved at immense cost and with considerable technical effort. That’s because the memory space used by former files that was marked as “free” with logical deletion is usually overwritten several times.

In other words, the more you use your laptop, PC, smartphone, or tablet after deleting data, the greater the chance that the data will be permanently overwritten and lost forever.

Avoid data loss with regular backups

So that you don’t end up getting to this point where your important files are lost forever, we recommend you back up your data regularly. It’s the only way you can avoid losing any data. Luckily, a host of solutions are available from different providers to help you out.

It’s easy to back up your data using a feature-packed tool like Avira System Speedup Pro.

This multi award-winning program is a great, inexpensive alternative to other providers’ tools, especially since Avira System Speedup Pro offers many additional features and services to manage and back up your laptop or PC, including a solution to help you recover deleted files.

Avira System Speedup Pro
Restore deleted files with Avira System Speedup Pro.

Recover deleted files on Android

Recovering deleted data on your Android smartphone or tablet is no easy task — especially since Android updates differ so much. On top of this, Android devices only have a trash folder for apps like Gallery, Photos, or My Files — not one for the system as a whole.

So if you accidentally delete pictures or videos from the Gallery or Photos app, they first end up in the app’s trash folder and are deleted automatically after 30 days. The same goes for the apps for personal files and emails.

That said, at least it’s easy to recover images or videos that end up in the Gallery trash folder, for example, within this 30-day period. Here’s how (in our example we use a Samsung Galaxy S20 5G running Android 12):

  1. First tap the Gallery icon, then tap the three vertical bars at the bottom of the screen.
  2. Select Trash from the menu and you’ll then see all the files that are pending deletion.
  3. Now when you tap Edit, you can choose which files you don’t want deleted.
  4. Simply tap the image(s) you want to keep, then tap Restore.
Recover deleted files on Android
Restore delete files from your Android device’s trash folder in just a few steps.

If you use the Photos instead of the Gallery app, follow these steps:

  1. Open the Photos app on your Android device.
  2. Tap the three vertical bars at the top left of the screen, then tap Trash.
  3. Keep your finger pressed on the photo or video you want to restore.
  4. Now tap Restore to restore the photo or video to the Photos app and to its previous storage location.

No matter if you use the Gallery or Photos app on your Android device, remember that if it’s been 30 days since you deleted your files, the only option left for you is to try and restore your data using what’s known as a recovery app. Although quite a few are available such as Recoverit or Dr.Fone, don’t expect these apps to work wonders either.

Recover data with root access

Even if you can recover data on Android devices, it’s only possible with what’s known as root access — which in tech terms means having extended access or admin rights with which you can penetrate deeper into the system. You can also get a couple of apps to give you root access to your smartphone.

However, we strongly advise against going down this route in your attempt to recover data, as attractive as it may seem. That’s because there’s a significant risk that you’ll accidentally damage important system components and that you may end up breaking your smartphone all together. You will of course also void the manufacturer’s warranty.

If you install a recovery app, however, it gains root access temporarily — so it can, so to speak, penetrate deeper into the Android operating system on your behalf and with any luck actually rescue deleted files — but it will un-root itself after restoring the data, ending the app’s extended access to your system.

That said, this process is also risky. You may find that the recovery app doesn’t end root access after restoring your data, which could potentially damage important components of the Android operating system at a moment of carelessness.

Restore data from an SD card

You can maximize data recovery success if you use an SD card and haven’t formatted it as “internal storage”. Since many SD cards are configured to create backups automatically, there’s a chance that your lost data can still be found there. Here’s how:

  1. First, open the Settings app on your device, then tap Accounts and backup.
  2. Now tap External storage, followed by Storage card.
  3. Select a backup copy and select the desired data type, such as photos.
  4. Tap Restore.

Recover deleted files on iOS

Recovering data on your iPhone or iPad sometimes seems a bit easier compared to Android phones or tablets. That’s because unlike Android devices, there’s a recycle bin on your iPhone or iPad where you can find and restore deleted files that can’t be found in the particular apps themselves.

Restore deleted files from the Recently Deleted folder on iOS

Many iPhone users don’t even know where to find the Recently Deleted folder containing their lost files when they accidentally delete them on their iPhone or iPad.

Here’s how to recover deleted files from your iPhone or iPad’s Recently Deleted folder (in our example we use an iPhone XR running iOS 15.3.1):

  1. Tap the Files icon to open the app.
  2. Now tap Browse on the bottom right.
  3. Tap Recently Deleted to view your deleted files.
  4. Tap and hold on the desired file until the context menu opens.
  5. Tap Restore to restore the file back to its original storage location.
iOS Recently Deleted folder
Recover deleted files from the Recently Deleted folder on iOS

Restore deleted data from iCloud

It’s a little easier to recover files on your iPhone or iPad if you use iCloud to store your data. However, you’ll need to keep a backup of your files in iCloud, otherwise it becomes a bit more difficult to recover deleted iPhone or iPad files.

As long as it hasn’t been 30 days since you deleted the files you need to restore, follow these steps to recover your data:

  1. Open iCloud on your Mac or PC and enter your Apple user credentials.
  2. Once you’ve logged in, click your name on the top left followed by Account Settings. Then, scroll to the bottom to the Advanced
  3. Click Restore Files to restore all or only selected files.
  4. Once you’ve chosen the file(s) you want to restore, confirm your selection by clicking Restore.

You’ll now find the files in the folders they were in prior to their deletion.

Restore deleted files without an iCloud backup

In its response to iPhone users’ questions, Apple Support itself says that it’s basically not possible to restore data without iCloud. This means that if you don’t have a backup of your iPhone or iPad files in iCloud, you can only restore your data with a bit of luck using special data recovery apps.

Recover deleted files on Windows

If you’re using a Windows laptop or PC, there are a few options open to you to recover deleted files — as long as you’ve also backed up your data.

Restore deleted files from the recycle bin on Windows

Let’s start with the first and simplest step: Recovering files from the Recycle Bin:

  1. Right-click the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop, then select Open from the menu.
  2. By right-clicking a file or folder, you can recover it by clicking Restore. Once done, the files or folders will be saved in their original location.

Rescue deleted data using Windows’ System Restore feature

Windows has an automatic backup feature: System Restore.

If you have System Restore turned on, this backup feature can help you recover data that’s no longer in the Recycle Bin. Plus, you can even restore your computer — and theoretically all file folders and directories — to a previous state, known as a restore point. After turning on this backup feature, the operating system regularly creates such restore points so you can restore your computer or individual folders to a previous state.

This built-in operating system feature can also be of great help such as if a program isn’t running well.

Here’s how to use Windows 11’s System Restore feature to get back your files — provided you’ve turned on the automatic back up feature on your PC:

  1. Click the Windows icon on the bottom left of your screen.
  2. Simply type Control Panel on your keyboard, then hit the Enter key.
  3. Click System and Security (if you can’t see this option listed, make sure your view is set to Category) and select System.
  4. Click System protection, select the System Protection tab, and then click System Restore.
  5. Select the restore point (which you believe contains the deleted data), click Next, and then Finish to restore your Windows device to this previous state.
Use System Restore to rescue deleted data
Rescue deleted files with Windows 11’s System Restore feature — as long as you’ve turned it on.

If you can’t click the System Restore button, you’ll need to turn it on by following these steps (Windows 11):

  1. As mentioned above, open Control Panel, go to System and Security, and then select System.
  2. Click System protection, select the System Protection tab, and then click Configure.

    System Restore
    You can often rescue deleted files by turning on System Restore.
  3. Select Turn on system protection, click Apply, then click OK.
  4. Under Disk Space Usage, adjust the slider to configure how much disk space you want to use for system protection. We recommend at least 5-10 percent.
  5. Confirm by clicking Apply then OK.

Now that we’ve covered the steps to enable you to proceed with recovering data, we come to the actual data recovery stage.

If you still remember the folder or directory in which the deleted file was located, in Explorer simply right-click the folder icon and select Restore previous versions. Unless too much time has passed since you accidentally deleted the folder’s contents, you should be able to get any deleted files back this way.

Restoring data in Windows
Use “Restore previous versions” to rescue deleted files

In summary, we recommend you regularly back up your devices just to be on the safe side and to minimize the risk of losing data.

As an alternative to the solutions that come baked in to the operating system, we recommend Avira System Speedup Pro. With this program, alongside features to restore your files and back up your data, you have access to over 30 tools to help you improve your device’s performance and security as well as strengthen your online privacy.

Or opt for Avira Prime and enjoy a powerful suite of tools that covers all your needs across all platforms on up to 25 devices.

Avira Prime
Improve device performance & security and strengthen your online privacy across all platforms and devices with Avira Prime.

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Avira, a company with over 100 million customers and more than 500 employees, is a worldwide leading supplier of self-developed security solutions for professional and private use. With more than 25 years of experience, the company is a pioneer in its field.