How to Recover Deleted Files on Your Mac

Empty garbage and recycling bins in a parking lot

It’s a common mistake: You’ve accidentally deleted an important file that should never have gone to the Trash. If you’re like most of us who have done this, you’ve gone through the seven stages of grief multiple times. Don’t get too upset just yet, though: All is not necessarily lost.

We’ll walk you through a number of ways you can (possibly) recover deleted files on your Mac. Some of these are surprisingly simple, so buckle up and get ready to retrieve your most precious files!

Recover deleted files from your Trash bin

Newer Mac users assume that by dragging a file or application to the Trash bin they’ve deleted it forever. Even the sound your Mac makes when a file is dragged to the Trash bin makes it seem permanent. Fortunately, that’s not the case.

The truth is simple: You can view the files currently in your Trash bin by simply clicking the Trash icon in your dock.

Mac Trash bin open in Finder showing deleted files

While it may seem like your Mac is simply teasing you about the files you recently dumped, this is actually an opportunity for you to recover those deleted files. If you’d like to recover a file currently in your Trash bin, here’s a little trick:

Just drag the files from the Trash bin back onto your desktop. Yes, it’s really as simple as that!

You might have also noticed the Empty button in your Trash bin. This button does exactly what it implies: It (somewhat) permanently removes the files sitting in your Trash bin. If you’ve permanently deleted an important file, there are a few (free) additional tricks at your disposal.

Recover files you’ve emptied from your Trash bin

Many of us don’t realize how much we’ll miss a file until we’ve deleted it. Forever. However, if you’ve been diligent about your Time Machine backups, you haven’t quite trashed your important files as permanently as you might think.

Time Machine backup files shown in Finder

To view all the files you’ve backed up, plug in the external hard drive you’ve set up via Time Machine. Open Finder and under the Devices section in the sidebar click directly on the external drive’s icon.

As you’ll see in the screenshot above, your Time Machine backups will be neatly organized by date. Click into any backup folder you’d like and you’ll find your deleted files exactly where you had previously stored them. Once you locate a file you’re looking to reclaim, click on the file and select Restore. Problem solved!

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If you’re not currently running regular Time Machine backups, be sure to buy an external hard drive as soon as possible. You’ll be prompted to set up Time Machine backups when you plug in your new external hard drive for the first time.

What if you’ve emptied your Trash bin before backing up an important file via Time Machine? Then the task to recover it becomes a little more difficult (and potentially more costly), but it’s still not a lost cause.

Recover deleted files you haven’t backed up in Time Machine

There’s good news for those of you who have trashed files permanently. The space those files previously occupied on your hard drive becomes available to be overwritten. However, those trashed files are not immediately removed from your hard drive.

If you catch yourself deleting a file you want to keep, don’t download or save any new files to your Mac until you have the chance to reclaim that file. There are some programs that can help you recover recently deleted files.

Here are a few of the more popular data recovery programs:

  • Data Rescue 4 costs $99, but there’s a demo version that lets you determine if a data recovery is possible on your Mac. The company also offers a $200 credit for users who purchase the software and discover a physical hard drive recovery is necessary.
  • Disk Drill also offers a free trial for you to determine if you can recover your lost files. The company has a number of creative ways to recover files after your hard drive fails.
  • Stellar Phoenix Mac Data Recovery offers a free trial only to scan your hard drive. Like Data Rescue 4, the full version comes in at $99. CNET user reviews are very favorable, and the company has updated the software to be compatible with OS X Yosemite as well.
  • MiniTool Mac Data Recovery includes a special feature for users looking to recover files from an external hard drive. While it’s the cheapest option of the bunch at $79, CNET reviews claim the software has a clunky interface, making it difficult to use.

If none of these options help you recover your lost files, consider taking your computer to a company that specializes in data recovery. Keep in mind that these companies charge quite a bit for their services, so it’s worth evaluating the importance of your trashed file(s) before turning to one of these services.

Don’t Panic

When trying to recover deleted files, it’s important not to panic. The odds are good that you haven’t permanently deleted most files – many of us leave hundreds of files in our Trash bins for months before even noticing.

No matter the case, this guide was laid out in this order for a reason. Follow these steps in this order, and we’re confident you’ll be reunited with your most important files.

Have any other additional suggestions on how to recover deleted files on your Mac? Leave them in the comments section below!

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