Simple Guide to Recovering Formatted External Hard Drive on a Mac or PC

Last updated: Jun. 9, 2017

An external hard drive is often a hub for your data backups. When it's getting full, you need to free more space to store new files.

It can be quite time-consuming to clean up massive files and folders manually. Instead, we are used to taking the quick cut — reformat it.

While it does save lots of time and energy, but sometimes the eager of releasing more storage space overrides the awareness of double-checking everything to make sure critical data have been transferred.

That's usually when data disaster strikes — you formatted an external hard drive, only to find that you'd some valuable data yet to be backed up or transferred...what a bummer!

Does that mean you lose the data forever? Not really.

In this article, we'll walk you through and show you how to recover data from a formatted external hard drive. The only thing you need is a computer (PC or Mac, it doesn't matter).

Why recovering formatted hard drive is possible?

When you quick formatted a disk drive (an internal computer hard drive or an external HDD), the data contained in the files are not erased immediately. All it does is to zero out the index of the items you've saved on the disk. However, the real data remain intact until they are fully written over. Eventually, that will happen with additional data writing activities you generate on the hard drive.

The good part is that if you use an HDD, it can take a decent amount of time, e.g. days even months for your lost data to be overwritten, because its volume tends to be big (especially in these days while 500GB is a base volume for many hard drives). However, if you use an SSD, it's another story due to the way SSDs manage files. The moment you remove something from the drive, new data may immediately occupy the space your lost files originally take. Once overwritten, there's no way to retrieve the data.

First things first — stop using your external drive

You see, the more data you write to your drive, the higher the chances are that your precious files would be written over. That means you should not attempt to store any new files on it. Also, if you can, unplug it from your computer and put it in a safe place to avoid any physical damage. Next, you can use a recovery software to try retrieving the data. Below are two tutorials: one for Mac users; the other for Windows PC users.

How to recover formatted external drive on a Mac?

Preparation: plug your external drive to your Mac via a USB cable. Make sure your Mac can detect the drive. If it can't, check if the connection port has dust and clean it if necessary.

Step 1: Get Stellar Mac Data Recovery program and follow instructions to install it on your Mac machine. Open the software and you'll see the main screen like this. Click "Start new Scan" to continue.

Step 2: Now select a scanning method. To recover formatted drive, choose "Raw Recovery" and hit "Start Scan" to continue.

Step 3: Next, select the volume on the left pane. The program will then start searching any recoverable data from that drive.

Step 4: Wait until the scan is complete. Depending on the size of your external hard drive, it may take minutes or even hours to finish the scan. Be sure your Mac is not set to auto sleep.

Step 5: Preview found files while the scan process finishes. Check and select those you'd like to pull back and recover them.

Pro tips: to avoid data overwriting, do not directly save recovered files back to your formatted drive. Instead, save them to your Mac hard drive first, then transfer them back to your external drive later if you want.

How to recover formatted external drive on a Windows PC?

Preparation: similar to that on Mac, connect your device to a PC first before you start.

Step 1: Get Easy Drive Data Recovery and install the program on your Windows computer. Open the software; you'll see the main interface like below.

Step 2: Select the disk where your lost files were saved. Highlight it and click "Next" to continue. Now it will conduct a quick scan of that drive to search for recoverable items.

Step 3: Preview the found items and check if your formatted files are there. If you can't find many items, enable Deep Scan mode and conduct a more comprehensive scan once again.

Step 4: Save and recover the files you want. That's it. Note: don't save retrieved files back to the source drive in case partial data overwritten.

Your last resort: data recovery services

If the above technique doesn't work to rescue your data, you can send your external hard drive to a recovery company for data rescue services. Beware that you do this only when the data are extremely valuable to you because commercial data recovery services are not cheap, most of the case you'll need to spend way much more than the price you paid for buying the hard drive device.

There is an extensive list of companies or services in the market; we highly recommend you do your due intelligence before you ship your device out.

Chris is a computer geek for a decade. He loved talking to computers via codes, and now he finds it more interesting communicating with the real people. He now writes everything related to computer issues and loves helping people solve problems.

2 thoughts on “Simple Guide to Recovering Formatted External Hard Drive on a Mac or PC

  1. I have a 1TB WD external hard drive. I purchased it about a month ago and I down loaded thousands of pictures onto it…I tried to retrieve a picture today and it keeps saying I need to format my drive…I look on disk manager on my computer and it shows there is date on the drive but it keeps telling me I have to format my drive. I do not want to do that because I do not want to lose my picutres…Can you help me please.

    • Looks like you are using a PC. Have you tried connecting your WD drive to a Mac? If you don’t have a Mac, try it on another PC.

      If same (or similar) error still shows up, your external drive is probably corrupted. You’ll have to re-format it to make it work properly. But since you have many precious data stored on it, it’s best to use a recovery software to retrieve some or all the data before you proceed.

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