With portable flash drives now as ubiquitous as fresh air we store all sorts of important information on them from important and sensitive documents to family and holiday snaps on digital SD cards. Never mind the heartache data loss that these devices can cause, it can also cause practical problems especially if these devices store the fruit of labours or sensitive information. However, the good news is that most of the time data can be recovered from flash drives and SD cards. And here’s how.

If our computer hard drive crashes there’s usually a period of weeping and wailing, followed by some form of remedial action – if possible. If a USB flash drive* or SD card gets wiped there’ll likely be a period of shocked silence, quickly followed by weeping and wailing.


We usually don’t expect data from USB drives or SD cards to disappear. Or do we? But accidents can and do happen, for instance, it’s easy to unintentionally erase or overwrite existing data. And then there are the following failures too that wipe data on portable devices:

  • Accidently format a USB flash drive
  • Virus attack
  • Power surges and electro-static discharge
  • Not properly removing the USB flash drive from a computer
  • Accidently deleting files from USB flash drive
  • Windows may ask if you want to format the USB flash drive

But the good news is that in most cases lost data from portable devices can be restored and usually quite simply by using data recovery tools. When you erase/delete a file from your device it's not really gone until the areas of the disk it used are overwritten by new information. The file can be recovered days or even weeks later with third-party data recovery software. There are a lot data recovery tools available, some of them free and some of them at a cost.

We’ve rounded up some of the most popular.

  • Recover My Files

This data recovery software recovers deleted files emptied from the Windows Recycle Bin, files lost due to the format or re-install of a hard drive, or files removed by a virus, Trojan infection, unexpected system shutdown or software failure as well as USB sticks and camera cards.

You might think it’s a complex process but the company maintains it is a straightforward process and it certainly has a lot of fans. It can even be used on Android devices and has been tested by the US Department of Homeland who by all accounts gave it the thumbs up. You can try a free version too.

  • Card Recovery

CardRecovery is photo recovery software designed specifically for memory card used by digital camera or phone. Its makers claim it can recover lost, deleted, corrupted or formatted photos and video files from various memory cards. It supports almost all memory card types including SD Card, MicroSD, SDHC, CF (Compact Flash) Card, xD Picture Card, Memory Stick and more. The company claims that a special technology dubbed SmartScan can recover files that others can’t.  It costs about $40 USD.

BullGuard protects your devices from hackers and malware


  • PhotoRec

PhotoRec is file data recovery software designed to recover lost files including video, documents and archives from hard disks, CD-ROMs, and lost pictures from digital camera memory. PhotoRec is designed to work even if your media's file system has been severely damaged or reformatted. It’s an open source platform and as such is free. For increased safety it uses read-only access to handle the drive or memory card.

  • Recuva

Recuva is a simple free tool produced by Piriform. It’s designed to recover lost files from Windows desktop computers, recycle bin, digital camera card or MP3 player. The company also produces a number of other ‘cleaning’ tools such as CCleaner and Defraggler.

  • Data Recovery Doctor Pen Drive

The Data Recovery Doctor provides safe and accurate retrieval of data for images, pictures, audio, video, pics, songs, music, clips, text, documents lost due to accidental loss, virus damage, corrupted drives, Quick Format, software corruption, and system crashes from all types of flash drive. A free version is available though it does have a limited set of features while the full version costs in the region of $60 USD.

  • USB Drive Data Recovery

Like the tool above USB Drive Data Recovery is designed to recover data from all types of removable drive whether it is a crashed memory stick, USB jump drive, pen drive, dongle or external USB hard drive. It also supports compact flash, memory card, multimedia card, SD card, removable micro-drive, smart drive and media flash card memory. So in short, it just about covers every type of removable storage device.

  • EaseUs USB Flash Drive Data Recovery

EaseUs flash drive recovery software is another free product for USB drive data recovery. The company claims it can address all USB flash drive data loss problems from recovering deleted files, or lost files due to a software crash, formatted or damaged drive, virus attack and other unknown reasons. In its favour it has a very simple interface; it’s a simple point and click process, whereas some data recovery tools can be a bit off-putting if you’re not technically minded.

Most lost data can be recovered – whether it’s on a hard drive or flash drive

The above tools are not mentioned in the way of endorsement but simply to point out the range of products out there. There are more complex data recovery tools that cover data retrieval across the board from desktop hard drives to mobile devices. And it’s often the case that the free USB/SD drive tools are simply a means by which the company can attract customers to their other products.

There are also a wide range of companies that specialise in recovering data so if you’ve lost something burningly important and can’t retrieve it yourself you can turn to one of these companies. Their charges can range from £50 to several hundred pounds depending on the device.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that data is often recoverable even if your device has been burnt or thrown into a swimming pool, especially if it has a hard drive. In fact, data on hard drives can only be truly destroyed if a magnet is taken to it. The act of erasing a file does not remove it from a storage device. Similarly, data on flash drives can always be recovered by knowledgeable computer users hence the large number of recovery tools. For data to be truly erased from a flash drive a third party cleaning tool is usually required.

How to protect your flash drive

  • Frequently back up all important data to a service such as BullGuard Backup. If you don’t do this, you essentially have what’s known in the jargon as a single point of failure.
  • Flash drives should not be used for frequently updated files. Flash has limitations compared to hard drives.
  • Make sure you always remove flash media safely and never unplug the drive while it is reading or writing. Removing your flash drive incorrectly can corrupt the data.
  • Keep your flash drive stored in proper conditions and don’t expose it to extreme temperatures, humidity or pressure to keep it functioning longer.

*The difference between hard drives and flash drives

The traditional spinning hard drive (HDD) that you find in most computers is based on a disc which stores information as magnetic bits.  Hard drives are essentially metal platters with a magnetic coating. That coating stores the data, whatever it is, a file, video or sound file. A read/write head on an arm accesses the data while the platters are spinning in a hard drive enclosure.

An SSD does much the same job functionally as an HDD, but instead of a magnetic coating on top of platters, the data is stored on interconnected flash memory chips that retain the data even when there's no power present. These flash memory chips are becoming increasingly common in different technologies from laptops to industrial-sized computer storage platforms. But they differ from USB flash drives in the type and speed of the memory. USB/SD drives essentially use a significantly scaled down version of the SSD drive.