Simple questions: What happens to deleted files? Why can you recover some of them?

You have probably heard that the files that you accidentally delete or have lost, can be recovered. There are many apps on the internet that can do it. You might have even tried some file recovery apps with more or less success. However, did you ask yourself why that is possible? Why can deleted files be recovered? Read this guide to find the answer to this simple question:

What happens when you delete a file?

When you delete a file from a hard drive, you might think that it is gone forever. However, even if you delete it from the Recycle Bin, the truth is that it is not physically erased from the storage.

deleted files

Every file is made out of many bits of information. When you delete a file, all those bits that form it are not physically erased, and they continue to hold the information that makes the file. Instead of physically deleting files, which can take a significant amount of time, especially if those files are large, the operating system only marks the deleted files as free space.

deleted files

Are you wondering how the operating system does that? The answer is simple: to know where files are found on your drives, Windows or other operating systems, assigns them pointers. When you delete a file, Windows marks it as free space by removing only its pointer, nothing else. The content of the file is still there, physically.

This also means that the next time you or the operating system creates a new file, that new file can be saved on top of any part of the free space on the hard drive. The storage space that was once the file you deleted is seen by the operating system as free space that can be used for storing new files. If the free space that was once a file happens to be used by the operating system to store new data, the content of the original deleted file is overwritten. In that case, there is little chance to recover the deleted file.

How do you recover deleted files from your drives?

Now you know that deleted files are not truly removed from your drives. They are only marked as free space. Getting back the files you deleted or lost by accident is possible. To do that, you have to use specialized apps. Such programs can find the contents of the deleted files on your drives and reassign their pointers or copy their content and recreate the files in other storage locations that you choose. In other words, file recovery apps can tell Windows where to find it the deleted files and then recover them.

deleted files

If you are searching for ways to recover files you lost, these articles are a good starting point:

Why some deleted files cannot be recovered, even if you are using an excellent file recovery tool

Recovering lost files is not always possible! If Windows overwrites the space that a deleted file was occupying, the original file can no longer be restored. That is because the content of that original file is just not there anymore. New information was stored over its content, so the old information was destroyed.

deleted files

What to be careful for when attempting to recover deleted files

There are two things you should always remember when you have deleted files, and you are attempting to recover them:

  1. Stop using the hard drive or partition on which those files were found
  2. Attempt to recover the deleted files as quickly as possible
deleted files

When you delete files by mistake and continue using the hard drive or partition on which they were found, there is a significant chance that they are overwritten by new files and no longer recoverable. Even if you do not copy or create new files on that drive or partition, the operating system might create temporary files or a swap file using the free space that was once a file you deleted. So, you should not waste time and try to recover the deleted files as quickly as possible.

Also, if you are installing a file recovery app on the same drive on which the deleted files were found, the installation might overwrite all or part of the deleted files. That renders them unrecoverable. File recovery apps should be installed on another partition, or they should be used in their portable version, on a USB memory stick.


Now you know that deleted files are not indeed removed from your hard drives, at least until other files overwrite their data. That is why they can be restored using specialized file recovery apps. If you have any questions on this matter or if you need our help, use the comments section below to let us know.

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