How to recover deleted files in Windows

Emptying the Windows Recycle Bin doesn’t mean a deleted file is lost forever — you just need to know where to look.

Deleting a file by accident hasn’t been a problem for PC users since 1995, which is when the Recycle Bin first appeared in Windows.

However, this handy feature only works if the bin hasn’t been emptied in the meantime — and it’s no use at all if you’ve accidentally saved over a file with something else.

[Read more: 6 easy ways to clean up your PC to gain space and speed on Windows 10]

Step 1: Check the Recycle Bin

When you delete a file in Windows, it isn’t actually deleted — it’s just moved to the Recycle Bin on the Desktop. This works like any other folder, so just open it, select the file you want and click the Restore option.

Recover deleted files

Step 2: Stop the Recycle Bin from emptying so often

The Recycle Bin does have a capacity limit and, when it's full, Windows will empty it automatically to reclaim hard drive space. If you regularly have second thoughts about files you’ve deleted, this may cause problems, so if you have a large hard drive with lots of free space, consider increasing the Recycle Bin’s capacity.

Right-click the Recycle Bin icon and choose Properties. When the dialog box opens, make sure the ‘Custom size’ option is selected and type a larger number in the box next to it. This is measured in megabytes (MB) and 1,000 megabytes is one gigabyte (GB). A number that’s around 10% of your hard drive capacity works well. This works in all versions of Windows and remember that the Recycle Bin will only use this amount of space when it’s full.

Stop the Recycling Bin from emptying so often

Step 3: Restore a file using System Restore

Saving over a file with a different one using the same name is usually the easiest way to lose it forever — as is emptying the Recycle Bin. Fortunately, Windows has a feature called ‘shadow copy’ that automatically saves copy of a file or folder if it changes.

Unfortunately, this only happens when a Windows Restore Point is made, so it’s far from a guaranteed way to recover something.

To use this feature, open a window and browse to the folder that contained (or still contains) the file or folder you want to recover. Right-click the file/folder and select Restore previous versions.

Restore a file using System Restore

When the dialog box opens, select the version of the file/folder you want, if there’s more than one copy (look at the ‘Date modified’ column), and click the Restore button.

Step 4: Check System Restore is running

If there are no previous versions of a file or folder, you’re out of luck with this particular Windows feature. If that’s the case, it's worth checking that it’s actually enabled, if only for future file recovery.

Open the Start menu, type ‘system restore’ into the Search box and click Create a restore point in the list of results.

When the dialog box opens, click the Configure... button and make sure 'Turn on system protection' is enabled.

Check System Restore

Step 5: Recover a deleted file with Recuva

If you’ve reached this far and still haven’t been able to recover your lost file, all is not lost. A free ‘undelete’ utility like Recuva stands a very good chance of recovering it, as long you haven’t used your PC much in the meantime.

Remember when downloading and installing third-party software that you do so at your own risk. Make sure you follow all instructions careful and that you're happy with each step.

Recuva is a free download — just be sure to opt out of the free offers for Google Chrome and Google Toolbar during its installation.

When Recuva runs, follow the on-screen instructions and it will scan your hard drive for recoverable files, then list them in a window that also shows the chances of recovery for each.

Recover a deleted file with Recuva

[Read more: How can I get files off my broken USB flash stick?]

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