How to recover deleted files in Windows 10 or 11

After checking the Recycle Bin, Microsoft's own command-line option is worth a try. But a dedicated recovery tool is often your best bet for retrieving a deleted file. Here's how to use one.
Written by Lance Whitney, Contributor
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
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You're having trouble finding a certain file on your Windows PC and you have a hunch you may have deleted it. We've all been there. But rather than moan and groan, you can try to recover it. Assuming you've already scoured the Recycle Bin and have come up empty, that's when it's time to turn to a good recovery tool.

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Microsoft offers its own command-line recovery program, though it's not what I'd call user-friendly. Instead, you can use free programs like Recuva and Glarysoft File Recovery Free. Here's how they work.

How to recover deleted files in Windows 10 or 11 

1. The Recycle Bin

You've probably already used the Recycle Bin to bring back a file. In a nutshell, Windows devotes a small percentage of your hard disk space to a hidden system folder known as the Recycle Bin. This ensures that deleted files aren't actually deleted but kept in reserve. As long as you don't permanently delete the file or empty the Bin, the file should be available for you to recover, at least for a certain length of time. 

Simply open the Recycle Bin icon on your desktop. As with any folder, you can sort the files by name, location, date, and other criteria. You can also search for a file by name. Once you find the file you wish to recover, right-click on it and select Restore. 

First check the Recycle Bin for a deleted file
Lance Whitney/ZDNET

What if I permanently delete a file in Windows 10 or 11? 

If you do permanently delete a file (press Shift+Del to do so) or empty the entire Recycle Bin, recovering a file is trickier but still doable. This mostly depends on how fast you ride to its rescue.

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When you delete a file, the data isn't physically removed from your disk. Rather, its space is marked as available by the operating system, which means the clusters allocated to that file can be overwritten by new data. If you swoop in quickly enough, the file may be fully intact and recoverable. The longer you wait, though, the greater the chances that most or all of a file's clusters will be overwritten, reducing the odds of fully recovering it.

2. Microsoft's Windows File Recovery

Microsoft provides a free command-line utility for Windows 10 and 11 that tries to recover deleted files. Known as Windows File Recovery, the tool supports mechanical hard drives, SSDs, USB drives, and memory cards. It also offers both regular and extensive modes in an attempt to revive a file. 

Visit Microsoft's recovery page  

Download and install the program from the Microsoft Store. Launching its shortcut opens a command prompt with examples of its basic syntax. Microsoft also has a support page with directions on how to use Windows File Recovery, which you'll want to read before taking it for a spin  

Download Windows File Recovery
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Type the appropriate command  

From there, you need to type the command followed by the recovery destination, then the recovery mode, and finally the name or location of the deleted file or files.   

Microsoft's Windows File Recovery
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

A note about Windows File Recovery

As a command-line program, Windows File Recovery can be challenging to use as you have to nail the proper syntax and switches exactly (a GUI version is sorely needed). Even then, it doesn't always find or recover the files you need.

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I've used it several times, and it's been decidedly hit or miss. You may want to try it as a first step, but I think you'll find a good third-party product less frustrating.

Third-party recovery utilities

I've used several third-party recovery tools and have generally had success with them. Again, their effectiveness rests largely upon how quickly you attempt to recover a file after it's been deleted. But assuming the file is still fully or largely intact, these tools will help you revive it. 

A variety of programs are available, both free and paid. Here are two free utilities worth trying.

3. Recuva

Download Recuva  

Available in free and paid flavors, Recuva can bring back files from internal and external hard drives, USB sticks, and memory cards. The website offers the full installation version of Recuva, but elsewhere you'll find a portable version to install on a USB stick, which avoids writing any new data to your hard drive.  

Download Recuva

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Specify the types of files you're trying to recover

The program kicks off with a wizard that asks you what types of files you're trying to recover and where they're located. If you know the specific filename and path, you can bypass the wizard. Recuva offers a regular scan for quick and easy recoveries and a deep scan for more challenging cases.  

Specify the types of files you're trying to recover
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Recover the deleted files  

After the scan, Recuva will display the names of any matching files and indicate the odds of a successful recovery. You can even preview many types of files. Select the file and click the Recover button to bring it back.   

Recuva will recover deleted files
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

4. Glarysoft File Recovery Free

Another recovery tool available in free and paid editions is Glarysoft File Recovery Free

Scan deleted files  

After you install Glarysoft File Recovery, the program starts by asking which drives or partitions on your PC you wish to scan. The program then runs a quick scan to search for deleted files. During or after the scan, you can seek out specific files by type, location, and name.   

Scan deleted files
Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

Preview files  

Once the scan is complete, the tool shows you a list of all lost files and their recovery status, allowing you to browse or search for the one you want. You can even preview images and other readable types of files to make sure you've got the correct one.   

Glarysoft File Recovery Free can recover up to three files

Figure 4

Screenshot by Lance Whitney/ZDNET

The biggest drawback with the free edition of Glarysoft File Recovery is that you can recover only up to three files and as much as 2GB in size. For more, the Pro edition costs $50 per year. But if you need to recover two or three files, the free flavor will do the trick.

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