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How to Recover Files From a Flash Drive That Needs to Be Formatted

How to Recover Files From a Flash Drive That Needs to Be Formatted

There’s nothing quite as heart-stopping for anyone who relies on data storage than plugging in a USB drive only to be met with the dreaded ‘You need to format the disk in drive X: before you can use it’ error message. In this article, I’ll share the painstaking journey I’ve traversed to not only understand why this happens but also how to recover those precious files using tools like Disk Drill and PhotoRec. But before that, I found it essential to understand if viruses could be a culprit, as highlighted in an insightful article about whether reformatting a USB can often remove malware. As it turns out, while malware could be a reason, most often, the issue is due to file system errors. Let’s delve deeper into the common scenarios that can lead to this distressing prompt.


Common Scenarios:

Corrupted File System 📁

  • Interacting with an infected computer that leads to malware damage.
  • Improper ejection of the USB drive from a device.
  • Unexpected system shutdowns while the drive is in use.

Bad Sectors on the Drive 💾

  • Physical damage to the drive.
  • Long-term wear and tear leading to bad sectors.
  • Excessive write cycles over the drive’s lifespan.

Incompatible File Systems 🔄

  • Switching the USB drive between operating systems with different file systems.
  • Failing to safely remove the USB drive, causing file system errors.

Step-by-Step Guide. Usb Needs To Be Formatted:

Method 1: Disk Drill Recovery 🔍

  • Download and install Disk Drill.
  • Connect the USB drive to your PC.
  • Launch Disk Drill and select the drive from the list.
  • Click ‘Recover’ to scan for lost files.
  • Preview and select the files you want to save, and then recover them to a safe location.

Note: The free version allows recovery of up to 500 MB.

Conclusion: Disk Drill is user-friendly and efficient for recovering files without needing to format the USB drive.

Method 2: PhotoRec Recovery 📷

  • Download and extract the PhotoRec software.
  • Run the PhotoRec executable.
  • Select the USB drive and choose ‘Proceed’ to start the recovery process.
  • Choose the file types you want to recover and the destination for the recovered files.
  • Allow the software to scan and recover your files.

Note: PhotoRec is a command line tool, which might be challenging for beginners.

Conclusion: PhotoRec is a powerful, open-source file recovery tool that excels in restoring data without formatting.

Method 3: Using File Explorer 🗂

  • Connect the USB drive to your computer.
  • Open File Explorer and right-click on the USB drive.
  • Select ‘Properties’ and then navigate to the ‘Tools’ tab.
  • Click on ‘Check’ under the Error checking section.
  • Follow the prompts to scan and fix any errors on the USB drive without formatting.

Note: This method only works if the USB drive is still accessible and not severely corrupted.

Conclusion: Built-in Windows tools can sometimes fix the issue without data loss.

Method 4: CHKDSK Command 🛠

  • Plug in the USB drive to your PC.
  • Open Command Prompt with administrative privileges.
  • Type ‘chkdsk X: /f’ (replace X with the drive letter) and press Enter.
  • Wait for the process to complete, which may repair the file system errors.

Note: This command might fix the drive but can also lead to data loss if used incorrectly.

Conclusion: CHKDSK is a powerful tool for fixing file system errors, but should be used with caution.

Method 5: Try on Another PC 🖥

  • Connect the USB drive to a different computer.
  • If the drive is accessible, immediately transfer all data to the computer or another storage device.
  • If successful, you can then safely format the USB drive on the original computer.

Note: Sometimes, the issue can be with the PC rather than the USB drive itself.

Conclusion: Switching to a different computer can be a simple yet effective way to recover your files.


Youtube video to watch


Precautions and Tips:

Preventive Measures 🔒

  • Always eject the USB drive safely to prevent file system corruption.
  • Use antivirus software to scan for and prevent malware attacks.
  • Back up data regularly to avoid complete data loss in the event of a USB drive failure.

Additional Insights

While recovering files from a USB that needs formatting is crucial, it’s equally important to understand the role of prevention in data management. It’s always better to prevent the issues than to fix them. Regularly performing disk health checks can warn you about impending drive failures. Tools like CrystalDiskInfo can provide vital information about the health and performance of your USB drives and other storage devices.

Moreover, consider the lifespan of flash storage. USB drives have a limited number of write cycles, and pushing them beyond their limits can lead to data integrity issues. If you’re using a USB drive extensively for data transfer, consider upgrading to a more durable solid-state drive (SSD).

Lastly, educate yourself about the different file systems—FAT32, NTFS, exFAT, and how they affect portability between devices with different operating systems. For example, macOS can read NTFS but cannot write without third-party software, which can cause compatibility issues leading to formatting requests.


In conclusion, facing a prompt to format a USB drive when you plug it in can be daunting, but as I’ve experienced, there are multiple methods to recover your files. From using specialized software like Disk Drill and PhotoRec, to leveraging Windows built-in tools, and even simply trying a different computer—the options available are diverse and effective. Keep in mind that often these problems arise from preventable issues. So always handle your devices with care, use the correct removal procedures, and regularly back up your data to safeguard against such predicaments. When all else fails, these recovery methods are your lifeline to salvage what you fear was lost.


Formatting a USB drive is often necessary to clear the data, repair corruptions, or prepare the device for use with a specific file system compatible with your operating system.

Signs include error messages when accessing the USB, files not showing up correctly, or the drive not being recognized.

In Windows, you can right-click the USB drive icon in 'My Computer', select 'Format', choose a file system, and click 'Start'.

A quick format only deletes the master file table, whereas a full format also checks the USB for bad sectors and removes all data.

Data recovery is possible with specialized software but is less likely to be successful after a full format compared to a quick format.

ExFAT is recommended for cross-platform compatibility between Windows and Mac operating systems. For more information, visit Microsoft Support or Apple Support.

Yes, formatting can sometimes resolve issues where the USB displays incorrect storage capacity.

Yes, formatting on Linux typically involves using terminal commands or a different utility than the Windows format tool.

For general use and maximum compatibility, FAT32 is widely recommended, although it has a file size limit of 4GB. For larger files, use exFAT.

Excessive formatting can contribute to the wear and tear of the USB, potentially reducing its lifespan over time.