I have been tasked with recovering data from a drive that says that Windows needs to format it to use it. If I do the quick format, will it delete or damage any files? I'm trying to use Recuva to recover the files, but it still says I must format first...

6 Answers 6


Why would you format if you are trying to recover files? Formatting wipes the disk; that’s the whole point. It doesn’t matter whether you do a quick or full format, the purpose of formatting is to erase the drive and mark it as empty.

A quick format may only wipe the FAT instead of the clusters containing the actual files, but any recovery attempt will be infinitely more likely to succeed with an intact FAT than with just directory entries alone.

If you are having trouble mounting the file-system on the drive, then before trying anything else, check if it works in another port or computer. Then try cleaning the contacts on the drive since a patina usually forms on metal surfaces and dirty contacts lead to a bad connection, and what you described is a common symptom of this problem with flash-drives. After that, use a cloning tool like DriveImageXML to make a raw backup copy of the drive so that you don’t permanently lose anything during your recovery experiments. Finally, use a tool that can see and examine the drive at a low level instead of requiring access through the file-system (most recovery tools can do this; PhotoRec’s disk-list comes to mind).

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    Great answer as usual expected from you, but in that message of Windows I can bet card has been damaged and OP can't get back data from it 99%, only 1% chance is there. But OP can try to format without recovering data using this tool sdcard.org/downloads/formatter_3 . Unfortunately it didn't work for me. :)
    – avirk
    Dec 20, 2012 at 2:38
  • @avirk, I have seen that exact message several times, and one time it was because the card was modified by something (virus?), but all other times, simply cleaning the pins on the card / the reader / the USB extension cable fixed it. ☺ Windows gives that error when it cannot correctly read the card, which can easily happen if the connection is bad. You can confirm it by opening the card in a hex-editor: if it is corrupt, then the FAT or directories may be bad but the data should be good; if the connection is bad, then everything will be a bit scrambled.
    – Synetech
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:57
  • Thanks, I got most of the files back. Sorry it took so long to respond, I was busy with something.
    – Oztaco
    Dec 23, 2012 at 4:27

Yes, it will "delete or damage" files... Recuva may be fairly decent on getting them back, however, there is an inherent risk in doing that.

A better approach would be to boot a Linux Live CD and mount it to try and recover the data. (Live CD List). The simplest one is probably Ubuntu, which you can go through it with the GUI (rather than command line).

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    If you're booting into linux, you might want to try photorec and testdisk.
    – Journeyman Geek
    Dec 17, 2012 at 2:46
  • @JourneymanGeek I haven't seen photorec before, that looks like a great tool. Thanks!
    – nerdwaller
    Dec 17, 2012 at 2:48
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    @JourneymanGeek perhaps you should post that as an answer, in my opinion photorec and testdisk are very good tools for this purpose.
    – Tim
    Dec 17, 2012 at 12:30
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    Linux FTW, most of the times when I mounted a disk which Windows decides it's faulty, worked perfectly when mounted to linux; then you can back up the files, format it and copy them back. Dec 17, 2012 at 13:23

The only difference between format and quick format is that quick format doesn't search for bad sectors (source).

I don't know about other file systems, but with NTFS, I can tell you from my own experience that formatting the drive does not affect your chances of recovering your files (although it will destroy the directory structure).

Either way, it's probably a good idea to save a bit-by-bit copy of the flash drive before attempting to alter anything on it. This can be achieved with dd under Linux or dd for Windows.

The tool PhotoRec that Journeyman Geek suggested in another answer's comments works great for small files, since it doesn't take the missing/damaged file system into account. However, it generally fails for larger files for the exact same reason (see: Recovered video files won't play).

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    IIRC, quick format merely writes file system metadata, leaving the majority of data intact (though without the file/directory records, making recovery much more difficult that a merely damaged file system), while a full format zero fills the partition, completely erasing all data with practically no chance of recovery.
    – Bob
    Dec 17, 2012 at 6:51

You are not going to want to work within windows. If you format it you MIGHT be able to recover data, but chances are quite low. You're breaking the first law of recovery - not to change anything. I'd start with a linux livedisk - probably something like xubuntu, and use tools from that.

There are quite a few good tools for recovery (and backup) and you'll want to try several different onees to get the best chance of recovering your files.

I would start with gnu ddrescue its a nice little rescue oriented dd varient that does a good job making images of damaged disks. The package name is gddrescue on ubuntu varients, since there's another program called ddrescue.

I'd then try testdisk (which recovers whole filesystems), and photorec (which recovers some files)

If those fail, try using formost and scalpel on copies of the disk image - these do 'carving' or file recovery based on headers, footers and metadata.

  • It's also great to know that TestDisk and PhotoRec can be run within Windows, if you are more comfortable with Windows.
    – Harsha K
    Dec 17, 2012 at 16:36

YES, Do not format the drive, it will erase the data. Not to the point of being unable to recover it, but there are better ways of getting at your data. First and foremost, try the drive in different USB ports, and then try to right-click on the disk in My Computer and run a disk check on it.

If that doesn't work, boot into a live disk of Ubuntu or GParted and check to see how Ubuntu reads the drive. More often than not, Ubuntu can read it, and using the file manager, you can recover the files and then cleanly format it.

Flash drives can get corrupted for a myriad of reasons, but doing a nuke and then seeing what Recuva can get back is a bad way of going about it.

  • If you do the check disk route, you need to be careful of "fix errors", because that may alter the sectors that are "bad". That often causes some loss of data. Just an FYI for the OP.
    – nerdwaller
    Dec 17, 2012 at 2:47

I have few suggestions. Open the drive with any possible way you could find. But in case you fail and forced to format it do a quick format and DO NOT change the file system.

After format try to recover data using recovery tools. I prefer :

EaseUS data recovery wizard professional

I have recovered >250 GB from a quick formatted drive with NTFS file system. Took 3 days to recover more than 98% data. So get time and be ready!

All the best...

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