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How to recover deleted files on a Mac

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Losing a file in macOS can be a real pain, and doubly so when you’re the one who clicked delete. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to recover deleted files, particularly if you realise your mistake quickly. This guide will show you how to recover deleted items on a Mac.

In this tutorial we’ll look at simple methods for getting back deleted documents, music files, contacts, and more.

We have a separate article about recovering lost or deleted photos on a Mac here.

How to recover deleted Mac files

Recovering a deleted document in macOS is straightforward if you do it straight away. It will usually be found inside the Trashcan – sorry, rubbish bin.

  1. Click on the Trash icon (on the right of the Dock) to view all of the files you have deleted.
  2. If there are a lot of files here and you can’t see it, or you don’t know what the file is called, you can use the Search box in the Finder window to find the file (enter the search term then click on Trash instead of This Mac to search the Trash folder).

    How to recover deleted files on Mac

  3. Once you have located the file you want to rescue drag it out of the Trash and on to the Desktop (or any other part of Finder).

But bear in mind that time is a factor here – when your hard drive gets full, macOS may start to remove items from the Trash. Or you may have set the Trash to automatically empty every 30 days as a way to keep your Mac from getting cluttered.

For that reason, if you deleted the file a long time ago you may find the item has been removed from the Trash.

In this instance, you may be able to recover the file using a Time Machine backup (we explain how to do that here). That’s assuming you have a backup, if not read: How to back up a Mac or How to use Time Machine and read on for some suggestions of ways you can recover your lost files or photos.

If you have lost an important Word document you might find this article handy: How to recover lost documents in Word for Mac.

How to recover deleted emails on a Mac

If it’s an important email you have deleted you may be able to recover it, this process is more likely to be successful if you use the Mail app as by default Mail waits at least a week before truly deleting a message, but it may be much longer (ours had messages that were over a month old).

  1. Open Mail.
  2. Find your Trash folder. Recover deleted emails
  3. Locate the deleted email.
  4. Click on it and drag it back into your Inbox.

If you can’t find the email you could also try the website of the service that you use for your emails. For example, Google Mail.

We also have an article about how to recover deleted emails on your iPhone or iPad here.

How to recover deleted iTunes songs

Music files are largely managed on Mac computers using iTunes. The software displays the music files via an easy to use interface (perhaps not so easy to use these days) but keeps the actual music files stored in the iTunes Music folder.

You can find your iTunes music folder in your Home directory (usually given your username). Open the finder and click on the Home directory > Music > iTunes > iTunes Media > Music.

When you delete a music file in iTunes you get the choice to move it to the Trash or keep it in the iTunes Media folder. If you choose the option Keep File, it’s listing be removed from the database that you see inside iTunes, but it will still be located inside the iTunes Media folder.

Alternatively, if you choose to Move to Trash the track may still be in the Trash, if you are lucky.

If you’ve simply removed the music file from iTunes, it will still be in the iTunes > iTunes Music (or iTunes Media > Music) folder.

  1. Check this folder for the missing audio file.
  2. Once located you can drag it on top of the iTunes icon or an iTunes window to re-import it back into iTunes.

If the file has been sent to the Trash then you might be able to find it in your Trash folder. Follow these steps to get it back into iTunes:

  1. Open iTunes and click on iTunes > Preferences.
  2. Click Advanced and make sure there is a tick in the box marked ‘Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library’.Recover iTunes deleted track
  3. Drag the audio file out of the Trash to the Desktop.
  4. Drag the audio file on top of the iTunes icon. It should be re-imported and copied into the iTunes folder in Finder.
  5. Move the audio file from the desktop back to the Trash. (It has been copied back into iTunes so is now a duplicate file.)

This restores the music file to iTunes. If you cannot find the audio file in the Trash then you will need to either check your Time Machine backup, or get the audio file again – rip it again from the CD it came from or, if you purchased it from iTunes, download the file again from the iTunes Store.

If all else fails, there is always the option of downloading a data recovery program. There are many different ones to choose from, but make sure you do your research before downloading anything. All of them will essentially do the same thing, which is scan your system to look for any deleted files, and then give you the option of restoring them.

How to recover deleted contacts in macOS

If you’ve deleted an entry from the Contacts app in macOS then you can tap on Edit > Undo Delete Card. You have to do this before making any other edits in Contacts, or you’ll lose the card. You can recover it using Time Machine, if you have it set up on your Mac.

What to do if you can’t recover your files

If none of these tips has helped you recover your files you could try one of the apps we list in this feature: Best data recovery apps for Mac. We also have this article on how to recover data from damaged Mac or external drive



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