Formatted SD Card Recovery: How to Recover Files from a Formatted SD Card in 2021

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Yevgeniy Tolkunov
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Recover Files from a Formatted SD Card

Formatted SD cards are one of the most common ways to lose crucial data, yet also one of the easiest to recover from. Because if you move quickly and take the right steps, you can easily regain access to the entire contents of your SD card again.

Whether you are traveling without access to a PC or have your trusty Mac at your side, we detail a way for you to get your data back. So without further ado, here is our complete guide on recovering files from a formatted SD card on every platform.

Pro-Tip
If you have just formatted your SD card, the data is completely intact. For now. But every time you store a new file on the SD card, it overwrites the previous data still present in the background. The longer you use the card before attempting recovery, the poorer your chances of actually retrieving your data are. Therefore, make sure that you stop using the SD card until you have recovered your files.

What is Formatting & What Happens When You Format an SD Card?

format sandisk sd card in windows

Formatting is a process through which digital storage media is prepared for use by an operating system.

Why is formatting necessary? 

  • Newly obtained storage media needs to be formatted before you can store data on it.
  • In cases where you are changing the operating system that will be used with a device, you may need to reformat the disk.
  • Different file systems are employed by various operating systems, necessitating this process.

Formatting disk-based storage media places a new file management system on the device so data can be saved in a way that can be understood by the operating system. Logical links that previously enabled the files to be accessed are deleted. Initially, the formatted disk or card will still contain the files and folders that were saved to the device before formatting occurred.

At this point, data recovery software can still restore the data from the formatted media. Subsequent use of the device will overwrite this data and make it impossible to recover. For this reason, you should refrain from using a card that has undergone an accidental format if you wish to recover its contents. You should immediately use data recovery software to save the old files before they are overwritten and gone for good.

When you format an SD or micro SD card you remove the previous file management system and replace it with one which is compatible with the device that will use the card. Formatting appears to delete the contents of the card, but in reality, only removes access by implementing a new filesystem. You will often be prompted to format the card when first inserting it into a new device.

Limitations of the CMD recovery method

Many guides begin what is known as the ‘CMD recovery method’. Basically, it involves using the chkdsk and attrib commands to repair the disk and reveal hidden files, respectively.

The chkdsk command is used to run the check disk utility, which scans the drive indicated to detect corrupted partitions. From there it can try fixing the errors and retrieving what data it can.

Check Disk with Windows

The problem is that it is not at all applicable to a formatted SD card. Running chkdsk on such a drive returns no problems, as the card is not corrupted, just formatted.

Similarly, the attrib command is useless for this purpose too. It can display hidden files, but files removed due to formatting are not included.

It would definitely be great if you could restore your formatted SD card without having to use any specialized software, but that is not possible. You need to use a dedicated data recovery tool to recover your formatted data.

Connecting the SD card to your Computer

insert sd card computer

Before you can get started with recovering files from the SD card, you must make it available to your computer. Most modern computers sport built-in card readers, so you just have to slot in your SD card.

But what if your computer does not have a card reader? You can use an external SD card reader that plugs into a USB drive.

Now, you can connect an Android phone to the PC itself too. The problem is, that only allows you to transfer files, not use data recovery software on it. Thus your only bet is to connect the SD card to your computer directly.

Recovering Data From a Formatted SD Card on Windows 10

With your SD card connected with the computer, it is time to get started with the recovery itself. Now, there are many data recovery tools in the market for Windows. And as most of them have free trials too, the cost is not an issue either.

For this guide, we are going to use Minitool Power Data Recovery, though feel free to use an application of your choice.

To start, get the small installation file from the official website. It installs quickly too, so you will be ready to launch the application in a few minutes.

MiniTool Main Screen

The home screen of the application lists all the drives currently available on your computer, including any removable disks connected through a card reader or USB cable. Select the drive representing your SD card from this list and then click on Scan.

MiniTool Scanning

As the scanning is underway, recovered partitions start appearing in the middle. You can wait for the scan to complete, or start looking into the partitions to see if the files you want are there. Previewing is a bit glitchy, so it is best to restore anything that looks promising and check it out later.

Do note though that the free version only allows you to recover up to 1GB of data. The trial also does not let you save the scan results, so try to finish restoring the data you want in one sitting unless you want to wait for a scan again.

Recovering Formatted SD Card on a Mac

For Mac, we are going to be using Disk Drill. It works on Windows too actually, and has a much better interface than Minitool, as we will see.

First, download the setup from the official site and install it. Running the application brings you to a drop-down list of all your storage devices, including any SD cards.

Mac Disk Drill

Click the ‘Search for lost data’ button to start scanning. Unlike Minitool, the search results are presented in a much more palatable format. The scan results are instantly categorized into their respective file types. This makes locating the files you are looking for much easier.

Disk Drill Scanning

You can ‘Review found items’ any time to get a neatly segregated list of the files that have been already found. You can then navigate freely through the file structure and even preview any of the files.

Disk Drill Preview

Wait for the scan to complete, or select the files you want and use the ‘Recover’ button to start restoring them. Just specify a target location for the recovered files and Disk Drill will take care of the rest.

Disk Drill file recovered

Recover Files From a Formatted SD card on Linux

Linux users always get the short end of the stick. None of the applications we mentioned before work on a Linux distro.

But that does not mean you don’t have any options. PhotoRec is a tried and tested data recovery tool for all operating systems, including Linux. In practice though, its text-based interface means that few users outside Linux or Mac ever try it out.

Leaving aside the dated interface, PhotoRec is a great tool that gets the job done. To install it to your machine, use the apt-get install command on Debian-based distributions (including Ubuntu). PhotoRec is included in the testdisk package, which also has partitioning utilities bundled with it.

sudo apt-get install testdisk

Now just run PhotoRec.

sudo photorec

Photorec select drive

PhotoRec immediately gets down to business, giving you a list of all the storage media connected with your computer. Use the arrow keys to navigate to the drive you wish to scan and hit Enter.

Photorec select partition

Next up is a list of the partitions on the disk. Once again, use the arrow keys to navigate to your choice and proceed with the Enter key.

Photorec select file system

This choice is mostly superfluous, as the ext file systems are used by system files and not relevant to most users. Just keep going.

Photorec select space

A new feature in the latest release, you can now choose whether to look at the whole partition or just the empty part of it. Since we are dealing with a formatted SD card, both would yield the same results.

Photorec select destination

Don’t worry, this is the last bit of information the application will ask of you. Navigate through the file structure to find a destination folder for the restored files to be stored in. Obviously, you should avoid choosing a location on the SD card itself.

Hit C when you are ready to start the recovery process.

Photorec scanning

Now just sit back and watch. Unlike the other tools, you don’t get to pick and choose, as the application will simply dump everything it finds to the destination. You can stop anytime you want, but as you cannot see what exactly is being recovered, we recommend waiting it out.

When it stops, PhotoRec will tell you the total size and number of the files it has recovered. Head to the destination folder you selected to go through the files yourself.

Formatted SD Card Recovery on Android Phones

If you have a PC on hand, we would recommend attempting recovery on the PC instead. Even when you don’t have an inbuilt card reader, you can use an external card reader to connect your SD card to the computer. We recommend this because a PC-based data recovery tool like Disk Drill is more powerful than any app you can get on Android.

But in case you don’t have a PC on hand, you can always try recovering files from your formatted SD card on your phone itself. DiskDigger is a great app for this on Android.

It is free, allowing you to give it a try, and above all, it actually works. It can only recover photos, but that is good enough for a free Android app.

To get started, head to the Play Store and install DiskDigger. Just don’t install it into the SD card itself as it might overwrite your formatted data. Use your phone’s internal storage for now.

Disk Digger Playstore

Firing up the app, you will be greeted with a bunch of options. We only need the first one: ‘Start Basic Photo Scan’.

Disk Digger main screen

As the app scans the SD card, it will keep adding preview thumbnails of the pics found, which is very useful. If you are only looking to recover a few important pictures, you can stop scanning as soon as they turn up. Simply select the thumbnails you want and hit the Recover button.

Disk Digger recover file

You will be prompted to choose the storage location for the recovered files. You can save the files to the cloud storage of an app like Google Drive and Dropbox, an FTP server, or your phone’s internal storage itself.

Pick a destination and your selected files will be saved.

What about Digital Cameras and GoPro?

Almost all digital cameras (including GoPro), can be directly connected to a PC using a USB cable. While this allows the computer to access the SD card storage, it does not work for file recovery.

This is because accessing files on the SD card of a connected device uses the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP). It recognizes the camera (or the GoPro) as a multimedia device, not a simple storage drive.

Therefore, you should take out the SD card from your camera and use a card reader. Other complicated alternatives do exist (like rooting your device) but they can make things worse. Just connect the formatted SD card with a PC or even an Android phone and recover your files.

FAQ

Conclusion

Accidentally formatting your SD card is nothing to be too worried about. Unlike a corrupted or damaged card, your data is completely safe.

Formatting simply makes the storage ‘available’ for use. It doesn’t actually delete anything, so unless you continue using the SD card to store new files, all of your data will be intact.

This is why we would recommend moving quickly. Whether you are on Windows, Mac, Linux, or Android, you can use a data recovery tool to scan your SD card and restore the lost files.

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A frontend developer turned writer, Levin brings his in-depth knowledge to bear in breaking down complex technical topics into a layman's perspective. A believer in emergent technologies, Levin writes about Machine Learning and Internet-of-Things to explore how people and businesses can benefit from innovation. He also likes going into the nitty-gritty details of software or hardware products to bring an unbiased review that adds value to his readers.
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This article has been approved by Yevgeniy Tolkunov, Hardware Engineer at ACE Data Recovery. Brett has a Master's Degree in Physics, Information Technology; 15+ years of experience.