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How to recover lost or deleted files on a Mac

Time Machine backup on a MacBook.
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Maybe you’ve misplaced or permanently deleted a file on Mac that you now need. There are several ways to recover items on MacOS depending on how recently you lost or removed the file.

We start with the quickest and simplest methods and work up to the more lengthy or pricey methods for restoring files, folders, and other items on your Mac.

How to undo your last action

At the top of this list is the Undo action because it’s the simplest way to restore a file you’ve just deleted. The key to using Undo is that removing your file was the last action you performed.

As an example, say you just moved a file to the Trash. Follow these steps to reverse that action:

  1. Open the original folder that contained the file before you moved it.
  2. Go to Edit > Undo Move in the Mac menu bar.
Undo Move a file from the Trash on Mac.
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You should then see the file return to that folder from the Trash.

How to recover files from the Trash

If you’ve performed many actions on your Mac or need to restore a deleted file from some time ago, Undo won’t work. Instead, you can recover items from the Trash folder.

Note this only works if you haven’t yet emptied the Trash on Mac.

  1. Open the Trash folder which should be on the right side of your Dock.
  2. Right-click the item you want to recover and pick Put Back in the shortcut menu to place the item back in its original location or just drag the item from the Trash folder to the spot where you want it.
Put Back in the file menu in Trash on Mac.
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Retrieve files from the Recently Deleted folder

If the item you deleted was one of Apple’s apps like Photos, Notes, or Mail, you can retrieve the item from the app’s Recently Deleted folder.

For instance, if you delete a photo, follow these steps to recover it:

  1. Open the app, which in this example is Photos.
  2. Select Recently Deleted in the left-hand menu.
  3. If you set up the folder to require authentication before opening, enter your password or use Touch ID.
  4. Right-click the photo and choose Recover.
Recover a picture in Photos on Mac.
Digital Trends

You’ll then see the picture back in your Library.

How to restore files from Time Machine

In many cases, it may not be as easy to restore a file with the above methods. This is when the built-in Time Machine tool for MacOS can save the day. With it, you can go back in time, locate the file, and restore it easily.

  1. Open the folder that originally contained the item.
  2. Launch Time Machine by doing one of the following:
    • Open Finder, select Go > Applications in the menu bar, and double-click Time Machine.
    • Select the Time Machine icon in the menu bar and choose Browse Time Machine Backups.
  3. Once open, drag the timeline on the right or use the arrows next to the folder to go back to a time before you lost or deleted the file.
  4. Choose the item and click Restore.
Restore a file in Time Machine on Mac.
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Use MacOS Terminal

If you’re familiar with Terminal commands on Mac, you can also use this tool to recover a file.

Note that this method isn’t recommended for new Terminal users or those not comfortable using it. Some commands can overwrite files or have other adverse effects. Additionally, Terminal requires full disk access to run the commands below.

To restore an item from the Mac Trash folder, launch Terminal by opening Finder, selecting Go > Utilities in the menu bar, and double-clicking Terminal.

Enter the following command to access the Trash:

cd .Trash

Enter this command to view the contents:

ls -al ~/.Trash
Trash contents in Terminal on Mac.
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Enter this next command replacing “filename” with the exact name of your file:

mv filename ../
Move a file from the Trash in Terminal on Mac.
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You can then return to your previous directory by typing the following and closing the Terminal:

cd /

Consider data recovery software

Maybe you’ve lost or deleted many files, folders, and other items or are having trouble restoring items with the previous methods. In this case, consider using data recovery software for Mac.

While these tools vary in their features and prices, they normally offer intuitive interfaces for recovering items quickly and easily. A couple of popular Mac options include EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard and CleverFiles Disk Drill.

EaseUS recovers personal data and items from Time Machine and iTunes backups along with HFS+ fusion drive. You can also create a bootable USB drive, receive data protection, and use its Smart Disk monitoring. EaseUS offers a free plan with a paid Pro upgrade for $90 yearly.

CleverFiles Disk Drill restores files, music, photos, videos, and other items from internal, external, and virtual hard drives, as well as memory cards. Disk Drill for MacOS offers a free plan, as well as a paid Pro plan for $89 yearly.

For additional options, check out our recommendations for the best data recovery software.

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Sandy Writtenhouse
Sandy has been writing about technology since 2012. Her work has appeared on How-To Geek, Lifewire, MakeUseOf, iDownloadBlog…
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