How to Recover Deleted Files After Emptying the Trash on Mac

It’s happened to us all. You spend all day working on a text document or a spreadsheet and you save it to the Desktop to make it easier to find later. Then, at the end of the day, in an attempt to tidy up, you drag it to the Trash and without thinking about it, click Empty Trash. With a crunch, your whole day’s work is gone.

If only you’d started running Time Machine yesterday rather than tomorrow. If only you’d made a back up earlier in the day. If only.

Thankfully, all is not lost. It is possible, even if you haven’t taken precautions, to recover files, photos, audio, music, emails you’ve dragged to the Trash and emptied. The first thing to do is… nothing! That’s right, don’t do anything else on your Mac. You need the disk’s file structure to remain exactly as it was when you emptied the Trash. The only exception is to launch the application that’s going to save the day: Disk Drill, available with Setapp.

The easy way to recover deleted files after emptying the Trash

You can recover files from any storage device on your Mac safely and effectively with just several clicks.

Step 1: Plug in an external storage device

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a flash drive, an external hard drive, or even an SD card. Anything will do, so long as it’s got enough free space to hold the file you want to recover. The key point is that you should never attempt to recover a file to the same disk you deleted it from.

Step 2: Launch recovery app

With the external storage disk plugged in, launch Disk Drill. Click on your Mac’s hard drive (not the disk you just plugged in) and click Recover. Wait. Depending on the size of your Mac’s startup disk and how often you use it and delete files from it, the scan could take a little while. The good news is that as your Mac’s disk isn’t corrupted, a Deep Scan shouldn’t be necessary.

Step 3: Review the results

When the scan is finished, you’ll see all the files Disk Drill has found listed in the window with information including the file name, type and modification date. There may be lots of files to look through, so use the filter at the top of the window. Click on the dropdown menu above the file path and select the type of file – JPEG, TXT, etc. – you’re look for. That will narrow down the search. If you’re still having trouble, use the other two filters to set the file size and the time it was deleted.

Step 4: Preview the file to confirm

When you’ve found the file you accidentally put in the Trash, click the eye icon next to the file path to preview it. If the file is a text document or spreadsheet, check over it carefully to make sure it’s ok. If it’s a movie or music file, watch or listen to it all the way through to make sure the whole file is intact. If you’re happy that it’s ok, press the Recover button.

Step 5: Recover file from the Mac Trash

When you click Recover, you’ll be asked to choose where you want to save the recovered file. This is where the spare disk comes in. Navigate to that disk and choose it as the location. Follow the instructions onscreen to complete the recovery process. When it’s finished, your file will be saved on the external disk. You can now copy it back to your main hard drive and put it wherever you like (but not in the Trash!).

Prevention is better than cure

It’s always better to avoid having to recover a file you’ve put into the Trash. The best way to do that is to backup your main disk regularly. If you use Apple’s Time Machine, you can recover the file by invoking Time Machine from the menu bar and navigating to the most recent backup before you trashed the file.

If you’d rather not use Time Machine, Disk Drill has a feature that can help. Guaranteed Recovery saves a copy of every file you put in the Trash so that if you accidentally delete a file, you still have a copy of it. Depending on the kind of files you work with and how often you put things in the Trash, that can take up quite a bit of disk space and will grow over time. Another option is Recovery Vault. This creates a ‘map’ of your disk and stores only the metadata used to create the map. It uses much less storage space than Guaranteed Recovery but takes longer to restore files and may not work in all circumstances.

How to enable Guaranteed Recovery

  1. Identify your startup disk. In Disk Drill’s main window, look for your startup disk – it will usually be called ‘Macintosh HD’, unless you’ve renamed it. Hover over the Recover button and click the gear icon that appears next to it. Choose ‘Configure data protection.’ Alternatively, if you just want to switch both Guaranteed Recover and Recovery Vault on, click the shield icon to the left of ‘Recover.’
  2. Configure data protection. In the window that opens, click ‘Ok, let’s do it.’ In the next window, set the slider next to ‘Guaranteed Recovery’ to ‘On’. Click the arrow to the left of ‘Guaranteed Recovery’ to reveal the options for configuring it.
  3. Choose options for saving a copy of trash files. At the bottom of the next window, choose how long you want to keep a copy of files that have been moved to the Trash. You can also choose the maximum size of any individual file to be copied and the total maximum size of all copied files.
  4. Add another folder. Guaranteed Recovery can make a copy of any folder, not just Trash. If you want to protect a folder with important documents in it, click ‘Add Folder’ and navigate to the folder you want to protect. When you’re done, click the back button to return to Disk Drill’s main screen.

Finally, there may be files you deliberately put in the Trash and don’t want to be recovered. For that, you can use CleanMyMac’s File Shredder, available with a Setapp subscription, which destroys files completely and means they can’t be recovered.