When your SD card refuses to be recognized and asks to be formatted, it feels like a brick wall. Formatting a device wipes the data, so you won’t be able to access your files anyway. Here’s the bad news: if it still gives the same error when connected to another computer, formatting really is the only way to fix your corrupted SD card.

Here’s the good news: this article will teach you how to format your SD card without losing data. Yes, it’s possible. All you need is your SD card, a computer, and internet.

Why Your SD Card Asks to Be Formatted

So, you got this message: “You need to format the disk in drive X: before you can use it. Do you want to format it?” This usually happens when your SD card is corrupted or something is wrong with the file system.

Here’s what could have happened:

ProblemSummary
💻 Incompatible file systemWindows can read a whole bunch of file system formats – but if it encounters one it can’t, it will ask to be reformatted to a compatible file system. You can’t reformat your SD card without losing data (unless you use special tools… More on this below).
🦠 Virus infectionA virus can modify the file system, boot sector, and other information on the disk that makes it work. Corruption is just one of the symptoms. To combat the virus, your SD card may ask you to format it – which, again, will wipe your data. You can still recover deleted files from your SD card… But we have a better way. Keep reading.
🔥 Physical damageSD cards are sensitive to extreme temperatures, water damage, and scratching from dust and debris inside the case. These can cause damage to any sector of the disk, which may include file system data. In other words, corruption.
❌ Improper ejectionIf you disconnect your drive without properly ejecting it, you might interrupt it while it’s reading or writing data. This can cause corruption.
⚡️ Power outageSimilar to improper ejection, suddenly losing power while it’s reading or writing data can cause corruption.

How to Format Memory Card Without Losing Data

We have 2 methods you can choose from to format your memory card without losing data. Option 1 guarantees that you’ll restore 100% of the data currently on the disk, unless it was overwritten. It takes an extra step, but in our opinion – it’s worth it. Option 2 is faster, but it’s not as fail-safe as Option 1.

For both methods, we’ll be using a data recovery tool called Disk Drill. It’s powerful enough to extract data directly from the file system, but it’s also super easy to use. Even if you aren’t tech-savvy, you can easily follow along. It also offers 500 MB of free data recovery. This should be enough for most non-video files you need to restore.

Free SD card recovery software does exist, but they have their own limitations.

To learn more about Disk Drill and our experiences using it with different devices, read our full Disk Drill review.

Option #1: Use Disk Drill to Create an Image Backup and Recover It

For a guaranteed recovery, we’ll use Disk Drill’s Byte-to-byte backup feature (completely FREE) to create an “image backup” of your SD card before formatting it. This “image backup” is a clone of your SD card with 100% of the data preserved.

We can “mount” this image backup as a disk and tell Disk Drill to select it as the recovery target. Once the clone is properly mounted, the SD card is no longer needed for the rest of the steps and can be safely formatted. This method is also the best way to recover files from a corrupted SD card.

We’ll show you how to do it from start to finish:

Disk Drill will recognize your SD card even if File Explorer can’t. As long as your SD card is visible in Device Manager, you can clone it.
  1. Make sure your SD card is securely connected to your computer, then download and install Disk Drill.
  2. Launch Disk Drill. On the left sidebar, click “Drive backup.” Select your SD card from the middle pane and click “Byte-to-byte backup.” If you’re using a USB-type card reader, it may be labeled as a “Generic Storage Device.”
    Disk Drill Byte-to-byte backup drive selection screen
  3. In the dialogue box that appears, name the backup file and select a destination folder on your computer where Disk Drill will save it. Click “OK.”
    Disk Drill create backup dialogue
  4. Take note of the folder path you selected, as we’ll be using it in the next step. Click the back button to return to Disk Drill’s initial window.
    Disk Drill backup created screen
  5. On the left sidebar, click “Data Recovery” and click “Attach disk/image” from the middle pane.
    Disk Drill Attach disk image button
  6. Select the image backup we just created and click “Open.”
    Disk Drill attach image dialogue
  7. From the middle pane, select your image backup and click “Search for lost data.”
    Disk Drill drive selection screen
  8. Wait for Disk Drill to complete its scan, then click “Review found items.”
    DIsk Drill scanning screen
  9. You can use the search bar and the sidebar to look for specific files, and you can preview any file by hovering your mouse beside its file name and clicking the eye button that appears. The preview feature is particularly useful as data recovery software don’t always retrieve original file names.
    Disk Drill SD card file preview
  10. Use the checkboxes in the left-most column to select the files you want to recover, then click “Recover.” You can also leave all the boxes blank and click “Recover all…”
    Disk Drill file selection
  11. Use the folder button to select a location on your computer where you want Disk Drill to save the recovered files. Then, click “OK.”
    Disk Drill save file dialogue

Option #2: “Quick Format” Your SD Card and Recover it With Disk Drill

“Quick Formatting”, as opposed to formatting, doesn’t fully wipe the data. But it may be enough to get rid of the error. And while Disk Drill can recover data from a formatted SD card, you’ll have more success if you only quick format it. So for this method, we’ll quick-format the SD card and then recover it with Disk Drill.

Option 2 is still a “safe-ish” method that should recover most of your data. However, we can’t give it the same guarantee as Option 1.

Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Quick Format your SD card. You can do this using Command Prompt, Disk Management, or simply via File Explorer (right-click your SD card > Format…)
    Drive formatting window
  2. Download and install Disk Drill, then launch it.
  3. Select your SD card from the middle pane, then click “Search for lost data.”
    Corrupted SD card in Disk Drill drive selection screen
  4. Wait for Disk Drill to complete its scan, then click “Review found items.”
    Disk Drill scanning screen
  5. In this window, use the search bar and sidebar to find your files faster or preview them with the eye button (hover your pointer beside any file to see it).
    Disk Drill corrupted SD card file preview
  6. Select the files you want to restore using the boxes in the left-most column and click “Recover.” Or, leave all the boxes blank and click “Recover All…”
    Disk Drill file selection
  7. Use the folder button to select a location on your computer where Disk Drill will save the recovered files. Then, click “OK.”
    Disk Drill save file dialogue

FAQ

Conclusion

SD card corruption can strike at any time, so we suggest creating an image backup on a weekly basis (or more often, if you use it a lot). Disk Drill is super convenient because it has both backup and recovery tools, but the instructions in this article will work with similar software.