It’s never fun when it happens, but every now and then, it just does — your hard drive malfunctions, and you seemingly lose your files. It can happen to both internal and external drives, and if it does, you might be facing a difficult choice: Either give up and consider your files lost, or pursue sometimes complicated Mac hard drive recovery methods.

Thankfully, however, Mac hard drive data recovery has gotten a whole lot more simple over the years, and with a bit of forward-thinking, you’ll never have to worry about losing your files again. Also thankfully, there are ways to recover files from a Mac hard drive.

Of course, there are a few different things that could have happened to your hard drive. The first is that the hard drive has been physically damaged, which makes it much harder to recover files. Alternatively, it’s possible that there are issues with the hard drive’s logic, which means that files may be lost without the physical hard drive being damaged in any way. It also means that your Mac or MacBook hard drive recovery may be a little more complicated. We’ll run through both scenarios below.

Recovering data from a logically damaged hard drive

If your hard drive’s logic has been damaged, which is to say that it’s physically fine, but is somehow still malfunctioning, there are a few ways to recover your data and files. Some of those ways are easier than others, but they should still allow you to recover files that might be important to you.

Recovering data using Time Machine

The first, and easiest, method is to turn to any Time Machine backups that you have made. If you’ve been using the Mac’s built-in Time Machine technology, then it should be creating copies of files as you create them. This can apply to both internal and external hard drives, however the drive with the Time Machine backup on it will need to be fully functional.

If you’re restoring files that were previously stored on an external hard drive, before attempting to restore files from your malfunctioning or corrupt hard drive, it’s worth buying a new one to store those files to. Alternatively, if you have enough space on your internal drive, you can simply save the files there instead. Then, follow the steps below.
Step 1: Open Time Machine, and navigate to the file or folder you want to restore by using the slider on the right side to “go back in time” to before the drive failure.

Recovering data using Time Machine

Step 2: Right click the files or folders you want to restore, and tap the “Restore [file] to…” button.

Step 3: Save your files or folders to a new location that isn’t on the failed drive.

Things are a little more complicated if the hard drive that failed was your Mac’s internal drive. In this case, if you’re been using Time Machine, you have a backup on an external drive. To restore those files, you may need a new Mac computer. With the new computer, during the setup process, you’ll be able to restore your computer from the Time Machine backup.

Using Disk Utility

If you don’t have a Time Machine backup, or the drive that is broken is your Time Machine backup, you may need to take a different route, and that may involve using a disk repair tool. Apple has a disk repair tool built right into the Mac, called Disk Utility, and it’s worth trying to use Disk Utility before paying for a data recovery tool. Follow the steps below to use Disk Utility to try and repair a drive.

Disk Utility

Step 1: Open the Disk Utility application on your iMac, MacBook or other Mac computer.

Step 2: On the left hand sidebar, there should be a list of drives. Find the drive that isn’t working. It’s very important you select the correct drive, so double-check. If you’re using your Mac, then the “Macintosh HD” option is not the one you’re looking for, so don’t follow the steps below for it.

Step 3: Open the drop-down menu on the drive, and select the last volume associated with it. Then, tap the “First Aid” button on the top of the window.

Step 4: Disk Utility will attempt to fix the drive. Once it has finished, move to the next volume up, and so on, until you have performed First Aid on all volumes and the drive as a whole.

Hopefully, the program will have repaired the hard drive and it will be fully usable again, with your files intact. If not, move on to the next step.

Using a data recovery tool

If the Disk Utility is unable to find what’s wrong with your drive or repair the drive, then you may need to move on to using an actual data recovery tool — which won’t repair your disk, but may still be able to recover your files. There are a few of these tools out there, including the likes of EaseUS and Disk Drill.

Disk Drill is relatively easy to use, and allows you to perform a deep scan of your hard drive to find any missing files. With Disk Drill, you can filter through all the files that it finds, save them wherever you want to, and if you want, perform a bulk scan that saves all the files that it can possibly find. It’s a great tool to have if your hard drive is acting up. Here’s a quick rundown on how to use Disk Drill.

Step 1: Download and install Disk Drill, and connect your hard drive to your computer.

Data recovery tool

Step 2: Open Disk Drill and find the hard drive on the list of drives. Select it, and press the “Search for lost data button” on the bottom right of the display.

Data recovery software

Step 3: Wait for Disk Drill to scan your drive for files. Once it has finished, select the “Choose Folder” button at the top of the window and browse to the folder you want to save your files to.

Step 4: Now, select which files or folders you want to save by pressing the “Review found items” button, or select the “Recover all…” button.

Disk Drill

Step 5: Press “Recover,” and wait for the software to scan your drive. Once it has finished, you’ll be able to navigate to the folder to look through the files that were recovered.

How to prevent future file loss

If you want to make sure that you don’t have to worry about losing files in the future, it’s worth setting up Time Machine on your Mac.

To set up Time Machine, you’ll need to have an external hard drive. When you plug that drive into your Mac, you should get a prompt asking if you want to use the drive for Time Machine. Tap “Yes” and follow the on-screen instructions, which will include choosing any folders and locations you want excluded from the backup. Whenever you have that drive plugged in, Time Machine should update its backup — so it will always be up to date, and you can always count on it when you need it.

Recovering data from a physically damaged hard drive

If your hard drive is physically damaged, you’re unfortunately much less likely to be able to restore your lost files. In fact, if your hard drive is physically damaged, probably the best thing to do is either come to terms with having lost your files, or get in touch with a lab or professional that deals with damaged drives. They may tell you that your drive is too damaged to recover files from, and in that case, you’re out of luck.

If you are set on recovering the data by yourself, there are a few things that you can try. For starters, you could buy a hard drive enclosure, and install the hard drive in that enclosure. Sometimes, hard drive enclosures fail, and the actual drive is perfectly fine — and in that case, you may be able to recover your files, and use the drive as normal, with just a new enclosure. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to get a professional involved, with the understanding that you may have lost your files forever. One place to start is Secure Data Recovery.

Mac hard drive recovery FAQ

Below are answers to a few questions you may have on Mac hard drive recovery.