Recover External Hard Drive Without Formatting

How to Recover External Hard Drive Without Formatting

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Written by Jordan Jamieson-Mane Jordan Jamieson-Mane Staff Writer • 44 articles Jordan Jamieson-Mane, a data recovery and Windows troubleshooting expert, joined Handy Recovery Advisor in 2021. Starting as a contributing writer, he quickly established himself as a skilled technical writer and researcher, earning his current staff writer position. LinkedIn Approved by Andrey Vasilyev Andrey Vasilyev Editor Andrey Vasilyev is an Editorial Advisor for Handy Recovery. Andrey is a software engineer expert with extensive expertise in data recovery, computer forensics, and data litigation. Andrey brings over 12 years of experience in software development, database administration, and hardware repair to the team. LinkedIn

The moment you plug your external hard drive in, a window opens stating that it can’t be read, or that it’s inaccessible. You might even receive a window that suggests formatting it. Regardless, something has happened that’s now preventing you from accessing your files.

In these situations, you have to be strategic in what you do. Making changes could worsen the situation if you’re unsure of what you’re doing. In this article, we’ll discuss what could have caused this to happen and how to recover your external hard drive without formatting it.


As with any data loss situation, you should stop using the drive immediately. Continued use of the affected drive may result in new data overwriting your lost files. Only use the drive once you’re prepared to implement the fixes outlined in this article. Click here to jump straight to the recovery guide.

Reasons Behind Faulty External Hard Drives

Hard drives are far from perfect. Their proneness to data-related issues worsens as they age. Let’s take a look at a few common reasons why your external hard drive has decided to stop working:

  • 🦠 Virus attack – Viruses can be created to attack your hard drives. This includes external hard drives that are connected at the time of a virus attack.
  • 😷 Corruption – If a hard drive is removed during a write operation, there’s a chance that the hard drive, data included, will become corrupted. Corrupted data is inaccessible and corrupted drives have problems being recognized.
  • 🔧 Driver issue – Drivers are what allow our computer’s hardware and operating system to communicate with each other. If they’re outdated or corrupted, this could result in a breakdown in communication.
  • 💥 Physical damage – Anything that results in physical damage to the hard drive. Water damage, drops, and faulty cables, etc. Physical damage is harder to recover data from if the drive isn’t being recognized, and often requires an inspection from a professional.
  • 💻 Incompatibility – It’s possible that the hard drive won’t work with the computer or operating system you’re attempting to use it with due to hardware or file system compatibility issues.
  • Bad sectors – Possibly caused by physical or logical failures, bad sectors can degrade the performance of the drive, or they can even make files inaccessible.

Any one of the above problems can prevent access to the drive. Let’s move onto how you can recover an external hard disk without formatting.

How to Recover Files From an External Hard Drive Without Formatting

If you’re unable to get your external hard drive up and running, the first step you should take is recovering your data before the external hard drive stops working completely.

If you don’t have a backup of the data that was on your external hard drive, you should look at using data recovery software. This type of software specializes in the search and recovery of data that is presumably lost or inaccessible.

In this instance, we’ll be using Disk Drill Data Recovery because it offers a free trial and has a proven track record of successful recoveries in both personal and commercial environments. In just a few clicks you can have your data restored and ready to use.

  1. Download and install Disk Drill. When done, open it.
  2. Ensure your drive is plugged into the computer. Select your external hard drive and click Search for lost data.Starting the scan in Disk Drill.
  3. When the scan has finished, click Review found items.Reviewing what files were found.
  4. Scan the recoverable data for any items you want to recover. Select them by ticking their checkbox. When ready, click Recover.Recovering the files.
  5. Specify where you want to recover the files. It’s recommended you restore the files to a location that’s different from where they were stored originally. When ready, press OK.Specifying the recovery location.
  6. When recovery has been completed, you’ll be met with a confirmation screen detailing what was done.An example of what the recovery screen looks like.

How to Fix a Corrupted External Hard Drive Without Formatting

If you’re having problems with your hard drive, the ideal solution is to fix it without losing your data. Try some of the below solutions to access the hard drive without formatting.

Method 1: Assign or change the drive letter

For your operating system to allow you access to the drive, it needs a drive letter. These are usually assigned automatically once the drive is connected, but if it isn’t, you can assign or change the drive letter manually:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Disk Management.Opening Disk Management.
  2. Right-click on your external hard drive and select Change Drive Letter and Paths.Initiating the drive letter change.
  3. Select the drive letter and click Change. If you don’t have one, click Add instead.Changing the drive letter.
  4. Change the drive letter to another one from the dropdown list. Then, click OK, then OK again.Confirming the drive letter change.

Method 2: Reinstall or update the drivers

Drivers enable your operating system to communicate with the hardware that’s connected to your computer. If the drivers used by your external hard drive are corrupted or outdated, this can result in a breakdown in communication between the drive and your computer. This can easily be fixed by manually reinstalling the drivers or updating them to the latest version:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Device Manager.Opening the Device Manager.
  2. Expand the Disk drives drop down and right-click your external hard drive. Click Properties.Going into the drive's properties.
  3. Go to the Driver tab and click Update Driver.Updating the driver.
  4. Click Search automatically for drivers. Windows will then scan the internet for updated drivers for your hard drive. If no new drivers are found, click Close.Scan for updated drivers automatically.
  5. Next, we’ll force the existing drivers to reinstall. Click Uninstall Device.Uninstalling the existing driver.
  6. Unplug your external drive then plug it in again. Once the drive is recognized, that’s an indication that the drivers have been installed again.

Method 3: Use the CHKDSK utility to fix file system errors

Windows includes the Check Disk Utility by default. It’s used to scan for and fix issues relating to the file system such as bad sectors and directory errors.

  1. Press Windows Key + S and search for Command Prompt. Right-click the first result and click Run as administrator.Opening the Command Prompt.
  2. Type CHKDSK E: /F /R /X and press Enter (replace “E:” with your own drive letter). The larger your drive is, the longer the scan will be.

    /F Fixes errors on the disk. /R locates bad sectors and recovers readable information. /X Forces the volume to dismount first if necessary.

    Typing in the command.

  3. When the scan is finished, it will mention whether or not it found any problems.A review of the CHKDSK command.

How to Take Care of Your Data

Of course, while data recovery is a lifesaver in many situations, actively taking care of your data ensures you’re less likely to lose data in situations like this one.

💾 Make regular backups

You won’t ever have to worry about recovering your data if you always have a copy on hand. Making regular backups may sound tiresome, but it’s the best way to ensure your data is safe.

🦺 Eject drives safely

Unplugging your drive without ejecting it safely can interrupt write operations. If this happens, there’s a chance your data, and perhaps your entire drive will become corrupted. To avoid this, make sure to eject your drive safely before unplugging it.

💼 Store drives properly

Drives, especially hard drives, are very susceptible to physical damage. While some manufacturers invest in sturdy housings for the drive, it’s still only one layer of protection. Consider buying an external hard drive case for your drive to live in.


How to fix an external hard drive without formatting?

Many who face problems with their hard drive would like to open the hard disk without formatting. However, when plugging the drive in, Windows advises that the drive needs to be formatted first. If your drive is facing issues relating to its file system, you can try using the CHKDSK utility to fix it:

  1. Press Windows Key + S and search for Command Prompt. Right-click it then click Run as administrator.
  2. Type CHKDSK E: /F /R /X and press Enter (replace “E:” with your own drive letter).
  3. When the scan is finished, you’ll see a screen that details how many issues were found and resolved

How to retrieve data from a hard disk without formatting?

If your drive isn’t accessible and you don’t have a backup to restore from, you can recover data from an external hard drive using recovery software. Through the use of data recovery software, you can restore files that were previously lost, as well as files that are inaccessible by your operating system.

Here’s a super-quck guide on recovering data from a hard dsik without formatting:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill.
  2. Connect the hard disk that asks to be formatted to your PC.
  3. Launch the app and scan your HDD card.
  4. Select the files you want to restore and click the Recover button.
  5. Choose the destination folder and click OK.

What do I do if my external hard drive is not detected?

First isolate where the issue sits. Try the hard drive in another port. If that doesn’t work, try it on another computer. If that doesn’t work, try using a different cable. By doing this you can determine whether the issue sits with your external hard drive or the machine it’s being used in.

If none of the devices you connected to have detected it, it could be a hardware-related issue. If that’s the case, a professional will need to review and fix the problem.

Will formatting fix a corrupted hard drive?

While it may not work in every situation, formatting a corrupted hard drive definitely has a chance of fixing it. Formatting is typically done when preparing a new hard drive or performing a fresh install and involves removing all the data from the hard drive. A quick format can address issues related to the file system and a full format can identify and mark bad sectors so that new data isn’t written to them. However, if a drive is severely damaged, there’s a chance that some bad sectors won’t be marked as such. And, a full format doesn’t prevent future corruption from appearing.

Can you recover files from a corrupted external hard drive?

Yes, you can. If you don’t have a backup of the hard drive’s contents, you can recover files from a hard drive using data recovery software.

You can attempt recovery of the data in the drive’s current corrupted state. If this isn’t possible, you may need to format the drive in order to restore it to a functioning state. However, even after formatting, there’s still a good chance that you can recover lost files.


With the methods outlined in this article, you can recover an external hard drive without formatting. However, even when attempting all of these fixes, the problem may persist. If that’s the case, attempt recovery using data recovery software, then consider formatting the drive to restore functionality.

Going forward, proactively taking care of your data can help prevent these types of situations. Taking the time out of your day to set up an automatic backup can save you countless hours in the future.

About article

This article was written by Jordan Jamieson-Mane, a Staff Writer at Handy Recovery Advisor. It was also verified for technical accuracy by Andrey Vasilyev, our editorial advisor.

Curious about our content creation process? Take a look at our Editor Guidelines.

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