How to Recover Deleted Files on a Mac Without Software

So, it turns out you’ve accidentally deleted several important files on your Mac. Now you may be tempted to download a data recovery program. Not so fast! You may be able to recover your files without them.

This guide shows you how to recover deleted files on a Mac without software. Inside, we’ll look at the six best ways to restore your data—no software required. Plus, we’ll also examine two foolproof methods of preventing data loss on your Mac (as they say, the best offense is a strong defense).

How to Recover Deleted Files on a Mac Without Software

Whether you’re looking to restore nostalgic family vacation images, important tax documents, or video files with your favorite cinematic masterpieces, there are a few ways to recover permanently deleted files on Mac or MacBook Pro.

Below are the six best methods for doing so. And best of all, these methods don’t require you to download any additional software to get the job done.

1. Via the “Put Back” Option

By far, the simplest way to recover deleted files is through the Trash Bin folder (or simply “Trash”) on your Mac.

This special folder is designed to store files that you’ve deleted until you choose to empty the Trash Bin entirely. So instead of losing those files entirely, you have to take an extra step to get rid of them all together.

Think of it as an extra safeguard.

If you haven’t emptied your Trash Bin in quite some time, your missing file can likely still be found right there. All it takes is locating the file and selecting “Put Back.”

To restore your file via the “Put Back” option:

  1. Open the trash folder by selecting the icon from your dock.
    Open the Trash Bin folder
  2. Search for your file in the open trash folder. Search for your file in the open trash folder
  3. Select your file, right-click it, and select the “Put Back” option. Select the "Put Back" option
  4. Your file will then be restored to its original location, and you can use it like normal. Find your restored file where it was before it was deleted

2. Restore Your Lost Files from a Time Machine Backup

Your Mac already comes with a built-in backup feature called Time Machine. This feature automatically backs up your data like personal preferences, apps, music, photos, emails, documents, and even iMessages.

If you’ve lost files, you can search through your Time Machine backups to restore them. Plus, if you’re wondering how to recover emptied trash on Mac without software, Time Machine is the best solution.

NOTE: This technique only works if you’ve been keeping regular Time Machine backups and if the drive those backups are stored on is connected to your Mac.

To restore your lost files from a Time Machine Backup:

  1. Open the Finder window where your file was originally located. Then open Time Machine by clicking the icon in your menu bar shaped like a clock. Open Time Machine by clicking the icon in the menu bar
  2. Scroll through the available backups by clicking the arrows, the timeline to the right, or by clicking the windows behind the open one. Scroll through the Time Machine backups using the arrows or the timeline
  3. Find the most recent backup where your file is still undeleted. You can use the date and time to the right of the window to make this easier. Find the Time Machine backup you'd like to restore from
  4. Select your file and click “Restore” to restore your file to its location before it was deleted. Select your file from your backup

3. Retrieve from iCloud Drive

If you have iCloud Drive set up, you can also restore deleted files from there too.

iCloud Drive is Apple’s cloud-based storage system. It stores your files and folders in the cloud. As such, if you make changes on one device (like changing a file name, for example), iCloud Drive automatically reflects those changes on your other devices.

To restore files directly deleted from iCloud Drive:

  1. Go to iCloud.com and log into your account using your Apple ID and your password.Go to iCloud.com
  2. Once you’re logged in, go to iCloud Drive.Select iCloud Drive
  3. Click the “Recently Deleted” option in the lower right section of the window.Select Recently Deleted from the lower right corner
  4. Select the files you’d like to restore and click “Recover.”Find the files you'd like to restore
  5. If you’ve deleted files from within an app on your Mac, you can restore those files by navigating to your profile and clicking “Account Settings.”Go to Account Settings under user profiles
  6. Click “Restore Files” in the lower-left section of the screen. Click restore files in the lower left side of the screen
  7. Select the files you’d like to recover and click “Restore.” Find and select the files you'd like to restore

4. Use the Mac Terminal to Recover Your Files

The little trashcan icon in your graphical user interface (GUI) isn’t the only way to find items in the Trash Bin folder. In fact, you can also use Terminal to access everything currently in your trash.

Admittedly, most users will find navigating to the Trash icon easier than going through Terminal. That being said, there are a few cases where restoring via Terminal makes more sense.

For instance, users who are having difficulty with Finder (for whatever reason) may prefer Terminal. Going this route can also actually be faster than selecting and restoring files from the graphical bin—more on that in a sec.

To recover deleted files on Mac with Terminal:

  1. Go to Terminal by using Spotlight (Command + Space) or by clicking it in Finder. Open Terminal using Spotlight
  2. You’ll need to navigate to the Trash folder by entering the following command:
    cd .Trash
    Navigate to the trash folder from Terminal
  3. To restore your file from the Trash folder, you’ll need to use a move command (“mv”). You’ll need to use the exact name of the file in question using the following formula: mv (move command) xxx.xxx (your file name and extension) ../ (your desired location, this one is to the Home folder). Your command should look something like this:
    Unknown.pdf ../
    Move the file you'd like to restore to your home folder
  4. You can also use the wild character “*” to restore all items in the trash or restore items with specific extensions. For example, to restore all items, use the command:mv * ../To restore all files of a certain type (.jpgs in this example), use:mv *.jpg ../This allows for faster restoration than clicking through files one by one through the trash.

5. Use the “Undo” Command

People make mistakes. In fact, we do it all the time.

That’s why Apple’s built an especially simple yet surprisingly effective recovery command into every Mac. It’s called the “Undo” command. And quite frankly, you’re probably already using it.

With the Undo command, you can essentially wipe clean the previous action you took in the app you’re currently working in.

NOTE: The number of Undo’s you can go back (i.e., how many steps you can go backward) depends on the app. As a result, this isn’t a solution that can go back infinitely. As such, don’t depend on this method too much.

To restore files using Apple’s Undo command:

  1. Navigate to the app you were using when you made the mistake.
  2. Use the Undo command (Command + Z) to redo your previous change. That’s it!Use the Command + Z keys for the Undo command

6. Use a Professional Data Recovery Service

Last but not least, the final way you can avoid using software to restore your deleted data is by using a professional data recovery service.

A professional data recovery service specializes in the recovery of data that users can’t typically restore using other means (data recovery software included). These services can help in cases involving logical corruption of the disk, mechanical damage, and accidental deletion that may have resulted in the file being overwritten.

While certainly effective, this method may not be ideal for some as it can be expensive and take quite some time to see results.

How to Prevent Data Loss on a Mac

The absolute best way to prevent data loss on a Mac is to ensure you’re backing up your data regularly.

There’s no steadfast rule on how often you should be backing up your data. But a good rule of thumb is to be creating new backups once a day. If you’re working on especially sensitive or regularly changing information (e.g., working from home, altering a lot of documents regularly), you may want to switch to a more robust backup schedule.

There are a few ways you can back up your files. But two of the best are using your Mac’s built-in backup app Time Machine and using time-tested backup software like Disk Drill.

Using Time Machine to Prevent Data Loss on a Mac

Apple’s Time Machine feature lets you backup your data continually and automatically with little to no hassle on your part. That way,

Time Machine automatically keeps the following backups:

  • Hourly backups for the past 24 hours
  • Daily backups for the past month
  • Weekly backups for all previous months

Time Machine also keeps hourly local snapshots as space permits. Your Mac stores these snapshots on your actual machine, not your backup drive. That way, you still have plenty of backups to work with, even if you’ve disconnected your backup drive. Like other Time Machine backups, your Mac will automatically delete the oldest of these backup files.

The only trick to using Time Machine is you have to make sure you’ve enabled automatic backups in order to prevent data loss.

To prevent data loss using Time Machine:

  1. Click the Time Machine icon in the toolbar.Open Time Machine by clicking the icon in the menu bar
  2. Open Time Machine preferences.Open your Time Machine preferences
  3. Turn on automatic backups by clicking the “Back Up Automatically” option. Turn on automatic backups in Time Machine
  4. For the best results, keep your backup drive connected to your computer so Time Machine can automatically run backups every hour. Keep a backup drive connected to allow Time Machine to create more backups

Using Disk Drill to Prevent Data Loss on a Mac

Disk Drill is an easy-to-use and powerful software that lets users recover permanently deleted files on Mac. It’s one of the best tools for Apple deleted files recovery available today.

But beyond just data recovery, Disk Drill also has plenty of other tools and features to keep your data protected. One such feature is Byte-to-byte Backup. This feature lets you create an entirely new byte-by-byte disk image (DMG file) of your troubled disk.

If you’re dealing with a damaged hard disk and lost files, you can then run a recovery against the image rather than the damaged disk. Thus, you’ve prevented permanent data loss on your Mac should something go wrong.

Plus, the process is simple.

To prevent data loss on a Mac using Disk Drill:

  1. Download Disk Drill and install the application.Download and install Disk Drill
  2. Grant Disk Drill access to your disk drives (you’ll only need to do this once).Grant Disk Drill full permissions
  3. Make sure you connect the drive you’d like to backup and select “Byte-to-byte Backup” from the sidebar.Select Byte-to-byte Backup from the sidebar
  4. You’ll see a brief explanation of the Disk Drill backup process. You can also view a quick demo from this page that runs you through the process. Review the Disk Drill Byte-to-byte Backup information or watch a demo video
  5. Select the drive you’d like to backup and click “Create backup” or “Continue.” If you’re backing up your Mac’s hard drive, you’ll need to grand disk direct device access before starting your backup. Grant Disk Drill direct device access before creating a backup
  6. Choose where to save the backup and create a new name. You can also specify the start and end positions for the backup image. This is a handy feature in case you know where your damaged drive is corrupted, so you can skip that section.Choose where to save the backup made by Disk Drill

Conclusion

Whether you’re dealing with lost video files, deleted photos, or suddenly missing important documents, there are ways of recovering your files without using data recovery software.

The six methods in this guide make getting your data back simple. And with them, you can get back to normal in a snap.

FAQ

Below are just a few of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to how to recover deleted files on a Mac without software.

Alex is a writer, researcher, and dedicated Mac user. He's spent his career turning complex topics like cybersecurity, cryptocurrency, and data recovery into digestible and engaging content.
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