You want to use your SD card, but the device you’ve plugged it in doesn’t recognize it and asks you to format it. There’s a slight problem with that: your SD card’s already filled with files you wouldn’t want to lose!
Is it possible to format an SD card without losing data? You’ve heard that a format will erase everything, so how can you preserve the pictures you’ve grabbed with your Android phone’s camera on its MicroSD card? Do you have to forget about the work-related files you’ve stored there using your favorite Windows apps?
Thankfully, that’s what this article is all about, so read on to find out how you can format a memory card without losing data.
Reasons Why You Might Need to Format Your SD Card
You might have to reformat an SD card for various reasons. Let’s go over some of the most popular ones.
|Your Windows PC asks you to format your SD card. You get the “You need to format the disk in the drive before you can use it” error message.
|You need to format an SD card to the appropriate file system.
|The SD card shows up as RAW, corrupted, or empty.
|The SD card doesn’t show up at all on a PC.
|The SD card is physically damaged.
Does Formatting an SD Card Delete Everything?
A single-word answer to the question “does formatting an SD card delete everything?” would have to be “yes”. However, not everything is black and white, so a two-word answer is factually more correct: “It depends”.
- A quick format will mark an SD card as empty, but not erase anything.
- A full/complete format or a secure erase will also overwrite any data on the SD card, rendering it unrecoverable.
How to Format SD Card without Losing Data on Windows 10/11
To format a memory card without losing data, you should:
- 💾 Start by backing up its content.
- 🧲 Format your SD card.
- 🌞 Restore your files from that backup.
Let’s go through those steps together.
Step 1. Back-Up an SD Card Before Formatting
You could manually copy your files off the micro SD card before formatting it, but you might miss some (which, for example, could be flagged as “hidden”).
That’s why using a byte-to-byte backup solution is better since it takes a complete snapshot of everything on your micro SD card. After that, you safely format your micro SD card without losing data. Even if your micro SD card fails afterward, all your files will be available from the backup.
For this article, we decided to go with Disk Drill for that task. Disk Drill is primarily a data recovery solution, but it’s also an optimal choice for such scenarios because:
- 💪 It comes with a very powerful byte-to-byte backup solution as one of its extra tools.
- ♾️ It’s compatible with any storage device that can be detected by the computer and Windows, including SD cards of all types (standard, micro, or mini) from all manufacturers (Samsung, Transcend, etc.).
- 🎛️ It’s much more straightforward to use compared to many other specialized backup solutions.
To back up everything in your SD card using Disk Drill:
- Download the app from its official site. Then, install, and run it. Right-click on your SD card on Disk Drill’s Device/Disk list, and choose Backup into byte-to-byte disk image.
- Alternatively, you can click on Drive Backup under Extra Tools on the left, and then on OK, Let’s do it!. Then…
- Select the device or partition you’d like to back-up, and click on Byte-to-byte backup on the top right of the window.
- Disk Drill will show you a window with details about the backup image. You can change its name from the Save as file field and tweak the rest of the options. Click only on the button with the three dots to select where the image will be stored.
- Give Disk Drill some time to create the complete byte-to-byte image. The time needed depends on the speed of your computer, media, and the size of the media being backed up.
- Disk Drill will update you when the backup is created and allow you to check it out using the default byte manager with a click on Show in Explorer.
Step 2. Format Your SD Card
With its contents backed up, you can safely reformat your SD card without losing data with any method you prefer. On Windows OSes, the most popular methods for doing that are the following:
Method 1: Using File Explorer
After taking a byte-to-byte backup, you can format your SD card without losing data, and one of the most accessible ways to do that is through the Windows File Explorer.
To format your SD card using Windows File Explorer:
- Use the Windows key + E to launch a File Explorer window. Right-click on your memory card and choose Format.
- Choose your desired file system, change its volume label if you wish, and choose if you want a full or quick format by placing a checkmark before Quick Format under Format Options. Then click on Start.
Method 2: Using Disk Management
Another method to format your SD card is using the more powerful Disk Management tool built into Windows, which specializes in managing drives and partitions.
To format your SD card using the Disk Management tool:
- Launch the Disk Management by seeking it by name in the Windows Start menu or using Search. It’s even quicker, though, to do it through the Power User menu by pressing Windows key + X and selecting Disk Management from the menu that pops up.
- Find your SD card in Disk Management’s list, right-click on it, and choose Format.
- If you wish, enter a volume label, choose a file system, and ensure there’s a checkmark before Perform a quick format if that’s what you prefer (compared to a full format). Click on OK to proceed.
- Click OK once more to acknowledge that formatting will erase the data on your SD card.
Method 3: Using Command Prompt
Modern versions of Windows come with both the classic command prompt (CMD for short) and the newer PowerShell terminal, and you can use the same command in both to format your SD card. For this article, we’ll stick to the classic command prompt.
To format your SD card using CMD:
- Use the Start menu or Search to seek either “command prompt” or “CMD”, and Run (it) as administrator.
- Type the command format DRIVE_LETTER: /FS:FILE_SYSTEM /Q /V:LABEL to quick-format (/Q) your SD card. Replace “DRIVE_LETTER” with the actual letter from which your SD card is accessible, “FILE_SYSTEM” with the file system you want to use for the format (out of FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS), and state the “LABEL” you want to add to it. For example, to format our SD card, which was accessible from the F letter using FAT32 and the label MySDCard, we used the command: format f: /FS:FAT32 /Q /V:MySDCard.
- Showing its roots from back when it was used with floppy drives, the format command will ask you to insert a new disk for the selected drive and press Enter when ready. Since you’re not dealing with ancient floppies and your SD card “is already inserted”, you can press Enter to immediately move to formatting it.
- Soon after, the format command will offer you a summary of the outcome of the process.
Step 3. Retrieve Your Data From the Backup
We said that it’s possible to format SD cards without losing data by backing up your files, but how can you get them back out of a backup file?
To retrieve your files from a Disk Drill byte-to-byte backup image file:
- Run Disk Drill and click on Attach disk image on the bottom left of its Device/Disk list.
- Select your SD card’s byte-to-byte backup image file you created before, and click on Open.
- The attached backup image file will appear as a virtual device on Disk Drill’s Device/Disk list, with a “Mounted Image” type and a “RAW” file system. Ensure it’s selected and click on Search for lost data.
- Give Disk Drill enough time to finish scanning the attached backup image and locate all files stored within it.
- When the scan completes, click on Recover all to get back all your files or Review found items if you want to recover some of them selectively. For this article, we’ll go with the second option.
- Proving that it’s possible to format an SD card without losing data, Disk Drill will show you all the files previously stored on your newly formatted SD card. Use the categories on the left and the filters on top of the results list to effortlessly locate the files you want to get back out of the backup image.
- Place a checkmark on the left of all the files you want to get back, and when done, click on Recover.
- Select where you want to store the recovered files. You can choose to restore them back to your SD card. Still, for this article, since we wanted to keep it empty for use with a camera, we decided to recover them to a folder named “Recovered_Files” on our PC’s system (“C”) drive.
- Soon after, Disk Drill will inform you about the outcome of the process and offer the option to quickly jump to the folder where it recovered your files with a click on Show recovered data in Explorer.
In this article, we saw how you can format memory cards without losing data by first taking a complete byte-to-byte image of everything stored on them.
Still, even if you forgot or skipped taking a backup, you’ll probably be able to recover most of your files from a quick-formatted SD card using a data recovery app like Disk Drill.
And if that fails, you performed a full format, or you don’t want to spend your time trying to bring back your lost files with questionable results, a data recovery specialist might be able to help.
However, the alternatives demand time, effort, or may come with a cost, and none can offer guaranteed results, making the backup route the optimal (and saner) choice.