Thumb drives are probably one of the best things to come along in the realm of computers. Before people had to use floppy disks which could only hold a megabyte at a time, or CDs that took forever to burn. But flash drives? Put it into the USB port, save our files, give it to a friend or coworker, and we’re off.
Until the day when we put the flash drive into our media device to watch a movie, or get a file from a client for an important project and discover that the drive can’t be read. We insert it and – nothing happens. And we need to get those files back.
Causes of Flash Drive Corruption
USB flash drives can become corrupted for multiple different reasons, and it helps to understand them to determine the best data recovery approach.
|Cause of corruption||Explanation||Solution|
|❌ Bad blocks||Flash-based storage devices are divided into a huge number of small blocks. These blocks have a limited lifespan, and they can stop working correctly when they exceed it.||When dealing with a flash drive with too many bad blocks, it’s often best to salvage as much data as possible from it using data recovery software before it becomes completely inaccessible.|
|⏏️ Improper removal||There’s a good reason why modern operating systems encourage users to safely eject their flash drives before removal: not doing so can lead to corruption as a result of read/write processes being suddenly interrupted.||A USB flash drive that has been improperly removed can sometimes be repaired using native Windows tools.|
|🔌 Power issues||If your flash drive is not getting enough power, or if you suddenly experience an outage, then there’s a good chance that some data will become corrupted due to their transfer being interrupted.||You may be able to recover files lost due to a power issue from an existing backup or using the File History feature.|
|🪲 Software bugs||Application, operating system, and driver bugs can all cause flash drive corruption by preventing files from being saved correctly or damaging the integrity of the file system.||Files that have disappeared from a flash drive corrupted by software bugs can sometimes be recovered using the ATTRIB command.|
|🔨 Physical damage||Physical damage and manufacturing defects can compromise the ability of a USB flash drive to maintain a stable connection, which can lead to corruption.||When dealing with a physically damaged flash drive containing important files, the best solution is to pay for professional data recovery services. But there are some DIY fixes that you can try at home.|
#1 Fix Physical Issues
Before we stick the damaged pen drive into the computer, we should take a look the flash drive itself to see what can be done to prepare it for insertion.
Steps to recover data from a corrupted pen drive by minimizing the physical issues:
- Wet the end of a cotton swab with rubbing alcohol, and wipe clean the contacts.
- Clean off the contacts. Wait until dry.
- Examine the flash drive casing for cracks. If so, the circuit board could have gotten wet. If there are cracks, submerge it into a bowl of dry rice overnight. The rice will absorb the excess moisture, which can get the pen drive back into working order.
- Connect the drive to the computer. If it connects and the files are accessible again, then we’re finished!
If the partition map is still corrupted or isn’t recognized by the computer, then we’ll need to try fixing it at the software level.
#2 Fix Software Issues
If the flash drive connects, the light comes on (if it has a light), but we still can’t read from it, then time to get out some software tools.
As a Windows user, you can use the CHKDSK utility that comes with your operating system to verify the file system integrity of a volume and attempt to fix logical file system errors.
CHDKS is a command-line tool, which means that it doesn’t have a graphical user interface, so it has to be invoked from Windows Terminal, PowerShell, or CMD. Here’s how:
- Make sure the corrupted flash drive is connected to your computer.
- Press Win + X on your keyboard and launch Windows Terminal, PowerShell, or CMD as administrator.
- Enter the following command and press enter: chkdsk X: /f (replace X with the letter assigned to the corrupted drive).
Follow the instructions below to discover which letter has been assigned to your flash drive:
- Launch File Explorer and click on “This PC.” We’ll be able to see all of the drives in the system. In this example, we have C:, D:, E:, and L:
- Plug the drive into the computer. If the computer recognizes it, we’ll see the drive show up in our File Explorer.
For this example, it registers as being drive F:
- Look at the list of drives in File Explorer. If the USB drive doesn’t display, it means that Windows doesn’t recognize the drive, or perhaps the partition map has been corrupted. One way to find out is to launch the program “Disk Management” which is built into nearly every version of Windows. It will display drive partitions even if they haven’t been assigned a drive letter. It’s one way to verify that Windows recognizes the drive:Note: Do not select the partition in Disk Management and attempt to reformat it – this can cause the files we are trying to restore to be lost forever.
#3 Recover Your Files
Now that your flash drive is accessible, you can use data recovery software to recover your files. We recommend Disk Drill, made by CleverFiles. It works on both Windows and macOS systems to recover a corrupted flash drive. We can download it and try it for free.
How to recover files from a corrupted USB drive using Disk Drill:
- Start Disk Drill and select the USB drive you want to recover. In this example, the Kingston USB Device is the corrupted USB drive we want to recover files from. If there are multiple similar USB drives connected to your computer, and you’re not sure which one to choose, then you can switch to the Info tab to see more information about each.
- Begin the recovery process by clicking the Search for lost data button. Wait as Disk Drill scans the damaged pen drive. It will start to display information about recovered files as the process continues.
- Select lost files and click recover them. Select the files we want to recover by clicking on the checkmark square to the left of the file name. Click the Recover button and choose a suitable recovery destination.
- Wait for Disk Drill to display a message when it’s the process is complete. It will look something like this:
- Go back to File Explorer, and go to the directory where we set as the “restore files directory”. Looks like we have success!
- Open the file to verify that the contents have been restored.
Other Ways to Recover Files from a Corrupted Flash Drive
Data recovery software like Disk Drill can deliver excellent results in a short amount of time, which is why we recommend you always start with it. That said, there are other ways to recover files from a corrupted flash drive. Let’s take a closer at three of them.
#1 Recover from a Backup
Have you recently created a backup of your USB flash drive? If so, then you’re in luck because recovering your files from it shouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of this article to describe all popular backup methods, so let’s focus on the byte-to-byte backup tool that’s included for free with Disk Drill and makes it possible to create a full backup image of any storage device:
- Launch Disk Drill.
- Click the Attach disk image option.
- Select the backup image of your flash drive.
- Choose the attached image and click Search for lost data.
- Go through the list of recoverable files and select those that you want to recover.
- Click the Recover button and select where you want to recover your files.
#2 Use the ATTRIB Command
Flash drive corruption can have many different forms. For example, it can cause file attributes to change, which can result in the affected files becoming invisible. The good news is that this problem is fairly easy to fix:
- Press Win + X on your keyboard.
- Launch Windows Terminal, PowerShell, or CMD as administrator.
- Enter the following command to recover hidden files: ATTRIB -H -R -S /S /D X:*.* (replace X with the letter assigned to your flash drive).
- Exit Command Prompt and open your USB drive in File Explorer.
#3 Use the File History Feature
The Windows operating system comes with a local backup tool called File History. In Windows 10 and earlier, it’s possible to tell File History to backup a custom folder, including one that’s located on a USB drive.
Unfortunately, this option was removed in Windows 11, making File History much less useful. The Windows 11 version of File History only backs up the following locations: Libraries, Desktop, Contacts, and Favorites.
If your lost files were at some point located in the locations backed up by Windows 11 File History, or if you’re a Windows 10 user and have manually added your USB drive as an additional File History backup location, then you can follow the instructions below to recover them:
- Open the classic Control Panel.
- Navigate to System and Security > File History.
- Click the Restore personal files option in the left pane.
- Navigate to the location where the lost file was present and select it.
- Click the green Recover button to restore the selected file.
#4 Try Windows File Recovery
Windows File Recovery is a new data recovery tool developed by Microsoft, and it works on Windows 10 2004 and above.
Windows File Recovery is still in its early stages, which is clearly evident from the lack of a graphical user interface. The tool also doesn’t support nearly as many file signatures as leading commercial data recovery products, such as Disk Drill.
That said, Windows File Recovery is available for free directly from the Microsoft Store, and you can use it to recover an unlimited number of files from all kinds of storage devices, including USB drives.
- Download Windows File Recovery from the Microsoft Store.
- Launch Command Prompt or Windows Terminal.
- Enter the following command to recover all deleted files from drive X to the Recovered folder on drive C: winfr X: C:\Recovered
Windows File Recovery supports two main modes of operation (Regular and Extensive) as well as a number of advanced switches, and they are all explained well on its official support page.
#5 Pay for Professional Data Recovery
Sometimes, the best solution is the let professionals recover your files for you. This is especially true when dealing with physical damage, which can hardly ever be successfully repaired at home without the necessary experience and equipment.
Professional data recovery services do charge quite a lot of money for what they do, but some files are so important that spending a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars beats losing them forever.
How Flash Drives Get Damaged
Flash drives are pretty hardy. Because they don’t have moving parts, they’re more likely than their hard drive siblings to survive being dropped, handle extreme ranges of heat and cold – some have even survived being swallowed by people. (Note: Don’t swallow flash drives.)
That doesn’t mean they’re invulnerable to physical damage. Left out in salty air and the contacts can become corroded. Expose them to too much heat, and even the electronics can melt. And like the fabled gremlins from the movie of the same name, they really don’t like getting wet.
The other way a flash drive can become corrupted is via software. Some operating systems, such as Mac OS X or Linux, require that a drive is “ejected” before it’s removed. Taking it out without ejecting it can cause file corruption.
Even on Windows, if large files are being transferred to a flash drive and it’s pulled out before it’s complete, it can cause the drive to have partition error. This is where the data for the files may be on the thumb drive, but the drive itself doesn’t know how to find them because the mapping is damaged.
Other ways a flash drive can become damaged is by being overloaded. Trying to copy too many files at once can overwhelm an operating system, and slowly grind it to a halt. Imagine 20 people all trying to squeeze through a doorway at the same time instead of taking turns, and we can see how things can go horribly wrong.
And the last way that a flash drive can lose its files is through simple user error. Accidentally deleting the file on a pen drive, or when selecting what drives to format picking the wrong drive. It happens to everyone at some point, but there are still ways to get those files back.
A damaged or corrupted USB flash drive is not the end of the world, but it can feel that way. Using the tips provided, there’s a good chance that a damaged USB drive can be restored to being a working USB pen drive. All of the tools here, like Disk Drill, are free to download, so give them a try and best of luck.