You hold your breath as you frame the perfect shot. You slowly exhale as you press the button that will snap your magnificent subject into a digital file. Click. At that precise moment, disaster strikes. An error message informs, “your SD card is locked”.

Sometimes you can swallow the loss of a potentially perfect snapshot, unlock your card on the spot, and try to recapture the moment. There are cases, though, when your SD card stays locked.

Thankfully, even if your current photo session might be lost, you might be able to unlock your SD card and keep using it. Let’s see all the possible solutions you can try to unlock an SD card.

When, How, and Why Does an SD Card Get Locked?

There are many ways an SD card can get locked.

  • Most (full-size) SD cards come with a locking switch. Friction can move this switch by simply using and carrying around your SD card.
  • By absent-mindedly choosing the wrong option in your camera’s menu or an Android app, you might have write-protected “locked” your SD card.
  • You might have set your SD card’s status to Read-Only or changed some files or folder’s access permissions on your computer.
  • File system corruption could render your SD card inaccessible.

Thankfully, as long as the SD card isn’t physically damaged, there are solutions to all those problems.

How can you unlock an SD card?

There are just as many ways to unlock an SD card as there are to lock it. Let’s see the ones that work for most locked SD card scenarios.

Way 1. Manual Unlock

Unlocking an SD card can be as easy as turning the lights on:

  1. Locate the small switch on the side of the SD card (usually on the top left as you’re looking at its front). Lock switch on SD card
  2. Slide the switch upwards (closer to the edge of the SD card) to unlock it.

If you don’t carry your SD card in a case, contact with other items might change the locking switch’s position. In the long run, after lots of use, the switch might become loose.

This can make your SD card appear “locked” when the switch is at either the locked or unlocked position. Still, some users report that moving it in the middle instead, or flicking it up and down multiple times, granted them again write access to their SD card’s contents.

If that happens a lot, though, it’s an indication of a failing SD card. The problem is because of physical wear and not user-serviceable, which means it’s time for an upgrade.

Way 2. Software “Read Only” Lock

If your SD card was marked as Read-Only and you can’t unlock it with either its switch or your camera, you should try changing its locked flag from your computer.

Windows 10

To unlock your SD card in Windows 10, connect it to your PC’s card reader and ensure it’s accessible.

  1. Press Windows Key + X and run CMD or PowerShell with elevated Admin privileges. Windows 10 Quick Admin Tools menu
  2. Input diskpart followed by Enter to run Windows’ disk and partition management tool. Run diskpart
  3. Enter list disk and locate your SD card among the listed storage devices. Note its number. Use List Disk to locate locked SD card number
  4. Type select disk NUMBER, where “NUMBER” the one for your SD card from the previous step. Choose locked SD card with command select disk number.
  5. With your SD card (“disk”) selected, use the attributes disk clear readonly command to remove the Read-Only flag from it. Unlock SD card with attributes disk clear readonly command.

Diskpart will report “Disk attributes cleared successfully”. Theoretically, now you’ll once more have full access to your SD card’s storage and contents.

Macs

If you’re on a Mac, the process is even easier.

  1. Stick your SD card in your card reader and ensure it’s accessible from your computer.
  2. Locate and run “Disk Utility” among the rest of your apps.open disk utility in macos
  3. Choose your SD card from the list on the left.choose sd card in disk utility macos
  4. Click on the “First Aid” button (first on the top row of actions) and follow the instructions to troubleshoot and, hopefully, fix your SD card.scan sd card with first aid in disk utility mac os

Way 3. Camera Options

Some cameras include safeguards against image deletion. However, in most cases, you have to enable them manually. Check your camera’s menu system for options about image or storage protection, and deselect any enabled.

Alternatively, your camera might have marked some files as read-only or moved them to a protected folder. You can check for that either by using your camera’s file browser or by sticking your SD card in a card reader and navigating its contents from your computer.

If it’s the files themselves that are locked, to “unlock” them on Windows 10:

  1. Connect your card to your PC (you might need a card reader for that) and ensure it’s accessible.
  2. Use a file manager like Windows’ default File Explorer to locate the locked files. Check locked SD card files with Windows Explorer
  3. Right-click on them and choose Properties from the pop-up menu. Check locked SD card file Properties
  4. Ensure “Read-only” is unchecked. Ensure locked SD card files aren't read-only.

If your files were moved to a protected folder, moving them to any other destination will “unlock” them. We should mention that although this method works for all types of files, including photos, there are more alternatives if you’re dealing with audio files.

Way 4. File Permissions

Your problem might not be a locked SD card but locked files instead. Yes, files can be “locked”, or rather their access permissions changed.

To change those access permissions on Windows 10:

  1. Plug your SD card in a card reader connected to your PC and ensure its contents are accessible.
  2. Locate the problematic files with a file manager like Windows’ included File Explorer.locate problematic files with explorer
  3. Right-click on them and choose Properties. Ensure “Read-only” is deselected.check read only settings of file in windows
  4. Right-click on your locked SD card and choose Properties. Move to the “Security” tab. Ensure “Everyone” is listed in the “Group or user names:” list at the top of the window.check security options of sd drive in windows
  5. Click on “Everyone” to select it. Then use the second list, which will read “Permissions for Everyone”, to change all access options (like Full Control, Modify, Write, etc.) to “Allow“.allow full control in security settings windows
  6. Click OK to apply your settings and close that window.

How Can You Recover Lost Files from a Locked SD Card?

If your SD card insists on re-locking itself, maybe you’re dealing with file system corruption. In such a case, the first thing to do would be to copy your SD card’s contents to your computer to minimize the chances of data loss.

You can do that with a typical copy process, for example, by using your OS’s default file manager. However, if you’re indeed dealing with file system corruption, some files might end up garbled. Others invisible, never to be copied.

As a safeguard against such problems, it’s better to use a specialized file recovery tool to backup your SD card’s contents to your computer. For such uses, we tend to prefer Disk Drill, an excellent file recovery tool, because of its straightforward interface, recovery chops, and affordability. Let’s see how you can salvage your files with Disk Drill from an SD card before reformatting it.

Backup Files from a Locked SD Card in Windows 10

To backup your files from a locked SD card to your computer using Disk Drill:

  1. Connect your locked SD card to your computer (you might have to use a card reader if your computer doesn’t have an SD slot).
  2. Download and install Disk Drill from its official site.
  3. Run Disk Drill and choose your locked SD card from its device list. If your card is locked, a “R/O” indicator will signal that it’s recognized as Read Only. Select locked SD card in Disk Drill
  4. Ensure “All recovery methods” is selected from the pull-down menu on the right. Click on the “Search for lost data” button on the bottom right to scan your SD card with Disk Drill.
  5. The larger your SD card’s capacity (and the worse the problem you’re dealing with), the longer Disk Drill will need to complete its scan. Although you can check out the files it found whenever you wish, you should allow the scan process to complete for more results. Disk Drill scanning locked SD card
  6. When the scan completes, click on “Review found items” to check out the files Disk Drill located on your locked SD card. Disk Drill scan complete
  7. Place a checkmark to the left of the files you want to backup from your locked SD card. Disk Drill's located files
  8. You’d prefer to back up only some of the files but can’t tell which to keep and which to skip from their filenames? Right-click on them and choose “Preview” to check them out before marking them for recovery. Preview files before recovery with Disk Drill
  9. Click on the blue “Recover” button to begin the backup process. Then, when asked, choose where you’d like to store the copied files. Choose target directory for Disk Drill's recovered files
  10. When the process completes, Disk Drill will show a report with the results. You’ll find your files in the destination folder you chose. Disk Drill completed recovery report.

After that, you can proceed to unlocking and reformatting your SD card to start anew.

If, however, that doesn’t work, there are other ways that can help you get your data back from a problematic or corrupted SD card.

Save Your Locked SD Card Files on a Mac

Backing up your files from a locked SD card on a Mac is almost identical to the process we saw for Windows if you use a tried and tested tool like Disk Drill:

  1. Start by connecting your SD card to your Mac.
  2. Download, install and run Disk Drill. Choose your SD card from the app’s devices list.install disk drill for macos
  3. Select All recovery methods and then click on the Search for lost data button.search for lost data on sd card with disk drill
  4. Give Disk Drill time to scan your locked SD card thoroughly. When it’s done, click on Review found items to check the files it located.scan sd card for lost files via disk drill
  5. Preview and mark the files you want to backup, and click on Recover.preview lost data on sd card in disk drill for macos
  6. Choose where you want your backed-up files stored and proceed to their actual recovery.save found lost data with disk drill

Get Data Back from a Locked SD Card in Android

Backing up your files from a locked SD card that you’re using as storage for your smartphone is a bit more complicated. Disk Drill can turn it into a straightforward process if you have a Mac:

  1. Connect your Android device to your Mac.
  2. Swap its USB connection mode to USB Debugging instead of MTP or plain charging. The option’s usually available in your smartphone’s notification area after connecting it to a computer.enable debugging in android
  3. Download and install Disk Drill. Run the app, which should detect your smartphone. If it doesn’t, you might have to root your device – search online for “your Android device model +root” to find guides on how to do that.
  4. When your smartphone’s detected, select it from Disk Drill’s list of devices.scan android device with disk drill
  5. Follow the same steps as if it was a typical SD card connected to Mac, as stated above, to get back your files with Disk Drill.preview found data on android device

Conclusion

As we saw, unlocking your SD card can be as simple as flicking the position of a switch in most cases. However, sometimes you might have to use more drastic measures, more complicated solutions. And if your SD card’s failing, you should always begin by backing up its contents before you try fixing it or fiddling with it in any other way.

Still, your precious content is rarely lost, and usually, you’ll also be able to keep using your locked SD card as if it were new. Sometimes, though, like in the case of videos, you might need to follow a somewhat different path to get them back.

Have you ever dealt with such a problem? How did you solve it? Did you end up buying a new SD card? Did you lose your precious data? We’d love to hear more about your adventures with locked SD cards.

FAQ

Odysseas Kourafalos
Avatar
Approved by
Brett Johnson

This article has been approved by Brett Johnson, Data Recovery Engineer at ACE Data Recovery. Brett has a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Systems and Network, 12 years of experience.