Is it possible to recover data from a memory flash card?

Memory cards are everywhere: in smartphones, digital cameras, tablets and camcorders. They are small, convenient and offer a big amount of data storage space at a relatively small cost. However, you should never rely blindly on your flash card as it’s neither 100% reliable, nor eternal.

Last update: December 30, 2021

Time to read: 7 min

How long could a memory card last?

In a flash card, all the data is stored on a tiny chip. The chip’s memory (called flash memory) is based on a set of cells that are insulated from each other to prevent the charge leaking away. There are Single Layer Cell (SLC), Multi-Layer Cell (MLC), Triple Layer Cell (TLC), or Quad-Layer Cell (QLC) chip types, depending on the number of bits one cell can store (1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively). The more bits each cell holds, the more susceptible to failure the chip is. Thus, the endurance of an SLC flash memory is ten times greater in comparison to MLC and twenty times higher compared to TLC.

The problem is that every time some data is written to the chip, the insulation between the cells gets eroded and over time that may make the voltage in a cell change slightly and subsequently cause data corruption. Most modern flash memory cards are designed to detect and prevent such issues, but after a while there might be too many to get rid of all of them.

The exact lifespan of a memory card depends on a number of factors. If you use it frequently (for example, twice or more times a week), you’d better replace it once a year before the first signs of data corruption occur. And please notice that the shelf life of the majority of flash cards is 5 years or so.

What could cause data loss from a flash memory card?

Flash cards are solid-state devices, meaning they have no moving parts (unlike hard drives with spindles and heads). So, they are less vulnerable to mechanical shocks, vibrations, high humidity and temperature change. Yet, that doesn’t mean they never get damaged or corrupted, or lose data. Some of the most common causes of data loss from a flash card are:

  • accidental data deletion or card formatting;
  • mechanical damages (immersion in water, dropping from a height, etc.);
  • sudden power outage (might occur in case you take pictures or record a video when the camera’s battery is low or getting low);
  • file system corruption;
  • bad usage habits (removing a card before the data transfer is finished, improper ejection from a card reader, using the same card on multiple devices);
  • virus infection.

It’s always better to prevent data loss than to solve this problem afterwards. So, if you’d like to avoid the previously mentioned issues, please:

  • eject your card safely: if you pull it out of the card reader when it is still being accessed, the data it stores may become corrupted or disappear. So, before you remove a card from a smartphone, tablet, camera or other gadget, please switch it off. Or use the Eject function, if your device has it;
  • format new memory cards before using them: this helps to minimize the risk of data corruption. We recommend that you format a new flash card on the device you are going to use it in to assure their file systems are absolutely compatible;
  • avoid using the same flash card in multiple devices, even if they are of the same brand. At least, don’t do it without reformatting a card. Different gadgets usually have different file systems and sometimes they might be incompatible with one another. If you use a memory card in a device with an incompatible file system, that might lead to data corruption.

Finally, don't forget to back up the data you store on a memory card. And please don't waste precious time trying to fix a card by yourself, if it has been damaged physically. Instead, you’d better take it to the nearest data recovery center.

What are the chances to restore data from a memory card?

In general, the chances to restore files after formatting or accidental deletion are quite high. Luckily, almost no information is permanently lost after being logically deleted from a memory card. At least, until it's replaced with new data. Data recovery programs can help you restore files in case their loss has a ‘logical’ nature. In other words, when they have been deleted accidentally, or when a card has been formatted by mistake or its file system has become corrupt, etc. However, the success of the recovery is subject to many factors, starting from the card’s file system and ending with the user’s behavior after data loss detection.

The majority of modern memory cards have FAT16/32 or exFAT. Neither of these file systems completely erases data after card format (quick one) or file deletion. Nevertheless, in most cases this data could be recovered only partially. Sometimes the restored files might even lose their original names (in particular, in case of FAT32, when they are longer than 8 symbols). To get the most out of the data restoration procedure, you may also try the raw recovery method (restoring files by their contents).

We also suggest that you check a couple of simple recommendations on how to avoid data loss from a memory card.