What are the chances to recover files from a USB stick?

Compared to external hard drives (HDD), USB sticks are considered to be more reliable for long-term data storing as they don’t have moving parts and are much more resistant to mechanical shocks, vibrations and temperature fluctuations. In addition, they are small and portable. Still, flash drives have some limitations: they process data slower than HDDs and their memory capacity does not exceed 2 TB. The reliability of such devices may vary depending on the technology, and your usage habits can significantly affect the drive’s performance.

Last update: December 30, 2021

Time to read: 4 min

What could potentially cause data loss on a flash drive?

Constant overwriting of the contents

This is one of the most widespread mistakes that can cause a flash drive to wear out faster. USB drives have a limited number of write cycles (at best, up to 100,000), so large files like photos, videos and audios shouldn't be edited directly on the drive. You’d better move them to your PC’s hard disk before editing and avoid running applications directly from a flash drive. In this context, hard drives are much more resistant to write wear.

Improper disconnection

Every write/erase procedure should be completed without interruption. In case of a computer software failure or a sudden power cut during the procedure, a PC won’t be able to complete it and as a result the files on the drive may become corrupt. To avoid the corruption, always disconnect your drive safely.

Physical damages

Due to the absence of moving parts like read/write heads, platters or spindles, USB drives are much more durable and resistant to mechanical shocks and scratches. However, it doesn't mean they are indestructible. Their weak points are fragile USB connectors. And while you probably won't damage a flash drive if you drop it, forcing it into a USB port can result in a broken plug. So, never apply excess pressure when plugging or unplugging a thumb drive. In case of damage, do not attempt to fix it yourself, but take it to a data recovery center as soon as possible.

Extreme temperatures

While modern USB drives can resist temperatures of -25°C to +85°C, cheap ones are often much more vulnerable to overheating.

Virus and malware

USB flash drives are commonly connected to multiple computers. If one of them happens to be infected by a malicious program, your flash drive can easily get infected too. And that, in its turn, could result in flash drive corruption.

Low quality of the device

Some USB flash drive manufacturers sacrifice quality for cost. And if the pieces of a printed circuit board are not soldered properly, the flash drive might be more susceptible to data loss.

Despite all this, the most common reasons for data loss from a USB stick is an accidental file deletion and storage formatting.

Summarizing all the above mentioned, you can prevent the majority of data loss cases form a thumb drive, if you follow several simple rules:

  • Never keep important information on a single data storage device, try to save it in several different physical locations.
  • Backup data and check your backup copies regularly.
  • Connect and disconnect flash drives correctly (always use the Safely Remove Hardware option).
  • Regularly scan your flash drive with an antivirus software.
  • Do not edit files directly on your USB drive.

What are the chances of successful data recovery from a USB flash drive?

When it comes to USB flash drives, data recovery chances depend mainly on the issue that caused the loss. In case of a physically damaged thumb drive, there is nothing you could do (unless you are a technician with appropriate skills), but bring it to a data recovery center.

Since a flash drive is an external device, every file you delete from it doesn’t go to the Recycle bin, but is deleted immediately. So, you won’t be able to restore it from the bin. And if you haven't made a backup copy of that file in advance, the only way to get it back is to use a data recovery application.

Data restore programs can recover files deleted by mistake or as a result of drive formatting, but the success of the recovery is determined by such factors as a device’s file system, a type of formatting (full or quick) that has been performed and user’s manipulations with the drive after data loss (for example, if he/she has tried to repair it and if any data has been written to the storage afterwards).

Most flash drives use FAT or exFAT file systems. Due to the specifics of these systems, after drive formatting or accidental deletion, files may be recovered partially and sometimes without their original names (in particular, when the names are longer than 8 symbols). Nevertheless, you can always try to recover files by their contents (the RAW-recovery method) as it may bring much more satisfying results. And as for drive formatting, it is possible to restore files only after a quick one.