The moment you plug your external hard drive in, a window opens stating that it can’t be read, or that it’s inaccessible. You might even receive a window that suggests formatting it. Regardless, something has happened that’s now preventing you from accessing your files.

In these situations, you have to be strategic in what you do. Making changes could worsen the situation if you’re unsure of what you’re doing. In this article, we’ll discuss what could have caused this to happen and how to recover your external hard drive without formatting it.

As with any data loss situation, you should stop using the drive immediately. Continued use of the affected drive may result in new data overwriting your lost files. Only use the drive once you’re prepared to implement the fixes outlined in this article.

Reasons Behind Faulty External Hard Drives

Hard drives are far from perfect. Their proneness to data-related issues worsens as they age. Let’s take a look at a few common reasons why your external hard drive has decided to stop working:

  • 🦠 Virus attack – Viruses can be created to attack your hard drives. This includes external hard drives that are connected at the time of a virus attack.
  • 😷 Corruption – If a hard drive is removed during a write operation, there’s a chance that the hard drive, data included, will become corrupted. Corrupted data is inaccessible and corrupted drives have problems being recognized.
  • 🔧 Driver issue – Drivers are what allow our computer’s hardware and operating system to communicate with each other. If they’re outdated or corrupted, this could result in a breakdown in communication.
  • 💥 Physical damage – Anything that results in physical damage to the hard drive. Water damage, drops, and faulty cables, etc. Physical damage is harder to recover data from if the drive isn’t being recognized, and often requires an inspection from a professional.
Any one of the above problems can prevent access to the drive. Let’s move onto how you can recover an external hard disk without formatting.

How to Recover Files From an External Hard Drive Without Formatting

If you’re unable to get your external hard drive up and running, the next step you should take is recovering your data before the external hard drive stops working completely.

If you don’t have a backup of the data that was on your external hard drive, you should look at using data recovery software. This type of software specializes in the search and recovery of data that is presumably lost or inaccessible.

In this instance, we’ll be using Disk Drill Data Recovery because it offers a free trial and has a proven track record of successful recoveries in both personal and commercial environments. In just a few clicks you can have your data restored and ready to use.

  1. Download and install Disk Drill. When done, open it.
  2. Ensure your drive is plugged into the computer. Select your external hard drive and click Search for lost data.Starting the scan in Disk Drill.
  3. When the scan has finished, click Review found items.Reviewing what files were found.
  4. Scan the recoverable data for any items you want to recover. Select them by ticking their checkbox. When ready, click Recover.Recovering the files.
  5. Specify where you want to recover the files. It’s recommended you restore the files to a location that’s different from where they were stored originally. When ready, press OK.Specifying the recovery location.
  6. When recovery has been completed, you’ll be met with a confirmation screen detailing what was done.An example of what the recovery screen looks like.

How to Fix a Corrupted External Hard Drive Without Formatting

If you’re having problems with your hard drive, the ideal solution is to fix it without losing your data. Try some of the below solutions to access the hard drive without formatting.

Method 1: Assign or change the drive letter

For your operating system to allow you access to the drive, it needs a drive letter. These are usually assigned automatically once the drive is connected, but if it isn’t, you can assign or change the drive letter manually:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Disk Management.Opening Disk Management.
  2. Right-click on your external hard drive and select Change Drive Letter and Paths.Initiating the drive letter change.
  3. Select the drive letter and click Change. If you don’t have one, click Add instead.Changing the drive letter.
  4. Change the drive letter to another one from the dropdown list. Then, click OK, then OK again.Confirming the drive letter change.

Method 2: Reinstall or update the drivers

Drivers enable your operating system to communicate with the hardware that’s connected to your computer. If the drivers used by your external hard drive are corrupted or outdated, this can result in a breakdown in communication between the drive and your computer. This can easily be fixed by manually reinstalling the drivers or updating them to the latest version:

  1. Right-click the Start button and select Device Manager.Opening the Device Manager.
  2. Expand the Disk drives drop down and right-click your external hard drive. Click Properties.Going into the drive's properties.
  3. Go to the Driver tab and click Update Driver.Updating the driver.
  4. Click Search automatically for drivers. Windows will then scan the internet for updated drivers for your hard drive. If no new drivers are found, click Close.Scan for updated drivers automatically.
  5. Next, we’ll force the existing drivers to reinstall. Click Uninstall Device.Uninstalling the existing driver.
  6. Unplug your external drive then plug it in again. Once the drive is recognized, that’s an indication that the drivers have been installed again.

Method 3: Use the CHKDSK utility to fix file system errors

Windows includes the Check Disk Utility by default. It’s used to scan for and fix issues relating to the file system such as bad sectors and directory errors.

  1. Press Windows Key + S and search for Command Prompt. Right-click the first result and click Run as administrator.Opening the Command Prompt.
  2. Type CHKDSK E: /F /R /X and press Enter (replace “E:” with your own drive letter). The larger your drive is, the longer the scan will be.
    /F Fixes errors on the disk. /R locates bad sectors and recovers readable information. /X Forces the volume to dismount first if necessary.
    Typing in the command.
  3. When the scan is finished, it will mention whether or not it found any problems.A review of the CHKDSK command.

How to Take Care of Your Data

Of course, while data recovery is a lifesaver in many situations, actively taking care of your data ensures you’re less likely to lose data in situations like this one.

  • 💾 Make regular backups – You won’t ever have to worry about recovering your data if you always have a copy on hand. Making regular backups may sound tiresome, but it’s the best way to ensure your data is safe.
  • 🦺 Eject drives safely – Unplugging your drive without ejecting it safely can interrupt write operations. If this happens, there’s a chance your data, and perhaps your entire drive will become corrupted. To avoid this, make sure to eject your drive safely before unplugging it.
  • 💼 Store drives properly – Drives, especially hard drives, are very susceptible to physical damage. While some manufacturers invest in sturdy housings for the drive, it’s still only one layer of protection. Consider buying an external hard drive case for your drive to live in.



With the methods outlined in this article, you can recover an external hard drive without formatting. However, even when attempting all of these fixes, the problem may persist. If that’s the case, attempt recovery using data recovery software, then consider formatting the drive to restore functionality.

Going forward, proactively taking care of your data can help prevent these types of situations. Taking the time out of your day to set up an automatic backup can save you countless hours in the future.