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Step-by-step guide to recover deleted PDF files

The PDF file format is the most popular way for storing and transferring read-only documents thanks to its ability to preserve formatting. Because of how widespread PDF files are, issues with their accidental deletion are common. If you’re currently experiencing such an issue yourself, then this step-by-step recovery guide is here to help you regain access to them.

Can deleted PDF files be recovered?

Yes, deleted PDF files can often be recovered even without a backup, but the following conditions must be met: 

  • The storage space occupied by the deleted files hasn’t yet been overwritten by new data.
  • The deleted PDF files were not stored on a TRIM-enabled solid-state disk (SSD). 
  • The storage device on which the PDF files were stored isn’t physically damaged. 

The first condition has everything to do with how data is actually physically stored on storage devices. When you delete a PDF file in Windows or macOS, the file doesn’t immediately vanish into thin air. Instead, it’s first moved by the operating system to the Recycle bin or Trash folder, where it stays until it becomes permanently deleted. Even then, the file remains physically present on the storage device (and recoverable) until it becomes overwritten by new data. 

The only exception to this is situations where the lost data was stored on a TRIM-enabled SSD—hence the second condition. When enabled, the TRIM command allows the operating system to notify the SSD that certain blocks of data are no longer needed and can therefore be wiped out and made writable again. If TRIM is enabled for your SSD, then you most likely won’t be able to recover permanently deleted PDF files. 

Of course, you also won’t be able to use any software-based data recovery technique and solution if the lost PDF files are located on a physically damaged storage device that your computer doesn’t recognize anymore. A professional data recovery center might be able to help you, but the recovery cost could be very high. 

Keep in mind that the three conditions don’t apply if you have a backup that contains the deleted PDF files. If you do, then you can consider yourself lucky because you should be able to recover all PDF files without any issues whatsoever, and we explain how to recover PDF files with and without a backup in the next section. 

How to recover deleted PDF files on Windows

Let’s explore three ways to recover deleted PDF files on Windows, starting with the operating system’s built-in file backup feature. 

Method 1: File History

The Windows operating system comes with a backup feature called File History. When enabled, this feature takes snapshots of files stored in the Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and Desktop folders and saves them on an external backup drive. 

To recover deleted PDF files from a File History backup drive: 

  1. Open the File Explorer right-click the folder where the deleted PDF files were stored.
  2. If you’re using Windows 11, click Show more options. Select the Restore previous versions option.
  3. Select a previous version of the folder and click Open or Open in File History.
  4. Locate your deleted PDF files. 
  5. Select the deleted PDF files and either drag and drop them where you want or click the green Restore button, depending on which option you clicked in Step 3.

Method 2: Autosave Feature in Adobe Acrobat Reader

Adobe Acrobat Reader has a handy Autosave feature that protects against data loss in case of a sudden shutdown caused by a power failure, critical software error, or some other factor. While this feature won’t bring a permanently deleted PDF file back from its digital grave, it can restore all the unsaved changes you’ve made to the PDF before the sudden shutdown closed it unexpectedly. 

To recover unsaved changes using the Autosave feature:

  1. Launch Adobe Acrobat Reader.
  2. Click Yes when prompted to recover the autosave file.
  3. Save the recovered file someplace safe. 

Method 3: Recover Deleted PDF Files with a Data Recovery Software

But what if you don’t have a backup at hand? In that case, you can use data recovery software to scan the storage device where your PDF files were located to see if they’re still physically present on it. If they are, the software should be able to restore access to them. 

Pro: Disk Drill

Disk Drill is a professional-grade data recovery software application whose intuitive user interface makes it accessible to home users with zero data recovery experience. 

The free version of Disk Drill for Windows can preview an unlimited number of PDF files and recover up to 500 MB of data in total. 

To recover PDF files using Disk Drill for Windows:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill Data Recovery for Windows
  2. Launch the software and select the storage device where your PDF files were located.
  3. Click the Search for lost data button and give Disk Drill the time it needs to finish scanning. 
  4. Go through the recovery results and find your lost PDF files using the search results filters. Take advantage of the preview feature to verify the recoverability of the lost PDF files.

  1. Select all PDF files you want to recover and click the Recover button. Specify a suitable recovery destination and confirm. 

Freeware: Recuva

Unlike Disk Drill, Recuva can recover an unlimited amount of data for free, but it does have its shortcomings. The biggest shortcoming is that the application hasn’t been updated in a while, so its performance isn’t the best. Fortunately, PDF files are supported. 

To recover PDF files using Recuva: 

  1. Download and install Recuva.
  2. Launch Recuva and select the storage device where your PDF files were located.
  3. Click the Scan button and give Recuva the time it needs to finish scanning. 
  4. Go through the recovery results and find your lost PDF files using the search results filters. Unfortunately, Recuva can’t preview PDF files. 

  1. Select all PDF files you want to recover and click the Recover button. Specify a suitable recovery destination and confirm. 

How to Recover Deleted PDF Files on Mac

As a Mac user, you can take advantage of several data loss protection features. If you’re familiar with them and have been relying on them, then we recommend you start your PDF recovery journey with them before moving on to Mac data recovery software. 

Method 1: Time Machine

The macOS operating system ships with an incremental backup tool called Time Machine. This tool protects against data loss by automatically backing up personal data, including apps, music, photos, email, and documents to an external drive. 

To recover deleted PDF files from a Time Machine backup drive:

  1. Launch Time Machine from the Applications folder. 
  2. Navigate to the folder where your PDF files were located.
  3. Use the arrows and the timeline on the right to see an earlier version of the folder. 
  4. Select the lost PDF files. 
  5. Click the Restore button to recover them to their original location. 

Method 2: iCloud Drive

Mac users also enjoy the option to conveniently back up important data, including the content of the Desktop and Documents folders to the cloud using iCloud Drive. PDF files backed up using iCloud Drive can be recovered from anywhere.

To recover PDF files from your iCloud Drive:

  1. Open your favorite web browser and go to iCloud.com.
  2. Log in with your iCloud email address and password. 
  3. Click the iCloud Drive icon.
  4. Locate the lost PDF files and select them.
  5. Click the Download button to download them to your device.

Method 3: Mac Data Recovery Software 

Mac users can choose from just as many data recovery software tools as Windows users. It’s just that the best software applications are not available from the App Store because of the restrictions imposed by Apple. Fortunately, you can easily download them directly from their websites. 

Pro: Disk Drill

Besides Windows, Disk Drill also runs on Mac computers, and the Mac version has almost exactly the same user interface as the Windows versions. 

To recover PDF files using Disk Drill for Mac:

  1. Download and install Disk Drill Data Recovery for Mac
  2. Launch the software and select the storage device where your PDF files were located.
  3. Click the Search for lost data button and give Disk Drill the time it needs to finish scanning. 
  4. Go through the recovery results and find your lost PDF files using the search results filters. Take advantage of the preview feature to verify the recoverability of the lost PDF files. 

  1. Select all PDF files you want to recover and click the Recover button. Specify a suitable recovery destination and confirm. 

Freeware: TestDisk

TestDisk is an open-source hard drive repair and recovery application with a command-line user interface. If you don’t let the user interface scare you away, you can expect great PDF recovery performance without paying any money, especially when recovering PDF files from lost partitions. 

To recover PDF files using TestDisk: 

  1. Install TestDisk using Homebrew.
  2. Launch Terminal and use the command “TestDisk” to launch the software. 
  3. Create a new log file and enter your administrator’s password when prompted.
  4. Select the storage device where your PDF files were stored and specify its partition table type.

  1. Analyze the storage device and perform a Quick Search for missing partitions. 
  2. Optionally, continue with a Deeper Search. 
  3. Recover lost partition data. 

How to Repair a Corrupted PDF File

Just like all other file formats, PDF files can become corrupted and impossible to open. PDF file corruption is often caused by a problem with the storage device on which the PDF files are located, unexpected system shutdowns, malware, and software errors, just to give a few examples. 

The best way to repair a corrupted PDF file is to actually recover a healthy version of the file from a backup. If that’s not a viable option, then you can try an online PDF repair tool like iLovePDF, PDF2Go, or Sejda.

Online PDF repair tools don’t require installation or registration, and they can deliver surprisingly good results. It’s also worth scanning the storage device using CHKDKS in Windows or First Aid in macOS.

FAQ

How to Recover Unsaved PDF File?

Many PDF editing applications, including Adobe Acrobat Reader, have the ability to automatically recover unsaved PDF files. In the case of Adobe Acrobat Reader, you simply need to launch the application after the data loss event and confirm that you want to recover the unsaved PDF file. 

How to Recover PDF Files on an Android device? 

If your PDF files were stored on a memory card, then we recommend you remove the memory card and scan it using Windows or Mac data recovery software like Disk Drill. In fact, Disk Drill can even scan the internal memory of Android devices that are rooted or support USB Mass Storage, but you can also try a native Android recovery app, which there are plenty of in the Google Play Store.

How Can I Recover Deleted PDF File from a USB drive?

You can recover a PDF file that was deleted from a USB drive using data recovery software, such as Disk Drill, or by retrieving the file from a backup. 




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