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Recover Deleted Files on a Mac, AND Make Sure They're Gone for Good

Not all deletes are intentional, so here's a few simple tips to help you get back files, photos and music that you have either misplaced or didn't intend to remove from your MacBook, iMac or other Apple desktop or laptop.

The Trash

Usually, your files will end up in Trash. In OSX, you access this via the icon on the right of your Dock. If there are a lot of items then use Finder; enter all or part of the file name, then be sure to select 'Trash' instead of 'This Mac' when asked where you want to conduct your search. Once you've found the file you want, just drag it back onto your desktop or a folder.

Older Files

To help preserve space on your hard drive, once the Trash starts to fill up then older files will be removed permanently. Don't despair if this is the case; you may still be able to recover it if you've taken advantage of Apple's free Time Machine backup facility.

Images and iPhoto

One thing to remember is that if you deleted the image from within iPhoto it will not be sent to your main Trash. The recovery process is still simple, just slightly different. Just open iPhoto and look in the sidebar, then select 'Trash'. Within that, Control-click and select 'Put Back'.


The important thing to realise here is the difference between deleting the file from within iTunes or from somewhere else. If you used iTunes AND didn't specifically ask to move the file to Trash, then all you did was remove the file's listing, but not the file. Navigate to 'Home' > 'Music' > 'iTunes Media' > 'Music', select the music file, and drag it over to the iTunes icon to re-list it.

If the music file itself has been deleted (or if it's not in your iTunes folder) then these steps will help you not only recover deleted files but also properly organise your music:

Remember also: if you can't find a file that you know you bought from iTunes, you can download it again at no extra charge.

I've Deleted Files And I Want Them Totally Gone!

As you'll have gathered by now, your Trash folder is a way-station on the road to permanent deletion. Usually, older files will be deleted permanently, but occasionally this won't happen. Plus, if you let your Trash folder get too big it can affect your Mac's performance, so it makes sense to clean it out properly on a regular basis. Why? Because the data contained in the files isn't really IN the Trash; it's still in the drive that the file was originally in. Confused? Read on and we'll explain.

Empty the Trash

First, the basics: right-click the icon and choose 'Empty Trash'. This will free up some space, but it doesn't actually delete the files then and there; instead, what's being deleted is the association between the icon and/or text that you interact with and the actual data behind that. The data is still in the drive it was always in, but it will be removed from there as and when disk space is needed. Until that time it's still potentially recoverable.

Secure (Permanent) Deletion

To perform this action, navigate to 'Finder' > 'Secure Empty Trash', or right-click the Trash icon and hold down the 'Command' key (the Apple button) to display the option 'Securely Empty Trash'. This will then over-write the data in all the files shown in Trash with nonsense data, to the point where even a data recovery specialist might have problems getting it back.

Erase Free Space

Now that you understand that data is not actually removed when you delete a file OR empty the Trash normally, you'll understand the existence of the alterative to Secure Deletion: Erase Free Space. This will bring forward deletion of data that is already pending removal.

To implement, make sure that you are in the drive you want to empty, and navigate to 'Applications' > 'Utilities' > 'Disk Utility' > 'Erase' > 'Erase Free Space'. Depending on your exact version of OSX you'll have different options for removing the data. These are more or less thorough, taking more or less time to perform.


If you find that files refuse to disappear from the Trash, or you get error messages, your first option is to Force Empty, by holding down the Alt/Option key when performing either standard or Secure Empty. If that doesn't work, then it could be one of the following:

Locked Files

Right-click the file, choose 'Get Info' > 'General' and then make sure that 'Locked' is not selected

Special Characters

Sometimes you might need to rename a file before you can delete it if it includes symbols such as / or © or •

Different User Accounts

Remember that if you're not the only one using your Mac, then each user will have their own Trash. If another user requires the file you want to delete, it cannot be removed unless you go through a full delete using their account too.


You are not able to delete a folder, or any of the files it contains, unless you have what is called 'Write Permission'. This is a topic in its own right, so if you have this issue, then it might be time to call your friendly local Mac Support team!

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