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Relying on a Recycle Bin could be a costly mistake. Particularly when USB and other removable drives may, or may not, even have a recycle bin.

I had a file on a USB pen drive I accidentally deleted. I went to the Recycle Bin folder to recover it. But the file was not there. Luckily the file was not very important. I have experimented with deleting files on the USB pen drive and it appears the deleted files do not go to the Recycle Bin. Where do the files go? Is it possible to undo a delete from a USB pen drive?

As you've found out, there's not always a recycle bin. In fact, in my experience, occasionally there is, but it's not used.

It's quite confusing, and somewhat surprising, but the recycle bin seems to be used inconsistently across versions of Windows, at least when it comes to what Windows considers to be a "removable" device.

Here's the intent, as I understand it:

Drives that are considered "removable" - like your USB Pen Drive - should not have recycle bins at all. If you still have a floppy drive, that falls into this same category. And in fact, I think we can "blame" the floppy for this behavior. I believe the reason that there's no recycle bin has to do with the assumption that removable drives are typically going to be too small to hold them.

Drives accessed over a network also don't use a recycle bin, but I believe that's due to network performance, among some other issues.

Now I did say this gets confusing, and here are a couple of reasons why:

"The recycle bin is not intended to be a temporary storage location, and you shouldn't treat it like one."

The actual folder containing the recycle bin can have different names, depending on the filesystem used and the version of Windows you run:

  • On FAT filesystems it's in \RECYCLED on the drive.

  • On NTFS filesystems it's \RECYCLER, except when running on Windows Vista.

  • On NTFS filesystems in Windows Vista it's \$Recycle.Bin

And, from what I can tell, the different operating systems also treat the concept of "removable" slightly differently than strictly "removable". My 32gig USB thumbdrive has no Recycle Bin, but my 250gig external USB drive does. In fact, since I move that external hard drive from system to system, it has both "\RECYCLER" as well as "\$Recycle.Bin". Both are removable USB drives - one gets a recycle bin, the other does not. I can only assume that it's somehow also related to the size of the drive.

What to do?

Well, one piece of advice I can certainly give you: don't rely on recycle bin. The recycle bin is not intended to be a temporary storage location, and you shouldn't treat it like one. Assume that deleting a file really means that the file will be deleted, permanently and forever.

In other words, whenever you delete, make sure that you mean it.

The recycle bin is only a safety net, and as we've seen you may not be able to count on it always being there for USB and other Removable drives.

The good news about USB drives is that they are treated as just that: disk drives. That means that when you do delete a file and there's no recycle bin to save you, you may still have a few options.

When that happens:

  • Stop using the drive. The ability to recover a deleted file is extremely dependant on other activity on the drive. If you continue to use the drive the chances of actually recovering a file on it disappear quickly.

  • Start looking into UnDelete utilities. I've done this only rarely, but if the drive has not been used since the delete a good undelete utility will be able to recover it. Of course if the drive has been used since the file was deleted, you may just be out of luck.

One of the ways that a USB device often differs from a true hard drive is if it's based on flash memory, as most USB thumbdrives are. In cases like these, even the forensic techniques used to recover data that might have been overwritten on magnetic material like hard drives will fail. The reason is simple: flash drives are solid state, there's no magnetic material.

Bottom line: only hit delete when you mean it.

Oh, and backup often. That's the other way to recover deleted files: if they've been backed up elsewhere before they were deleted. In most cases, that's the best precaution of all.

Article C3508 - September 21, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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15 Comments
Miche
September 21, 2008 3:15 PM

thank you so much for the info on the NTFS filesystem usb drives-I got my info back! now to back up often...thank you!!!

Kenneth Crook
September 21, 2008 8:55 PM

Thanks Leo for your response.
As always, backup, backup, backup.
Also, THINK before deleting.

RJ
September 22, 2008 9:38 AM

I think the difference between a USB "flash drive" and an external hard drive connected via USB is simply just the drivers required, and Windows picks up on this when deciding to have a Recycle Bin or not.

So I think Windows' checker is basically looking to see if the drive's memory is solid state (IE flash memory) or magnetic (IE a hard disk). A way to test this would be to try and find an ancient 4 gig hard disk and put it in a USB enclosure, to see if Windows gives it a Recycle Bin.


Though correct me if I'm wrong, but you can also force Windows to give a flash drive a recycle bin even if it doesn't give it one automatically, right?

DT
September 23, 2008 8:25 AM

> My 32gig USB thumbdrive has no Recycle Bin,
> but my 250gig external USB drive does.

I bet your 32gig USB thumbdrive is FAT32.
I'll also bet your 250gig external USB drive is NTFS.

Perhaps the FAT32 vs NTFS has something to do with whether a Recycle Bin is present or not?

Kingsley
September 23, 2008 10:06 AM

I think its good to make sure that you are doing the right thing before you decide to delete in order to avoid the hassle of recovery.

Howard Rubin
September 23, 2008 4:06 PM

Very important to note:
If your USB pen drive HAS a recycle bin directory you are most likely infected with a virus or trojan. A quick confirmation of this would be to insert another pen drive and see if the directory is instantly created! The directory will be hiding a trojan (if you are lucky to be able to see this hidden file) and you most likely will have a autorun.inf in the root of the drive referencing the file. The only sure way I know of cleaning this trojan / virus is to boot from a boot DVD or CD with a good AV and trojan cleaner. Check all your drives carefully and don't put your USB drives in any other machine (Pen and hard drives) till they have been cleaned.

Lucille
October 2, 2008 9:41 AM

I"ve had the same problem with having deleted without doing on purpose, the way I found easy to recover was to install a PROGRAM on my pc which is called CARD RECOVERY and best of all FREE to download

Enjoy

shay
October 14, 2008 12:44 PM

the best way before u delete a file is to move it into the computer ur using to see the files and than decide if u want to delete it or not...than u can delete it from the recycle bin if u really sure u want to delete the file

Mandy Senior
November 17, 2009 2:30 AM

The best way to remove a virus from a USB Drive is to go to Run, type cmd, select open. In the Command Window type e: amd press enter on your keyboard. Then type the following command rd /s \recyler This will delete the recycler and the virus at the same time. It also work if the system is a FAT system by changing \recycler to \recycled

That's true only if the virus is in the recycle bin on the device. If it's not, it didn't help.
Leo
17-Nov-2009

alice sandra
October 2, 2011 9:14 PM

i also experience this problem in which I delete a file accidentally and not stored in recycle bin because I delete it from my USB, it makes me feel frustrated because the file which I deleted is VERY very important for my final project. Part of it I blame it on myself because i keep pressing the delete button because the computer was not responding and part of it I blame it on the computer because if it was responding, I could easily know if my unwanted file is already deleted and will not keep pressing the delete button.... I hope that someday SOMEDAY people who work on computers will invent a recycle bin type that can store deleted files from USB...

Mark J
October 3, 2011 1:58 AM

@Alice
If you run a file recovery program such as Recuva (
www.piriform.com/recuva ) before writing anything else to the drive, you may be able to get back deleted files. If you write anything to the drive before running Recuva the chances of overwriting the deleted file increase.

http://ask-leo.com/recuva_a_free_easy_to_use_undelete_and_file_recover_tool.html

johar
October 8, 2011 8:37 PM

Hello Mr., I can't open my usb flash drive properly and it's icon became a trashcan. Please help.

Marian
August 24, 2012 12:08 PM

If I have a recycle bin on my external hard drive how can I see it, or the containing of it? The hard drive is in NTFS format and I run Windows 7 on my PC?

The recycle bin icon on your desktop should show it. Double click on that.
Leo
24-Aug-2012
Marian
August 24, 2012 12:58 PM

For the first time in my life, when the autoplay window appeared after I plugged in my external hard drive, i have clicked on "play video files using VideoLAN VLC Media player"! The thing is that I found some files that I could not locate on my hard drive and when I checked the file path in the VLC playlist It showed something like "G:\\$RECYCLE.BIN\S-1-5-21-30258965-771759058-2807463574-1000\$R2DPHV5.iNT-PFa\Filename"(Windows does not recognize that path)! So what is strange for me is the fact that even if it appears to be a file located in a recycle bin that I cannot find I can still play the video files with no problem! I also do not know where the files came from but I did have borrowed the hard drive to other people and that could explain it! My dilemma right now is how can I restore some of those files if I cannot locate that recycle bin folder and also how can I delete the rest of them?

Use the recycle bin icon to identify and restore (un-delete) any files you want to operate on, and empty the recycle bin using its icon to permanently delete all files in the recycle bin. You should not be using any files directly that you find in recycle bin folders on various hard disks.
Leo
25-Aug-2012

Marian
August 27, 2012 1:25 PM

I appreciate the fact that you found the time to answer my questions but I have to say that the answers were no good! However I would like to say that I found the answer I was looking for! I opened the external hard disk with WinRAR and this way I could see all the hidden files and folders on it including the recycle bin that I was not able to find before.

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