How to recover data from external hard drive on Mac

Read this article if you are unable to recover lost data from your external hard drive or your Mac laptop is not reading your external hard drive. Know how you can use some Mac-native as well as free tools to help your recover data from external hard drive on Mac.

Mac's that come with SSDs have limited storage. For instance, my MacBook Air has only 256GB of hard drive space. As a result, I keep most of my files on external hard drives and USB pen drives. However, it is not uncommon when Mac's don't read these external disks or the drives become unmountable or corrupted. Let's see how you can recover data from external drives even when your Mac is unable to read the drive.

Basic cable and hub check

It is possible that everything is fine with your external disk and the problem might be due to damage in the connecting cable or port C to USB connector hub you are using. Try to rule these issues out by using another cable or a hub. It can even be an issue with the port you are using on your Mac. Try to rule this out by using the other port or using a different Mac altogether.

Repair Disk with Disk Utility - First Aid

Mac Disk First Aid
If your Mac is able to mount your external disk but is unable to read it, you can try repairing the corrupted disk by using the First Aid utility present in the Disk Utility of your Mac.
  • Go to Disk Utilities using Finder
  • Select the disk you want to repair from the left sidebar
  • Click on the First Aid icon which will start a scan on that volume to scan for errors and then repairs all the errors found on the volume, if necessary. While First Aid runs, it will create a lock on the disk. It means that you won't be able to use any other application while First Aid runs. However, it won't take much time for the scan to run.

Use a tool to recover files from a corrupted, unmountable or formatted external disk

For this to work, your Mac laptop needs to be able to detect an external hard drive connection. If that itself is not working, try this detailed guide from to troubleshoot External Hard Drive not showing on your Mac laptop.

Assuming that your Mac is detecting the drive even if it shows that it can't read it, you can follow the following steps to recover files from the attached external hard drive.
  • Install a free tool like iBoysoft free Mac Data recovery on your Mac. This tool can do all types of data recovery on its free version except for APFS data recovery, which if an ideal use case for us since we are recovering data on an external disk.
  • Connect your disk to Mac and choose the Initialize... option that appears. Launch iBoysoft Data Recovery. It will ask for your Admin password since it needs to be able to make changes on your hard drive.
  • Select the hard disk from the list of disks that appears on the UI of the tool and click on Scan.
  • Drive data recovery in progress
  • The tool will start reading the attached disk and will categorize the found files into different folders depending on the file type like Images, Videos, Emails, Documents, Audios, etc. Wait for the Scan to complete
  • Files Recovered on Mac from external drive
  • Once the scan is complete, you can choose the copy the recovered files to your Mac hard drive or another external drive connect to your Mac.

Repair external hard drive using FSCK

FSCK stands for "File System Consistency Check". This tool scans your hard drive, reviews its structure and attempts to repair it if any damage is found. This tool on Mac is similar to the one that is found on Linux operating systems. Let's see how you can use it on Mac.
  • Each filesystem is identified by a unique ID called the identifier of that disk. We need this in addition to the device node to be able to run FSCK on your hard drive.
  • To get this number, make sure your disk is attached to the Mac. Open the Mac Terminal and run
    diskutil list
    followed by the enter button.
  • You will see all the currently connected drives. This list will include both the mounted and unmounted drives.
  • Note down the device identifier. It will look something like this
    and is usually present on the leftmost side of the command result.
  • Since fsck needs to scan for all memory locations, it needs unhindered access to the storage. For this, the tool cannot be run when your Mac is ON in the normal mode. You need to restart in the basic command line mode. To do this, restart your Mac and when it starts it boot-up sequence, hold down "Command + S" button.
  • Release the buttons when you see the command line interface appearing on the screen. Some text will print on the screen which you can ignore. When it stops, you should be able to see
  • Now, you can run fsck on the externally connected drive by using the command
    /sbin/fsck_hfs -fy /dev/disk3
    when the part "/dev/disk3" needs to be replaced by the disk identifier you have noted down before.
  • When the check is complete, it will print a text "OK" after which you can restart your Mac by typing "reboot" and pressing enter button.

Wrap up

In case none of the above methods work, it is possible that there is physical damage to your hard drive. It is best to take such a hard drive to companies specializing in recovering data from physically damaged drives. Let us know through the comments section if we have been able to help you recover your data from your external hard drive.


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