Software Windows

How can I use File History to restore deleted data?

File History is a simple way to restore deleted files and folders without spending hours trawling through backups. It works by storing snapshots to an external storage drive and, as you’ll see, it’s a powerful tool.

What’s more, as it’s an integral part of Microsoft Windows (Home and Professional) it’s also free and 100% safe.

Windows File History is turned off by default

However, File History isn’t turned on by default, so follow this easy setup guide to put an extra layer of reassurance between yourself and data loss.  We’re also giving you a quick guided tour of how File History works and a few examples of how you can undelete files within Windows.

Here’s a great tip: File History requires the use of external storage, so it’s an easy addition to any Windows desktop setup. Simply insert a capacious USB drive and leave it plugged into a free rear port as a dedicated File History drive. This is a little more cumbersome with laptops, but File History will work with network storage such as NAS drives.

How to set up File History

Type File History into your Windows Search box and select Restore your files with File History.  You can also select File History from the Windows Control Panel.

Search for File History in the Windows control panel

The File History window has a few configuration options but we’ll begin with Select Drive. This allows you to choose the destination for your File History to be stored. For this guide, we’ve used a standard USB flash drive.

Windows File History control panel

You can also use this option to use File History with a NAS drive.

Windows File History: Add network location.

File History keeps snapshots of the usual Windows user folders so it’s worth using the Exclude Folder option to remove the ones that you don’t want File History to include. In our example, we’ve excluded Camera Roll.

Windows File History excude from File History

Choose Advanced Settings to fine-tune how you want File History to behave. You can select how often copies of your files are made.

Windows File History Save Copies of Files

The real power of File History is that, given enough storage, it can keep versions of your files and folders forever. This is extremely useful when trying to recover a file that you accidentally deleted six months ago.

Windows File History how many versions

If space on your storage drive is a concern, then use the File History Clean-Up tool to delete versions older than a certain age.

Windows File History clean-up tool.

When you’ve made your choices, click Turn On and File History will begin.  Depending on how much data you have and where it is being stored, this can take a little time.

Windows File History turn on

You can always reconfigure File History later if you wish.

How to use File History to recover Files

Let’s look at File History in action. Here is our list of random files stored in the Document folder.

Windows File History - a list of files

You’ll notice that ‘The Big Tech Question 3’ has been accidentally deleted. We’re going to use File History to restore the missing file. Right-click in the folder window, select Properties and then Previous Versions.

Windows File History - Previous Versions

This window shows a list of the versioned snapshots that File History as stored (two in this example). We’ll select the first one. Towards the bottom of the Window are two drop-down menus, Open and Restore. In this example, we’re going to choose Open in File History.

Windows File History - Open in File History

File History opens the latest snapshot of this folder and thankfully, our missing The Big Tech Question 3 is there. I can select it and press the Green reverse circle icon and the missing file is restored. If the file isn’t contained within this snapshot, I can select another and try again.

Windows File History - Restore Missing File

How to use File History to recover folders

File History will also restore entire folders.

Windows File History - Missing Folder

In this example, our Music folder is blank but a snapshot is listed under Previous Versions. I could use the Open menu to examine this snapshot, but I already know that it contains the missing data (it was accidentally deleted the day before). Select Restore to utilise File History’s one-click function and after a few seconds, the music has been recovered.

Windows File History - Folder Restoration

If you wanted to restore the snapshot to an alternative location, then select Restore To…

How to use File History to recover selected files

File History takes file-by-file snapshots of your data, which means you can be selective about what you restore. For example, if we don’t wish to restore the entire music folder then we can select a few tracks. From the Previous History menu, select Open in File History.

Windows File History - Open in File History

Select the tracks that you want and then click the Green reverse circle icon to begin the restoration process.

Windows File History - Restore Selected Tracks

With a few seconds, the selected tracks, and nothing else, are restored.

Windows File History - Selected Music Tracks Restored

File History is a useful tool which is buried away within Microsoft Windows. 

It isn’t a substitute for a full backup solution but a complementary feature that we really do advise you to set up and use.

We all delete files from time to time so implementing File History is the ideal way to protect your data. It takes a few moments to setup but could save you hours of time and stress in the future.

READ NEXT Is there free remote control software for Windows?

About the author

Lee Grant

I can normally be found attacking things with screwdrivers in my small computer repair business or writing a column for PC Pro magazine.

I am also trying to solve a mystery involving David Bowie.

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