How to Rescue Photos When Your Computer Says Memory Card is Not Formatted

Last updated: Jan. 6, 2017

You've shot hundreds of photos of an important trip or big event, but when you go to load those images onto your computer, an error message pops up: "The memory card is not formatted. Do you want to format it now?"

How does a functioning memory card suddenly become unformatted? And even more importantly, how can you recover your data when the computer says that the memory card is not formatted?

The issue is, unfortunately, a common one. When the memory card becomes corrupted, the computer and often even the camera the images were shot on won't read the images any more. While formatting an empty card is no big deal, often, the error message pops up when there's already images on the card.

But, the data can often be recovered — here's why it happens, how to prevent it and how to recover those images when you see that memory card error.

Memory card format errors often occur because the writing process was either interrupted or corrupted. The files that a computer or camera need to read or write files properly are lost, making the card inaccessible without a reformat. The error often pops up after:

  • The card was removed from the camera while the camera was using it, or the camera's battery died while writing a file. To be safe, always power your camera down before removing the card and avoid shooting with a low battery.
  • The card was used in multiple devices, like different cameras or using the card in a PC then a Mac. Memory cards will often need to be formatted when switching to a different camera, so don't switch the card from one camera to the next without saving the data somewhere else first.
  • The SD card (or CF card) was damaged — sometimes, accidents just happen.
  • The card was originally formatted using a computer, not the camera. While you can format your card with your computer, it's best to format using the camera to prevent corrupted files.
  • The wrong card brand was used. While most cameras will accept several different types of cards, it's a good idea to check to see what cards your camera band recommends. For example, GoPro cameras have been known to be a bit prone to memory card errors if not using a card recommended by GoPro themselves.

While identifying what went wrong will help avoid the issue the next time around, that won't help you with the current data on your card. While you can't read the files in your computer, there may still be a way to recover the files — here are a few strategies.

First, double check the write protection switch

SD cards have a switch on the side that will prevent you from overwriting the data. That's a great feature to prevent accidentally clearing a memory card that you haven't uploaded yet, but most don't even realize the switch is there. If the write protection switch on the side of the card was bumped, you could get that card error. Check and make sure that's not what happened to you.

Try connecting with a USB cord

If your computer can't read the memory card but your camera can, put the card back in the camera and connect the camera directly to your computer using the USB cord. Look and see if the photos show up connected to your computer. If your camera came bundled with software, try using that program to pull up those files instead of simply browsing for the files.

Take the memory card into a camera or electronics store

A camera or electronics store may have the tech to read that corrupted card. Some consumers have said they were able to recover all their data by taking the card into a local store. While the possibility of recovering your data depends on several factors, it's certainly worth a shot.

Use a photo recovery software

With the "not formatted" memory card error, in most cases, your images are still there, your computer just can't read them. A recovery software can serve as the go-between, finding and repairing the files on your memory card so that your computer can access them. Recovery software works well for media cards that were pulled out of a camera or computer too soon, used in multiple devices, or formatted on a computer, but software can sometimes pull information from damaged cards too.

There are several different options for photo recovery software, but we like Stellar Photo Recovery because it's a comprehensive yet simple program. The software is free to try out — you only need to purchase the full version if the program can actually recover files. The program, available for both Windows and macOS, can scan a memory card with a format error and often fix the corruption to recover files — or even recover files off cards that have already been formatted.

Get Stellar Phoenix Photo Recovery

Once the software downloads, you'll select the memory card drive then click scan to see what images can be recovered. The process is pretty straightforward, but there's simple instructions to use too.

Data loss is devastating no matter what the cause is, but recovering files after a memory card format error message is often possible. Start by ensuring the write protection switch is off, then try using a USB cable connected to the camera to read the card. You can also take the card into a camera or electronics store. If that doesn't help you to access your files, you'll need a specialty photo recovery software that can read the corrupted card.

Fix your memory card error? Let us know how you recovered your files in the comments below!

Hillary is a technology writer and photographer based in Michigan. While her favorite tech brands are Apple and Nikon, she enjoys exploring all but the most frustrating new devices.

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