Help! My Computer Won’t Recognise My USB Drive

You should never store all of your digital eggs in one basket, a lesson that Lifehacker reader Rafik is probably going to learn the hard way. He has a great puzzler for this week’s tech-troubleshooting column at Lifehacker, and it involves the classic “I can’t access my data” dilemma that everyone has to deal with at some time or another.

I’ll let him explain.

Help! Windows can’t find my USB key

“I have a USB key that is not being recognised by any PC. All my files are in it . Is there a way this data can be retrieved?

This story might not have a happy ending

Rafik, I’ve been down this road before, and it’s frustrating as hell. First, there’s the initial shock when something that might have worked perfectly 1,000 other times no longer works no matter what you do. The annoyance is multiplied when this task is something as simple as “plug in a flash drive and access your files.” It’s not rocket science; it should work.

Then, there’s the realisation that the files you’re trying to access aren’t duplicated anywhere else. And that’s really the compounding issue here. While I don’t need to tell you that copying critical information to a flash drive is better than moving it, this entire ordeal is a great reminder that one can never have too many backups.

I’m hoping that you’ve simply forgotten that your background backup utility has a copy of your data saved to the cloud somewhere”or maybe you made a copy of these files yourself a few months ago, and it’ll only take a little thinking and digging to at least pull up some version of them. Even if it’s not the most recent version, that’s OK! It’s better than nothing.

However, before I give any advice, you might want to steel yourself for the truth that this problem might be unrecoverable. I would, were I you, spend more time up front pondering how I might be able to get that data back in some capacity, and whether it was truly critical to what I’m doing, rather than fuss around with overly complicated and ultimately futile attempts at getting your USB key to work again.

Maybe I’m pessimistic, but I just don’t feel like this one has a happy ending”as you might have guessed by now, given the name of this section’s advice.

It’s time to troubleshoot (what little we can)

First, you said you tried this flash drive on multiple computers. Were they all running the same operating system? The same version of an operating system? Mix it up. See if you can get your hands on a Mac; load a live Linux CD; maybe a newer (or older) version of Windows. Can any of those read your flash drive? Have you tried a USB 3.0 port for a USB 2.0 device? Or a USB 2.0 port for a USB 3.0 device?

Similarly, have you been keeping up on the drivers for your desktop’s motherboard (or laptop, depending on what you’re using here)? It’s possible that a BIOS, chipset, or USB driver update might fix whatever it is that’s causing this issue. Look these up, install the latest versions of whatever motherboard or laptop drivers you can get, and see if that helps.

Assuming your main operating system is Windows, try pulling up Computer Management via the Start menu when you have your USB drive plugged in. Does it even appear at all? If so, and it hasn’t been assigned a drive letter, that could be the quick and easy fix.

If you pull up Device Manager, do you see any USB devices or USB controllers with any kind of yellow-exclamation warning? If so, try right-clicking and selecting “uninstall device,” unplugging your USB key, restarting your PC, and plugging it back in again. That might have a chance at refreshing whatever issue is preventing it from being seen.

Should you be on macOS, or have access to a Mac, you could try using Disk Utility’s “First Aid“ option to repair your drive. If your system can’t recognise the USB drive at all, however, that’s not going to help.

If it’s a hardware problem, it’s time to get serious

And if this is the case, you’re probably looking at a hardware problem. I’d bust out the rubbing alcohol and try cleaning the USB plug in the hope that that’s the issue. You can also get a little more hardcore. Try taking apart said drive and using an adaptor to bypass any kind of malfunction with the actual USB plug. But, at this point, you’re kind of shooting in the dark to fix an unknown issue. You might do more damage to your USB drive if you bust out the solder and start trying to forge your own connections; your circuit board might have an issue, which renders this whole technique moot anyway.

At this point, you might want to consider finding a local data recovery service that could try and restore your data”assuming it’s that critical. This might cost you a bit, so be prepared to pay up. On the plus side, this is a great reminder about the importance of backups, and how an annual fee for storage elsewhere, annoying as it is, probably still costs less than what it takes to recover your data when disaster strikes. I don’t want to harp on this point, but it’s the best lesson anyone can learn from all of this.

That’s all the advice I can think of. Did I miss anything, Lifehacker readers? Do you have any other magical tricks for getting a computer to detect a USB key? Let Rafik and me know in the comments!

Do you have a tech question keeping you up at night? Tired of troubleshooting your Windows or Mac? Looking for advice on apps, browser extensions, or utilities to accomplish a particular task? Let us know! Tell us in the comments below or email [email protected].

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