Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

My Files Disappeared from Downloads. How Do I Get Them Back?

In my download folder I had numerous utilities, photos, PDF Files, etc. that I downloaded with my browser. When I open the download folder, all I see are the most recent files I downloaded. Is there any way I can recover these files (utilities, photos, PDF files), or are they gone forever?

It really depends on how or why the files disappeared. There are many possibilities, and I’ll run through a few options to see if we can get lucky.

However…

More importantly, in my opinion you’re doing two things wrong, and one of those could impact much more than just downloads.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Downloads is for downloads, not for storage

An empty Downloads folder
An empty Downloads folder.

In my opinion, the Downloads folder should never be used for long-term storage.

It was never intended as a place to keep things, and leaving things in the Downloads folder is a recipe for disaster, which you’re discovering.

Instead, once you’ve downloaded something you intend to keep — anything — move it to a different folder of your own. Maybe create a “Utilities” folder in your Documents folder, maybe create a “Downloaded PDFs” folder somewhere. Perhaps create folders by topic, or whatever makes sense to you.

But move them somewhere else.

If you lost anything, you aren’t backing up

Seriously, if you lost a file because the one copy you had of it disappeared, clearly you aren’t backing up. That’s true whether it was in the Downloads folder or anywhere else.

If you lost something because it was deleted, then it’s pretty obvious you hadn’t backed it up.

Change that. Now. Start backing up your computer. My recommendation is a periodic image backup, with daily incremental backups, but the details matter less than doing it.

If your Downloads folder had been getting backed up (as an image backup would have ensured), you wouldn’t have lost anything except the time to locate the backup copy and restore the file(s).

Straws to grasp at

So, with the admonitions out of the way, I do have a few things for you to try.

Check the Recycle Bin. If the files were accidentally deleted by something you did in Windows File Explorer, or by a Recycle Bin-aware utility, it’s possible the file(s) you’re looking for could still be there. If they are, you can quickly and easily restore them.

Search for the file(s). Try to recall the name of one of the files, and search for it using Windows Search or the Command Prompt. If the file was moved to a different folder, you might find it there. This may also lead you to understand what happened and locate other files as well.

Check File History. Assuming you have it enabled, see if you can locate the missing file(s) in Windows 10’s File History.

Check OneDrive. If you’re using OneDrive, it’s possible that your Downloads folder will, ironically, be uploaded to your OneDrive storage. Depending on your OneDrive account, it may have a File History or Recycle Bin you can check.

Try file recovery. As a last-gasp effort, I’d try a file recovery tool like Recuva to see if the files can be recovered from the unused space on your hard disk.

You may be out of luck

Difficult as it is to accept, it’s possible the files are gone forever.

Since we don’t know why they disappeared, there’s little I can offer to prevent this from happening again — except, of course, not using Downloads for long term storage, and making sure you start backing up your machine right away.

Why is Downloads so risky?

Disk cleanup utility - Downloads folder setting
Disk cleanup utility – downloads folder setting.

The problem with Downloads is pretty simple: I’m not alone in considering it inappropriate for long term storage. For instance, various disk cleanup utilities — including Windows’ own, shown above1 — offer to empty it, or just empty it without asking (they should ask, but it’s easy to overlook if you’re in a hurry).

Regardless of whether you agree with me or not, you need to protect yourself, and the easiest way is simply to move the files elsewhere once downloaded.

If you found this article helpful, I'm sure you'll also love Confident Computing! My weekly email newsletter is full of articles that help you solve problems, stay safe, and give you more confidence with technology. Subscribe now and I'll see you there soon,

Leo

Podcast audio

Play

Video Narration

Footnotes & References

1: Interestingly, this option is apparently being removed from future versions of Windows Disk Clean up. It may still exist in other tools, however.

26 comments on “My Files Disappeared from Downloads. How Do I Get Them Back?”

  1. the writer didn`t mention what OS they were using but Mr. N assumed it was
    win 10. i do too. i`ve never had this problem with win 7 ult. and i`ve had memes,
    files and pics on there for years. the writer also didn`t mention how many people
    use their device. someone else could have deleted them. but as it is with any family,
    ask around and nobody knows.

    Reply
  2. I have never had this issue myself. I usually end up having to clear out the Downloads folder myself, so I am not missing anything current that i may have downloaded.

    Reply
  3. You mention that the option is being removed in a future version. The option to cleanup the downloads folder or to NOT delete the downloads folder?
    BTW, I did have a subdirectory inside my downloads folder deleted by disk cleanup once. Dang. Lesson learned.

    Reply
      • You keep saying that, Leo, but as of today, January 8, 2020, on an updated Windows 10 OS………it’s still there!

        In the meantime, we get it; advice well taken about “the Downloads folder should never be used for long-term storage.”

        However, for those of us (the great “unwashed”) who DO have a tendency to leave downloads IN the Download folder (seems a pretty natural thing to do…based on the name of the folder AND the fact that MILLIONS of us DO IT), I don’t think we should be “punished” by being “encouraged” to intentionally DELETE our downloads….which is what your advice “My approach, however, is to select everything…..Click OK” in the “Using Windows Disk Cleanup” effectively does.

        You even go so far as to DOUBLE DOWN on your advice to trash possibly needed/wanted downloads by repeating your advice to “once again, it’s just fine to select everything in the list to be cleaned up…Click OK, and Disk Cleanup goes to work” under the “Cleaning system files” heading.

        How about just adding a little caveat in BOTH of these instruction sets…along the lines of “Select everything, but be cautious to ensure you’ve inspected your Downloads folder FIRST, to make sure you’ve removed and/or re-located anything you worked hard to download AND plan to keep!”

        And, sure, also include reminder at that time about how we were “bad boys and girls” to keep our things there in the first place. I guess what I’m saying is….a little more carrot, a little less stick. πŸ™‚

        Reply
  4. Another option. The browser’s default save location may not be set to the Download folder. The location can be checked, verified, or changed in your browser’s Settings. This also applies if you are using a download manager.

    Reply
    • Lew & Leo,
      I created a new folder for downloads, moved all contents from Downloads into it, then changed Firefox to point to the newly created folder. Excellent suggestions. THANK YOU!

      Reply
  5. I purposefully have each of my web browsers on all of my computers (for Windows and Mac) configured to (1) have the default download location set to the “Desktop” folder and (2) require me to actually save the download, potentially rename it, and select the folder it goes to if not the “Desktop”. I do this because the “Desktop” is an easy place for all downloaded files to initially go to and then either move it to a more appropriate folder or delete it when I am finished with it.

    Reply
  6. I downloaded the user manual for my new cell phone to the download folder. It was there for less than a week before it was gone. I found it in my setup folder where I keep the installation files for the apps on my computer. This article is the first time I’ve been notified that the download folder is a temporary location for Microsoft. Good to know even if it is thirty five years or so late.

    I also download Overdrive audio books to this download folder, and other books that aren’t “Kindle” books and delete them after listening to or reading the book, but I don’t ever remember them being moved somewhere else. Maybe some of them are still on my computer and nobody knows where Microsoft put them.

    Reply
  7. There is a program called (Search Everything) It works on the Windows OS’s. I haven’t used it on Windows 10 as I don’t have it installed,but I have run it on Win XP ,7,8. It will find ,as its name implies, Everything even deleted files. It has many other options for searching. Hope this will help.

    Reply
  8. I never had any idea there was any danger. I’ve never lost a file from Downloads. I moved my Downloads folder inside my OneDrive folder so it has been backed up and I also do monthly system image backups and daily incrementals so it wouldn’t have been a big problem to get a file back. After reading this article, I emptied the Download folder into another folder. Actually, I should take some time and move those files into more appropriate folders.

    Reply
  9. The biggest problem with using the default “Downloads” folder is that it is a folder under your user’s personal folder. Since my old Win 7 machines run with a standard user for everyone and an admin user for me, downloading a file while logged in as admin made it difficult for other users, either on the machine or on the network, to find these files.

    What I ended up doing was to create a “Downloads” folder directly off the root folder, and telling Windows to download to that folder. Problem solved!

    Reply
  10. I think there is also a Windows induced confusion on just where “downloads” go. I can find at least 4 folders in my Directory named “Downloads:
    1. C:\Users\My-PC\Downloads
    2. C:\Users\Public\Downloads
    3. C:\Downloads
    4. C:\Users\Bruce-PC\OneDrive\Documents\Downloads

    Which of these is the “default” directory for when I download something? I believe it to be number 1 on the list above. But whatever or wherever it is located, I have never lost a file that I downloaded. And, as Leo suggests, if it is an important download, I move it to a separate, distinct folder (and back it up!)

    Reply
    • That “C:\Downloads” folder is just plain weird.

      A “downloads” folder is user-specific; what on Earth would be the point in making a non-user specific “downloads” folder?!?

      If you say, “to share between users,” I answer with, ‘O.K., then what is the “C:\Users\Public\Downloads” folder there for?’

      Like I said — weird.

      Reply
      • Because “C:\Users\whatever” aside, MOST PCs are single-user machines. I do the similar — my downloads folder is c:\Downloads. My OneDrive is c:\OneDrive. My Dropbox is C:\Dropbox. Makes typing these entries into various open and save dialog boxes MUCH easier.

        Reply
    • My Windows default Downloads folder was originally c:\Users\marks\Downloads\ but I’ve changed that to c:\Users\marks\OneDrive\Downloads\. Some programs have their own default Downloads folder which is can be changed inside the program.

      You can move the Downloads (or any folder) using Windows File Explorer. This article explains how to move the My Documents folder but it works for any folder. I moved Documents, Downloads, Pictures, Music, and Videos inside the OneDrive folder so all my personal files are synchronized on the cloud and are on all of my computers.
      Ho Do I Change the Location of the My Documents Folder

      Reply
  11. I have two Download folders. One in the root of “C” and one in User account. Whenever I download a file (such as a pdf), I’ll move it immediately to an appropriate folder in My Documents (ex: “Manuals”). If I did not WANT the pdf, why would I have downloaded it?

    Other files in my Download folders are installation files for various programs. When I update software and it comes as a download, I’ll keep the previous installation file. Never know if I might need or want it. Thanks to Leo’s comments, I’ll probably move my downloaded installion files to another folder.

    Reply
  12. – I use the “Disk Cleanup” tool only for reducing the size of those infamous “c:\windows\winsxs\” subfolder(s). After installing a few socalled “Rollup” updates (in Windows 7 & 8) those folders contain A LOT OF extra files. (Although Win 7 & Win 8 are now “on their way out”).
    – I also make sure to untick ALL boxes in that one tool before I tick a few boxes

    Reply
  13. 1) I too create a C:\downloads folder on my computers, and I make sure it’s included in data backups. (There’s probably a registry hack that would make the OS think that this is the main Downloads folder, but instead I just put a shortcut to it in the Downloads folder.)
    2) I set my browsers to prompt me for a save location for downloaded files.
    3) The only files that I save in C:/downloads are installation and update files for programs I install from websites (not major installations like Office, which install themselves in their own special locations). Everything else I download goes into the appropriate folder.

    When I set up a new machine, I can often bring over the dozens of programs that the old one used; and in some cases I can use the same setup files used in the original machine.

    Reply
  14. If you have automatic file backups going on, with periodic image backups, won’t you sooner-or-later be deleting old backups, even if they contain the files that you didn’t realize had been deleted?
    Image backups are pretty big, and sooner or later you run out of space for the old ones…

    Reply
      • This may seem simplistic but I have never deleted any downloads. I was never sure what to delete.
        Any ideas on how to proceed ?

        Thanks,
        Ed

        Reply
        • Well, presumably you downloaded things for various reasons, so you’ll need to go through your downloads, identify what they are, why you downloaded them and then decide what to do with each. Some you might keep (move to a different folder) others you might delete. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here — it really depends on what you want.

          This is another reason I dislike keeping things in Downloads — I prefer to make those keep/discard decisions right away, when my reason for downloading is fresh in my mind.

          Reply
  15. I’ve never had any problems losing files from the Download folder, but ever since this article came out, I’ve been moving all of my downloaded files to their appropriate folders right after downloading and it’s much easier to find files now πŸ™‚

    Reply
  16. I’ve been using computers since long before Windows existed, and even before MS-DOS was ubiquitous. (Think Apple II’s and TRS-80’s.) When MS-DOS came out, there was no default Download folder. I created my own – C:\Downloads. The early versions of Windows did not have a default Download folder either, in fact, if I remember correctly, the user Downloads folder didn’t appear as part of the Windows folder structure until Windows Vista came out. Most browsers, as lew b noted, most browsers have a setting for where to download files, and even to ask where to download them. I use Chrome and it is set to use C:\Download as a repository for file downloads, and also to ask where to place them as I occasionally put them into a C:\Downloads sub-folder. I have never lost any files from C:\Downloads as far back as Windows 3.1 (and earlier).

    Reply
  17. I have the same problem but with my mobile. Recently I download some video files. But one or two days latter they are gone from the chrome. So I upgrade it, but facing the same problem.

    Reply

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.