How to Back Up Data From a Computer That Won’t Boot
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Nothing on a computer scares you like finding your machine suddenly won’t boot Windows 10 Won't Boot? Try This! Windows 10 Won't Boot? Try This! A computer that can't boot is of no use at all -- check out these methods to put your PC back in action. Read More . When you can’t get into your computer, you can’t get any work done. Even worse, if you haven’t set up proper backups The Ultimate Windows 10 Data Backup Guide The Ultimate Windows 10 Data Backup Guide Windows 10 makes data backups effortless. We have summarized every native backup, restore, recovery, and repair option we could find on Windows 10. Use our simple tips and never despair over lost data again! Read More , a dead PC can mean your files are gone.

If you’ve exhausted our tips for solving Windows boot problems How to Solve Most Windows Boot Problems How to Solve Most Windows Boot Problems Is your Windows computer not booting up? It could be because of a hardware, software, or firmware error. Here's how to diagnose and fix these problems. Read More , chances are your Windows installation is toast. However, don’t despair, because there’s a good chance you can recover your files. We’ll show you how to boot into a live Linux installation and rescue your data, even when you can’t get into Windows.

Note: These instructions will only work if you can’t get into Windows, but your PC will still boot. If you can’t turn your system on, can’t see anything on the screen, or have a dead drive How to Diagnose and Fix a Dead Hard Drive to Recover Data How to Diagnose and Fix a Dead Hard Drive to Recover Data Several years ago, I experienced a hard drive failure. I was at work when my laptop suddenly started to act particularly strange. About half an hour later, the hard drive failed audibly and the laptop... Read More , you can’t use this method to recover any data.

Step 1: Ready Your Tools

Even though Windows isn’t working, your data remains on your hard drive or solid state drive. To copy it elsewhere, we need to boot into an operating system (OS) other than Windows. Since Linux is free and easy to install, that’s what we’ll use! There are endless versions of Linux you could try for this process. We’ll use Linux Mint since it’s popular and similar to Windows, but feel free to substitute another if you prefer.

To create a bootable USB drive, you’ll need three things:

  1. A spare flash drive of 4 GB or more, which you must wipe to install Linux.
  2. A working computer to set up the bootable USB flash drive with Linux.
  3. An external drive, a sufficiently large flash drive, or cloud storage space to copy your data.

The Universal USB Installer tool from Pendrivelinux makes this process painless. Visit the site and download a copy of the tool, then head to the Linux Mint download page to download the ISO (disc image) of Mint. You’ll need to choose between the 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the OS here, similar to Windows. Most computers from the past five years or so will likely be 64-bit, but if you’re not sure, pick 32-bit for compatibility. The Cinnamon flavor will do just fine for our purposes.

linux-mint-download

Once you’ve chosen the right version of Mint, pick a download mirror in your country from the many on their website. At the time of writing, this download was about 1.7 GB, which may take a while depending on your connection.

Step 2: Install Linux on Your Flash Drive

Now we have everything we need to install Linux. Go ahead and insert your flash drive into your secondary computer. Open up a File Explorer window to This PC and double-check to confirm the drive letter of the flash drive (it’s likely D:, E:, or F: depending on how many devices you have connected to the PC). After this, open Universal USB Installer from where you downloaded it.

The tool will first ask you which version of Linux The Best Linux Operating Systems The Best Linux Operating Systems There are Linux distros available for every purpose, which makes choosing one difficult. Here's a list of the very best Linux operating systems to help. Read More you’re installing. Choose Linux Mint from the list, then click Browse next to the Step 2 box and find the place where you downloaded the Linux Mint ISO. In Step 3, select the flash drive you inserted by letter. Do not check Show all Drives, as this will include your internal hard drive in the list. You don’t want to wipe that!

To wrap up, check the box to Format Drive — this will wipe it clean How to Format a USB Drive & Why You Would Need To How to Format a USB Drive & Why You Would Need To Formatting a USB drive is no different than formatting any other drive. But how often have you actually formatted a drive and did you ever wonder what the various options mean? Read More so Mint installs successfully. In Step 4, you can add a persistence file Running Linux from USB: Are You Doing It Right? Running Linux from USB: Are You Doing It Right? Did you know that can keep data persistent, or even do a full install for Linux, on a USB drive? Take computing totally mobile -- stick a Linux USB PC in your pocket! Read More . This allows you to save changes made to the OS in between boots. If you have a big enough flash drive, it’s a good idea to include a few gigabytes here, just in case. Without persistence, the OS acts like it’s the first time you’ve used it every time you boot up, and you can’t install any software 11 Must-Have Apps on Ubuntu Right After a Fresh Install 11 Must-Have Apps on Ubuntu Right After a Fresh Install Are you looking at a fresh installation of Ubuntu and feeling a bit lost? We've compiled this list of the first eleven applications you will need to install. Read More permanently.

universal-usb-installer-linux

When you’re all done, triple-check your drive letter to make sure you don’t erase the wrong device, and press Create to begin the process. This will take a bit, so wait until you see Installation Done, Process is Complete! before clicking Close. After this, your flash drive is ready!

Step 3: Boot from the Flash Drive on the Problem PC

Next, we need to make sure your primary computer will boot from the flash drive How To Change The Boot Order On Your PC (So You Can Boot From USB) How To Change The Boot Order On Your PC (So You Can Boot From USB) What happens when you start up your PC? In most cases (and putting it very simply), after the power switch has controlled the flow of electricity to the motherboard and the fans have started up,... Read More .

When you turn on the PC, watch for text like Press F12 to select boot device or Press ESC for boot options. This will vary on every computer, so you might have to try a few times (or Google your computer model name and “boot menu”) to find it. Usually, the key is F12, DEL, or Esc; you’ll need to repeatedly hit the right key as soon as you boot until you see the boot menu.

Use the arrow keys to highlight your flash drive. It will likely be USB: Kingston 3.0 or something similar with the drive’s manufacturer. Press Enter to select that as your boot device, and you’ll head into Linux. Running an OS from a flash drive is fairly slow, so be patient as it loads. After a minute or two, you’ll see the Linux Mint welcome screen.

Here, you’ll need to enter some basic info to set up the OS. Select a username and password, and meet your Linux desktop.

Step 4: Back Up Your Data

From here, you just need to move your data onto a different medium to save it. Open up a file browser — it’s called Nemo on Mint. Look for its folder icon on the left-hand side of the taskbar at the bottom of the screen, then find your hard drive listed on the left sidebar under Devices. It’s likely the only drive listed, shown by name or size. If you see multiple, click on one and see if it has the Program Files, Users, and Windows folders inside it. When you find those, that’s your internal drive!

To get your files, head to Users > USERNAME. Unless you’ve moved your user folder, all your documents, pictures, and videos are found here. You can’t back up installed programs, but you can copy the AppData folder to save configurations for some software.

Since your hard drive is dead, you’ll need to move everything to another drive. Unless your Linux flash drive is huge or you don’t have many files to recover, you probably won’t have enough room for everything. Thus, you should connect an external hard drive or another flash drive with enough room to copy everything over using the file browser.

muo-linux-fileshare-windowsonlinux

If you don’t have an extra drive but only need to back up a few files, you can use your cloud storage. Using the default Firefox browser, sign into Dropbox, Google Drive, or any other provider and you can drag-and-drop files into your storage for those accounts. We don’t recommend this if you have dozens of gigabytes to back up, since it will take a long time for everything to upload.

You’ve Recovered Your Data!

After you make sure you’ve copied everything you need, you’re all done! This process is a lot more involved than simply restoring from a backup 6 Safest Ways to Backup & Restore Your Files in Windows 7 & 8 6 Safest Ways to Backup & Restore Your Files in Windows 7 & 8 By now, we're sure you've read the advice over and over: Everyone needs to back up their files. But deciding to back up your files is only part of the process. There are so many... Read More when your computer goes kaput, so learn from this experience and set up a bulletproof backup plan Plan Ahead: The 5 Programs That Will Save You When Your Hard Drive Dies Plan Ahead: The 5 Programs That Will Save You When Your Hard Drive Dies Sooner or later your computer's hard drive will die. Even with a solid backup plan, your files will be inaccessible until the hard drive is replaced. What will you do in the meantime? Read More right away.

If your hard drive or motherboard dies in the future, this method won’t work, resulting in lost data or an insanely expensive restoration process What Is Data Recovery And How Does It Work? What Is Data Recovery And How Does It Work? If you've ever experienced a major loss of data, you've probably wondered about data recovery -- how does it work? Read More . Regardless, you should keep your new Linux drive handy for the future! A friend may need the same help soon.

Now that your data is safe, you can wipe your computer and reinstall Windows How to Install Windows 10 for Free on any Windows, Linux, or OS X PC How to Install Windows 10 for Free on any Windows, Linux, or OS X PC You don't have to upgrade to Windows 10 to try it. Whether you qualify for the free upgrade or want to try Windows 10 on Linux or OS X, you can evaluate it for free. Read More so you can get a fresh start and get back into your computer.

Have you ever recovered data using this method that you once thought lost? Let us know if a Linux flash drive has saved the day for you!

Image Credit: 3DMart via Shutterstock.com

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  1. Tony
    December 8, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    Many thanks for this.
    In answer to some queries, make sure you shut down windows properly or the hard drive won't 'mount' so you can't access the files.
    Choose the 'ASPI OFF' Linux version if the 'on' version doesn't work.
    Make sure if you format your USB stick you format it to the type it is which should be identified in the USB universal installer window

  2. Shiv Hedaoo
    October 16, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    Life Saver...

  3. Shiv Hedaoo
    October 16, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    Life saver....

  4. Dale
    September 14, 2017 at 3:07 pm

    Thank for this article. I was able to get all the way to step 4. Once I got there I ran into a roadblock. I get an error telling me that the OS can not be mounted due to windows being in a hibernation state. I am in this position in the first place because I get a logonui.exe application error in which windows won't let me get to the logon screen. Anyways I can't copy my files over to my external drive to this OS mount issue. Now I did do some nosing around google to try and figure this out but I was unable to figure out how to correct it. I have been trouble shooting this for two days now and at this point am ready to pay someone to try and save my data. Not sure if you have any suggestions but any would be wonderful. Thanks!

  5. The guy
    September 13, 2017 at 12:42 am

    I like how to-the-point the article is where others meander when I'm too stressed for that to be okay. I'm lucky in that my computer is able to boot for several minutes occasionally and I know my stuff is there but I either don't have a mouse or clicking crashes it. However, when booting usbs, it still performs a repair and that usually crashes so I'm wondering if that's supposed to happen or if I can circumvent it somehow, it's annoying being this close and having it crash when I have a backup os plugged in. Also, not from the f12 menu, but another repair menu in the advanced options has a usb option that doesn't recognise the usb and reverts to the default windows boot. Help, this thing is 6 months old and I have projects on there that I didn't have any warning to think to backup.

  6. RP
    September 6, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Hi,
    I am able to install mint as per the instructions provided by you. However when I connect an external drive where I want to copy my data the external hard drive/flash drive is not recognized by the system..Appreciate if you can help

  7. Cory
    July 30, 2017 at 6:09 am

    This saved a lot of money and time, and my life!!!!!!!!! I was freaking out when my home desktop windows 10 crashed and would not let me go into windows at all. I did everything I could think of. Frantically typing codes in command prompt, meaninglessly clicking on "reset PC" menu although it fails every time, and stuff. The last resort was taking out the hard drive physically and connecting to another computer to save all the research documents, but I hesitated it. This was so much easier than anything and it worked exactly as you described. Weirdly, the portable hard drive that was connected to the "bad" computer and seemed to be crashed when windows stopped working, (the drive did not run in another windows computer) but it worked fine on Linux after i installed on my "bad" computer. So I am now successfully transferring all the data from that portable drive as well.

    Thank you so much for the useful tip!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Ben Stegner
      July 31, 2017 at 3:12 pm

      So glad this helped you!

  8. Judy
    July 29, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Thank you so much for this. It was unbelievably easy to follow the instructions (and not deviate) and get all my files off my SDD after problems with my windows installation. It worked exactly as per the instructions. I also really like the ease of use of Linux - maybe I should move to that OS instead of windows!!

  9. Diane
    July 14, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    I did all the steps, however when creating the bootable jump drive it asked me if I wanted to format it with NTFS or FAT32. I picked NTFS. Then it said it was done. I put it in the "bad" computer and pressed F12 to boot to the USB drive. Picked the USB drive and it looked like it was flashing, then it went back to the Toshiba screen and tried to boot up like usual and then I received the blue screen with the Windows error code. I'm wondering if I didn't create the jump drive correctly.

  10. Drew
    June 22, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    I have a similar problem as "Bernado", but it's slightly different. I have two internal Hard Drives. I followed this tutorial to help me to get in, and It only shows the second Hard Drive, NOT the Windows Drive. I'm not entirely certain, but when I ran the HP quick test/extensive test to check the Hard Drive, it only checked one of them, and I don't know how to get it to check the OTHER one. I suspect that one reason why Windows won't boot up is because the computer is looking inside the WRONG hard drive.

    I can't reseat the memory or anything like that because it's inside a laptop.

    My question is this: How do I get the computer to recognize the Windows drive?

  11. Selvakumar S P
    June 11, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you for your detailed steps. I just got back all my files. Big thanks..

  12. Haley
    May 23, 2017 at 2:01 am

    Hey, thank you for answering my previous question about a 32 GB flash drive being enough for my games and personal documents / pictures. I purchased a flash drive and have Linux running on my broken laptop, but now I can't find a way to move my stuff onto it. Am I not able to because it's running the OS currently?

  13. Haley
    May 14, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    Hi

    Thanks for this article. If I buy a 32 GB flash drive, will that be enough to put the Linux OS on AND put my backed up data on? I'm only concerned about probably 100-200 pictures, 20-30 documents, and my Minecraft world. This is kind of embarrassing, but I have Minecraft solely for the purpose of building cool houses and after years of work, I'd be devastated to lose them. However, I have no idea how much space this will all take up.

    Thanks!

    • Ben Stegner
      May 15, 2017 at 2:24 pm

      That should be enough, yes. You can fit Linux on a 4 GB flash drive, so 32 GB should be plenty for grabbing a few pictures and your Minecraft data. If you're not sure, type this line into the Start menu to open your Minecraft folder, and look under Saves to see how big your saved game is:

      %appdata%\.minecraft

  14. Mick
    April 16, 2017 at 4:47 pm

    Worked great,

    All my files are back in bussines.
    Best regards,

    Mick

  15. Bonnie
    April 7, 2017 at 5:34 pm

    I'm stuck on Step 4 - add a persistance file. I'm don't know where to find the ubuntu desktop.iso.

  16. South African Student
    March 6, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Thank You very much @BenStegner.
    Purchased a Dell 5559 i5 lsat week and Windoes 10 OS crashed while using CCcleaner's wipe feature.
    Thanks to this tutorial and help from my bro's assistant laptop, Linux Mint saved all of my music and videos along with work files.
    My laptop is being serviced at the moment due to a faulty system but when it comes back, I won't go back to Windoes...

    Thanks again man. **Two thumbs up

    • Ben Stegner
      March 6, 2017 at 4:55 pm

      I'm so glad this helped you! Were you wiping free space with CCleaner or an entire drive?

  17. Bernardo
    February 8, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    Everything went fine, except when I booted Linux Mint in my pc that cant boot into Windows, my Device, or should I say my Windows hard drive where all my files are kept, doesnt show up anywhere.
    The only device that shows up it's called 'casper-rw' and I dont know what is that.

    I really need to get some files back, how do I access them?

    Please Help

  18. Bernardo
    February 8, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    Amazing, great step-by-step tutorial.
    Everything worked fine for me in a Dell pc.

    • Ben Stegner
      February 9, 2017 at 6:37 pm

      I'm glad this helped you out!

  19. A
    February 5, 2017 at 5:07 am

    I upgraded from Windows 8 to 10 but my computer won't boot. Can I extract the drive. Would the data still be available on my hard drive even though Windows didn't load properly?

    • Ben Stegner
      February 6, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      What data do you mean? If your computer won't boot because Windows is damaged, you should be able to use this method to recover your documents and other personal files using Linux. You'll probably want to reinstall Windows from scratch after that to fix the boot problem.

  20. Nur Asikin
    January 30, 2017 at 1:39 am

    Hi.
    Interesting article.
    Will this work for me? My laptop (Vista) overheated, harddisk can no longer be accessed, and my friends say it's dead.
    Any suggestions / help?
    Thanks and regards.

    • Ben Stegner
      January 30, 2017 at 3:29 pm

      Hi Nur,

      Unfortunately, this method only works if the hard drive is still functioning, but you can't boot into Windows. If you can't access the hard drive at all, then it's dead and this method won't work. Unfortunately your only real option is to pay a large amount of money for a data recovery service. Do you have any backups by chance?

      • Nur Asikin
        January 30, 2017 at 6:05 pm

        Sadly not. Thanks, Ben, for the kind reply.