Rescue Files when Windows Won't Start

Technical Level : Basic


Here's how to rescue your files to external USB when WIndows won't start.  You can use the Command Prompt in Repair Mode or use bootable Windows installation media, Recovery Drive, or Repair CD.


Files should always be backed up externally since the hard drive can die at any time and they will be unrecoverable.  In addition back valuable files up to the Cloud in case of fire and to have the latest revisions. 

To rescue your files to external USB when Windows cannot start, you can use whichever method works here to access the Command Prompt from Boot, if necessary by booting your bootable Windows installation media, Repair CD or Recovery Drive. 

If needed now Create Windows 10 Installation Media or Create installation media for Windows 8.1.

Insert the bootable Windows installation media or Recovery drive.

Power up the PC, immediately and vigorously tap the BIOS Boot Menu Key to select the media to boot (as a UEFI device if offered) from menu like this: 

If it bypasses the Boot Menu then use the key from chart in same link to enter UEFI firmware or BIOS setup to turn off Fast Boot, and from within Windows you can also change Settings > System > Power & Sleep > Additional Power Settings > Choose what Power buttons do > Change settings that are unavailable > uncheck Fast Startup.  See also Four Methods to Access UEFI BIOS Setup in Windows 8/10 PC/Laptop/Tablet 

At first screen press Shift + F10 to open a Command Prompt:

If this fails go to the next screen, choose Repair Your Computer, 

then Troubleshoot: 


Then Advanced Options:

Then Command Prompt.

In Command Prompt type notepad.exe 

In Notepad, click File, then Open.  This will open a Mini-Explorer that you can use to locate folders or individual files needing rescue, right click to Send to USB drive or DVD.  During copying there will be no progress bar and PC will appear to be frozen.  You only need to wait it out as it will unfreeze as soon as the copying is finished.

For example from booted Windows 10 flash installer, I chose my Pictures folder which is 4.7 gb, Sent it to the same flash stick that was booting the PC.  On a Core i5 Lenovo Laptop with 8 gb RAM, it took 10 minutes to copy the entire folder after which I could continue as needed. 

Before moving on to reinstall Windows, after you're sure copying has finished, Close the command Box, remove rescue media, put it in another PC to check that everything is there - especially that no folder was only partially copied. 

Alternate Methods:

If the mini-explorer in Notepad throws memory errors or doesn't work, try one of these methods to copy files from the Command Prompt, starting with XCopy:  How do you copy files from one drive to another drive?

Alternative bootable rescue tools include Paragon Rescue Kit Free Edition

 or a Linux disk such as  Peppermint3 - Create Live CD DVD USB To Use For Emergency Backup.

To get to Hidden Files requires a Linux disk, or using CMD to unhide files then copy from CMD.

If you have any doubts that you have everything you need, then be sure to read Clean Install Windows 10 which provides a complete checklist of everything that must be remembered to back up before reinstalling.  

To unhide and copy hidden folders see here:How to Hide or Unhide Files and Folders with Command Prompt

3 Ways to Copy Files in Windows Command Prompt - wikiHow

You can also remove and slave the hard drive in another PC, or use a SATA to USB adapter.


There is also a last-resort method to rescue files while installing although it results in less than a fully clean install because you cannot delete or even format partitions, only select C and click Next.  This tells the installer to archive your User folders along with the entire previous install in a C:\windows.old folder where you can find them to copy out after install, then delete that huge folder using Disk Cleanup for System Files:  Disk cleanup in Windows 10 - Windows Help -

I hope this helps.  Feel free to ask back any questions below and let us know how it goes.  I will keep working with you until it's resolved. 

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Thank you so much for the notepad.exe suggestion!  That saved me from losing my files, or having to pay for a boot recovery program which may not have even worked (a free version I tried would not pick up on booting).  It was very easy to do and moved all my important files on to a portable HD.  I checked those on another computer, including encrypted files and they copied well.  All other procedures to fix the BSOD did not work, including system restore which I know I did several times (said I had no save points).  
My pc has a log problem which prevents it to boot normally. I tried the method on using notepad from command prompt to try recovering my files. But when I try to send the folder to my external Hard Drive, it tells me that there was an error with the code 0x80004005 that prevents me from copying the files. What should I do? This problem originated from my pc having a log problem with error code 0xc000014c
Hey Mr. Carmak, this worked for us. We got my Wife's computer back up and running tonight and were able to back up all her essential files. Thank you so much for this really cool tip. :)
Thank you for the info. I found all of my files to copy from notepad, before I attempt to get my computer back. I selected “all files”, encoding is ANSI, but when I try to open them, it is gibberish. Will I be able to read them, if lose them during reinstall? Hopefully, this makes sense.

The file recovery didn't work because when I send the files to the USB I got an error message 80004005. Dour you know what to do 

Loved it😘,you are a great man.....finally i recovered my whole files!Genius ever

I just succeeded recovering from the BootLoop issue without reinstall. I recognised that Win10 got stuck trying to revert to the previous installation. Using the cmdpromt from a Win 10 DVD, I found that the BCD was pointing to the winre.wim as the default start option. I backed up and deleted the BCD, then rebuild using the following guide: 

After the procedure the BCD was now pointing to the correct win10 installation and booted with success. From there, I was able to make a full backup of all my data. Will now try a clean reinstall. 

Thanks, this worked for me and allowed me to save some of my important files from my laptop stuck in an auto repair loop.
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Thanks for letting me know the link is dead.  I have replaced it and added information in the tutorial. 
I am a volunteer and not Microsoft.

Over 100,000 helped in forums for 10 years. I don't quit for those who are polite and cooperative.

Windows MVP 2010-20
Hi Greg, after I try to copy and paste a single 9.8GB and it says this file is too large for the destination file system. So, is there any alternative to copy this file?

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Last updated November 29, 2020 Views 181,326 Applies to: