How to recover deleted files using the Restore Previous Versions feature

Technical Level : Basic


You accidently or intentionally deleted a document or file and then emptied the Recycle Bin. Using the “Restore Previous Versions feature may allow you to recover that document.


You accidently or intentionally deleted a file and then emptied the Recycle Bin or you may have edited a Word, Excel or Power Point document. The next day or later in the week wish you hadn’t deleted or edited the file or photo and frantically check the Recycle Bin and search for that file only to realize it is no longer there. 

It would appear that all is lost, which was the case in Windows XP and even some versions of Windows Vista. However Windows 7 includes a rarely documented feature that just may stop you from screaming, pulling your hair out and save your day by recovering that all important file.

Behind the scenes Windows creates “Shadow copies” of your documents daily.

The ‘Restore previous versions’ option is now part of ‘System Restore’, more specifically the volume shadow copy service. Typically restore points are used to help undo or “roll back” changes to your computer by applications or newly installed Windows Updates should a problem occur. In the past a restore point could not help you recover a deleted file, but now you may be able to.

By default, shadow copy service will automatically save a copy of your files once a day, or is triggered into action when installing an update or new program. This is all managed by the Windows Task Scheduler. By making some changes to the ‘System Restore’ schedule you can create more frequent backups of documents.

How do I access Previous Versions?

It is simple 3 step process to access previous versions of any of your document files or folders on your Windows 7 computer. 

1) Open Windows Explorer, right-click on a file or folder you wish to restore a file from, and select “Restore Previous Versions.”  For instance, if you accidently deleted a file from a folder in your user account’s Documents folder, browse to that folder, then expand it thus showing the ‘My Documents’ and ‘Public Documents’ sub folders. Now right click on ‘My Documents’ and from the drop down list select ‘Restore previous versions’.

2) The ‘My Documents Properties’ window will show a listing of all folder versions by date that have been included as part
of one or more restore points. You can also perform file comparisons by opening multiple Shadow Copy backups as I’ll show you later.

To see what documents are available, in the ‘Date Modified’ field, double click on the date and time to view the contents (as shown below) or alternately highlight the folder and click the ‘Open’ button.

3) You can open some types of documents (.txt) and photos to view the contents as saved in a restore point / Shadow Copy backup by double clicking to open the file. This takes the uncertainty as to what the contents of a document or edited photo contained (before you restore it) when the shadow copy backup was created.

Note: If after selecting the ‘Date and Time’ for a specific folder and if you click on the ‘Restore’ button located in the lower right corner, the entire contents of the backup is restored, use this option carefully as newer versions of a document or other data files can be overwritten by an older version which you may not want.

You can avoid any possibility of accidentally over writing any document if you choose ‘Copy’ option. Then the entire contents of the folder as it was at that point in time can be copied to another local folder, a flash drive or to a location on an external USB drive. Once copied you can compare the current version of a document with the restored version and decide which one you want to keep.

You can also ‘Copy’ a single file from the Shadow Copy backup and ‘Paste’ it back to it original location.

File comparisons can be performed by opening multiple Shadow Copy backups. Each window will display the date and time of all files contained within the ‘Previous Version’ you are comparing.

All good things have limitations:

Restore Points:

"System Restore in Windows 7 creates a scheduled restore point only if no other restore points have been created in the last 7 days."

Reference: Restore Points

Also the maximum ‘Disk Space Usage’ set aside for system protection. Set this value too small (in percentage of total disk space) and the earliest restore point gets bumped too soon as it is replaced by the newest restore point and associate shadow copy backup. Even setting the ‘Max Usage’ value to 20% (51GB) which is what I did for my Windows 255GB Windows partition may seem like a lot of space but still may not be enough for users who store a lot of photos or videos. Documents yes, photos maybe, streaming videos maybe not. In this example the documents (Word, Excel, .pdf, .txt and VB script files) use up only 2GB. My photos however consume an additional 44GB.

To increase this value from the default of 7% (about 7GB) to 20% would give me a total 51GB or barely enough for one system restore point. The next time a new restore is created the previous restore point would be deleted, leaving nothing in the way of an earlier shadow copy backup of the “My documents” or the “My Pictures” folder to restore a document or photo from, which is why most of my photos are now located on another hard drive and a separate Image Backup of that drive is created to an external USB drive.

However if you are not storing a large amount of photos or family videos then you can increase the space allocated as follows:

Reference: How much disk space does System Restore require?

You can manage the disk space that is used by System Restore by following these steps:

1) Open the System Protection option by clicking the ‘Start’ button, right-clicking on ‘Computer’, and then clicking ‘Properties’ in the drop down list.

2) In the left pane, click ‘System protection’. Administrator permission required and if you're prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.

3) Under Protection Settings, click the disk drive (C:) that Windows is installed on, and then click ‘Configure’.

4) In the Disk Space Usage option, move the slider to the right to increase the disk space that system protection can use or move the slider to the left to decrease the disk space.

5) Click the ‘Apply’ button and then click ‘OK’ and ‘OK’ to accept, exit and close the ‘System Protection’ window.

You now have addition disk space reserved for shadow copy backups and system restore points.

Restore Points - When are they created?

"System Restore in Windows 7 creates a scheduled restore point only if no other restore points have been created in the last 7 days”.

Note that seven days is far too infrequent for System Restore and the volume shadow copy service to be of any practical value.

Create your own restore points:

Reference: Create a restore point

1) Open System by clicking the Start button Picture of the Start button, right-clicking ‘Computer’, and then clicking ‘Properties’ in the drop down list.

2) In the left pane, click ‘System protection’. Administrator permission required and if you're prompted for an administrator password or confirmation, type the password or provide confirmation.

3) Click the ‘System Protection’ tab, and then click Create.

4) In the System Protection dialog box, type a description, and then click Create.


The ‘Restore Previous Versions’ feature may allow you to recover a document when all other methods have failed, but this should not be used as your only means of creating backups of your important documents.

For frequent and quick on demand backups of your documents in addition to using Windows Explorer’s “Restore Previous Versions” option, you may want to consider a utility named “SyncToy”.

SyncToy 2.1 is a free application that synchronizes files and folders between locations. Typical uses include sharing files, such as photos, with other computers and creating backup copies of files and folders. Most importantly, SyncToy has the ability to create backups on demand.

SyncToy can manage multiple sets of folders at the same time; it can combine files from two folders in one case, and mimic renames and deletes in another case. Unlike other applications, SyncToy actually keeps track of renames to files and will make sure those changes get carried over to the synchronized folder.

I use the “Contribute” option which will add changes from the left folder (source) to the right folder (destination). New and updated files are copied left to right. Renames on the left (source) are repeated on the right (destination). No files are deleted in the destination folder. Folder creates and folder updates on the left are repeated on the right.

Since I frequently make changes to or add new documents I created four different SyncToy folder pairs (destination folders) with each destination folder located on another drive or partition. The source folder is unchanged (C:\Users\UserName\Documents) remains the same for each of the 4 folder pairs.

Finally if all you need is a backup of a document before embarking on major changes, just right click and select ‘Copy’ and the ‘Paste to the same folder, this will create a copy of the document as it was before any changes are made. Then run SyncToy.

That is nice and helpful article, and also explained well.
MS Developers
Windows 7 - 4GB DDR3 - Intel
This was very useless to me because I when I clicked restore previous versions of the file it said file does not exist which is bull **** system restore not supposed to just deleted the file I worked with all together just supposed to fix whatever was broken and restore to an earlier point files and everything should remain exactly the same 
I typed something on word pad but didnt save it is it able to be recovered or does it not save at all

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Last updated October 12, 2020 Views 20,597 Applies to: