How To Completely Erase and Reset Android Phones – A Comprehensive Guide

Getting rid of an Android smartphone? Perhaps you got a new one and want to sell or give away the old one. Or you bought a handset only to find it’s not exactly what you want and you intend to return it to the store or carrier.

No matter the reason, you should always erase and reset the device. Most people think that just doing a Factory data reset will erase everything and return the smartphone to a fresh state. Not quite. There could still be personal data lurking on the device or the SD card, if there is one.

You can’t count on the store, carrier, or reseller to erase the data for you, as we’ve seen recently. Best to clear the data yourself. This guide will walk you through backing up your data and apps, erasing the internal storage and SD card, then resetting the phone.

Back Up Your Data

If you already have Android’s built-in Backup and Restore turned on (it’s an option under Settings > Privacy) then your apps should be backed up on Google’s servers and should restore when you activate your new phone.

I say should because this process doesn’t always work completely. And it only works with apps, not SMS, MMS, contacts not saved on your Google account, and some other settings.

Make a backup of your own just in case Google doesn’t restore everything you want it to and you want to keep your existing text messages and other data.

Step 1: Download and Install MyBackup from the Android Market.

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MyBackup Main Screen

Step 2: Tap the Backup button and then Applications & Media. The app will give you a choice of Local (internal storage/SD card) or Online. Choose Local.

MyBackup Options

Step 3: On the next screen tap the checkbox next to “Select All” for both Apps and Photos. Tap Ok.

Step 4: Choose a backup name or go with the one auto-generated by the app. Pay attention to where the app says it will place the file. It’s usually a folder on the SD card.

The backup can take several minutes to complete, especially if you have a lot of apps and images.

Step 5: On MyBackup’s main screen tap Backup again and choose Data. Again, choose Local.

Step 6: You’ll see a list of data available for backup including Call Log, SMS and MMS, Settings, Home screens, Alarms, Playlists, and more. Check off what you want to keep then click Ok.

MyBackup Data Backup Options

Step 7: Choose a backup name or go with the one auto-generated by the app. Pay attention to where the app says it will place the file. It’s usually a folder on the SD card.

Step 8: After the backup is complete, connect your phone to your computer with a USB cord and open it in a file explorer. This will give you access to the internal memory with media files and app data and/or the micro SD card installed.

Step 9: Create a folder on your computer for the backup and copy all of the files and folders to it. Be sure to get the folder where you stored the backup.

Step 10: Unplug the USB cord.

Erase the SD Card and Internal Storage

A Factory Data Reset will erase apps and some of your data, but you need to take a few steps beforehand to ensure that all of your personal files are gone and no one else can access them.

Note: Different Android devices and versions use slightly different wording. If you don’t see exactly the terms in the steps or screenshots you should at least see something close.

Step 1: Erase the micro SD card by going to Settings > Storage and looking for the SD Card heading. Tap Format SD card and again on the confirmation page.

The Settings - Storage screen in Android

The Storage Settings Screen on the Droid RAZR (left) and Galaxy Note (right)

Step 2: In Settings > Storage look for the Internal Storage or USB Storage heading and tap Format Internal Storage or Format USB Storage. Confirm on the next screen.

Note: some phones do not offer this second option. In these instances, the Factory Data Reset should erase and reformat the internal storage.

Feeling particularly paranoid about the data on the SD card? Then take a few extra steps to make sure the data there is gone and no one can retrieve it. (if you’re not paranoid, you can skip to the next section.)

Step 3: Windows users, download Roadkil’s Disk Wipe utility (free) and install. Mac users, open the Disk Utility (under Applications > Utilities).

Step 4: Remove the micro SD card from your phone and, using an SD card adapter, insert it into your computer’s card reader.

Step 5: For Windows: Use Disk Wipe to write random data on the disk; 7 passes should be fine.

Roadkil Disk Wipe utility for Windows

For Mac: Click on the SD card on the left, then Erase at the top of the main screen. At the bottom click Security Options for secure erase options. The 7-Pass Erase is fine for this purpose.

Mac OS X Disk Utility Erase Screen

Mac OS X Disk Utility Secure Erase Options

Be sure to pick the correct disk before you erase.

Don’t put the card back in the phone just yet.

Do a Factory Data Reset

Finally, the last step. After this you’ll be ready to pack up the Android smartphone and send it back tot he store or on to its new owner.

Step 1: Go to Settings > Privacy. Uncheck Back up my data and Automatic restore (if applicable).

Privacy Settings Screen

Step 2: Tap Factory data reset.

Step 3: On the confirmation screen you may be prompted to format or erase the internal/USB storage and/or the SD card. There’s no harm in doing this again, so go ahead and check those. Then tap Reset Phone.

Factory Data Reset Screen on Galaxy Note

Factory Data Reset Screen on Galaxy Note (Gingerbread)

Factory Data Reset Screen on Droid RAZR

Factory Data Reset Screen on Droid RAZR (Gingrerbread) - Note the different options available

Step 4: The device will shut down and reboot. After it restarts you can turn the phone off.

Step 5: If you removed the SD card to erase it, insert it again now.

If you’re getting a new phone or Android device and had Automatic Backup on, your apps and some media will show up on the new device after you enter your Google account information. Anything that doesn’t come back you can restore using MyBackup.

Comments

  1. Uyvu Ha says

    Hi! Thanks for your information sharing. When I did DATA FACTORY RESET till step #3 and cannot finish. The phone always hang on.
    Do you have any advice for my case?
    Best regards

  2. George Wilson says

    This does *not* securely erase your phone/sd card, which use NAND wear leveling, rendering traditional data wipe techniques virtually *useless*. This article is WORSE THAN NOTHING as it makes people think they actually did it, makes them they lose interest in REAL solutions, driving down demand for a REAL method/application for securely erasing Android. You made a huge disservice to real security.
    Sincerely,
    The *Real* IT Crowd

    • Chris says

      @ George. Don’t be such a jerk! She posted an extremely helpful and useful article and it WILL erase all pertinent information from your phone/sd card!
      Oh, and just an FYI…..if you have to claim you’re a “REAL” IT person, 99.999% of the time, you’re not!

      Thank you for the article K.T., some of us DO appreciate it!

    • Plazmid says

      George,
      It would have been really helpful to provide links to alternatives and more information if you were not satisfied with the article. Criticism isn’t helpful if you don’t provide at least hints to what you think they should have done. All you’ve done here is basically state “The article sucks” and then you walked away without another word.

      • James Fu says

        1. Remove and securely erase SD card.
        2. Factory reset phone.
        3. Reinsert SD card. (phone may disallow downloading needed in next step to internal memory)
        3. Search with Google and download + install enough .apk files to fill internal storage. (avoid entering credentials in Google Play to download)
        4. Once phone is full from random applications, perform another factory reset.
        5. Format SD card.

    • Mark says

      I tend to feel inclined to agree with your comment here. I know of Android’s vulnerability and have some difiiculty finding the REAL way to completely and securely wipe my Android. Any suggestions where to look, or how to do that?

  3. Random guy says

    Hey. I already new about this but I came here needing more info. I am not able to access the root setting program which i can not be able to do th factory reset. Every time i open the settings thing up, it crashes BUT when i go on to parts of setting through other methods, it will open that up i.e. if i have low space on phone, i can open the manga application part of settings.
    I really need help

  4. stevie says

    wtf? y does this seem so complicated? on an iphone its just one button and ur done, however backing up ur contacts on an iphone is a completely diff story, but here its no picnic either :\

  5. maxx says

    I cannot do factory reset cos I bought this phone from some friend then they asking for the “Lockcode” that i have no idea and i don’t get it. what can i do?

  6. luxon says

    my phone had a a partten to unlock sreen. a child of played with it and locked out and now need me to unlock using my gmail. the porblem i am facing is that it does not have network to connect to gmail. It used ton produce a window with network prompts which i used to click ok then my line activates network. for now there is no chance for to activate network. if there is someone who has got correctly assist, I have two week failing to use my phone its still new.

  7. Ryan says

    Thanks for your article dude!

    I was desperetly looking to find a way to completely delete my android phone memory, as I know data is still there till there free space!

    Thanks a lot and a lot !!!

  8. Ryan says

    You do not need to write the data over 7 times. This method of writing over a block is done with magnetic hard drives (not the kind found in cell phones). On a magnetic hard drive, with spinning platters, simply deleting something never truly removed the data. The data could be recovered because traces remained. The only way to be sure that it was gone was to write over it over and over. Because phones do not use spinning magnetic platters we do not need to worry about this.

    If you want to secure your data remove the SIM card and the SD card. If you have to include the SD card buy a new one and put in there. If you -still- feel the need to include the SD card in the sale of a phone format the SD card. You then will want to do a complete factory reset on the phone. This will erase all important information. At this point you should be fairly secure to hand off your phone.

    If you are paranoid and are not planning on getting rid of your phone you can encrypt your phone (and cards). Because Androids do not use HW (hardware level encryption) you can encrypt your device in the settings. This may slow your phone but will jumble all the data so someone searching through it will not be able to decipher it.

    If selling your phone remove the SD card, SIM card (if applicable), reset all of the data, and deactivate the phone through your carrier. If you are still worried about someone stealing your top secret data then it’s probably best not to sell the phone and just hang on to it ;)

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