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Lost Fortune? How to Check an Old Computer for Bitcoin

By Evan Jones06/14/2024

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You may have heard of people losing their Bitcoin, whether an actual loss of a device, or losing access, but what about those people that forgot they even had a Bitcoin wallet? When Bitcoin first started, there were likely quite a few people who may have downloaded the software and forgotten, as it wasn’t exactly the investment vehicle it is today.

For those people, they may need to check an old computer for Bitcoin, and that’s why we’ve assembled this guide to give you a few ways to do just that. Let’s quickly discuss lost Bitcoin before getting into ways to search for an old Bitcoin wallet. 

Lost Bitcoin?

Generally, when it comes to losing Bitcoin, there are two main ways to do so, or at least there were in Bitcoin’s first years of existence. 

The first way is to throw away the harddrive or device where you stored the Bitcoin. Nowadays, that wouldn’t really matter as long as you had your recovery phrase, as you could just restore the wallet on a new device. 

However, recovery phrases weren’t introduced until September 2013 with Bitcoin Improvement Proposal 39. This means for people such as James Howells who threw away a harddrive with about 8,000 BTC a month before BIP 39, there was no such option. It’s likely that Howells’ mistake was a reason why BIP 39 was introduced.

The second way to lose Bitcoin is to not be able to access it on a device you still have. This is likely a situation where the Bitcoin is stored on a hardware wallet, but you’ve forgotten the password, and again, there were no recovery phrases yet.

This is the case for Stefan Thomas, a programmer living in San Francisco. He had his Bitcoin stored on an IronKey hardware wallet which uses a user created password to access the funds on it. The caveat here is that after 10 incorrect guesses the device will fully encrypt and lock you out from guessing again, and Thomas has guessed incorrectly 8 times. 

How to Check for Bitcoin Wallets on an Old Computer

Now, if you’re in either of the above situations, there likely isn’t any information in this piece that is going to help you. However, if you’re instead the type of person who isn’t sure if you had a Bitcoin wallet on an old computer and want to find out how you can check, then you’re in the right place. Let’s go over a couple ways to check for Bitcoin wallets on an old computer.

Search for Wallet.dat

The easiest way to check an old computer for a Bitcoin wallet is to search the computer for a file named walled.dat. Wallet.dat is the file that contains your public and private keys, along with your transaction history. If you have a wallet.dat file on your computer, then there is a Bitcoin wallet, though that doesn’t mean there’s any Bitcoin on it (more on this later).

Use Data Recovery Tools

The other way to check an old computer for Bitcoin is to use data recovery tools, whether free or paid, to recover files you may have deleted or may not be easy to find, such as a Bitcoin wallet. You’re looking for the same files, but these tools will dig deeper into your computer files than the regular search on your device.

What to Do If You Find an Old Bitcoin Wallet

Now, if you do find that there is a wallet.dat file or evidence that there was a Bitcoin wallet on the computer, then you need to recover access. But first, you should probably figure out whether the wallet has any Bitcoin, or else the time won’t be worth it. The easiest way to do that is to download Bitcoin Core Wallet, then:

  1. Press the Windows key on your keyboard.
  2. Type % APPDATA% and hit Enter.
  3. Find the Bitcoin folder 
  4. Copy the “wallet.dat” file you found and put it in the Bitcoin folder.
  5. Run the Bitcoin Core Wallet. The recovered public address should now be visible in the program.
  6. Copy the recovered public address.
  7. Go to a Bitcoin Block Explorer and paste the public address into the search.
  8. See the wallet address and whether it has any Bitcoin.

If the wallet does have Bitcoin then you should be able to do whatever you want with it as long as you did find that wallet.dat file, or a recovery phrase if you were lucky enough to have started the wallet after BIP 39. 

Closing Thoughts

Finding Bitcoin on an old computer isn’t something that will just happen by mistake unless you’re just buying old PCs. You’d have to have downloaded Bitcoin software at some point in order for it to be possible. But, if you were lucky enough to have done so and forgot about it, then being able to recover it will likely be a nice payday. 

Article tags

bitcoin
cryptocurrency
guide
Wallets
Evan Jones

Author

Evan entered the crypto scene in 2017, attracted to the many disruptive possibilities that blockchain could have on current world systems. He has a keen interest in decentralized services, payment processing, and viable NFT use cases such as event ticketing. He spends his days writing with his dog Kobe under his feet, if not on his lap.

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