Format a USB drive on Windows 10

You don’t need to use complicated tools to format a USB flash drive. You can do it directly in File Explorer. But what do all the options mean and which one should you choose? Here’s what you need to know.

Formatting a USB drive

There are a few places where you can format a USB drive in Windows 10. The simplest is “This PC”. “This PC”, like its predecessor “My Computer”, lists all the hard drives and external storage devices connected to your computer.

You probably have an icon on your desktop called “This PC” – go ahead and double click it if you have it. If not, click the Start button, type “This PC” in the search bar and press Enter or click “Open”.

You can also open File Explorer and click “This PC” in the left pane.

You will see a list of your connected drives under “Devices and Drives” when it opens.

If you are not sure which drive is the USB drive, disconnect and reconnect it. The “This PC” window is updated whenever there is a hardware change so you can see it when Windows recognizes the device.

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Right click on the USB drive and click “Format”.

You now have a number of choices available. The Format screen has several options. For the most part, you can leave them alone, but here’s an overview of what each option means if you want to change something:

Capacity – This tells you the size of the drive you have selected. File System – Lets you choose between a handful of file systems. They each have different properties that determine the maximum file size, maximum storage volume, and operating system compatibility. The file system you use matters. Allocation Unit Size – The allocation unit size is basically how the space on the USB drive is distributed. Smaller units result in less wasted space, but at a lower cost of performance. Leave it alone unless you have a specific need. Volume Label – This is just the name of the disk. Set it to whatever you want. Format Options – You can choose between quick format and full format. A quick format won’t actually erase any data, it just overwrites it. A full format will overwrite the entire USB drive. Since flash memory has a limited number of writes, avoid full formats unless absolutely necessary. (For example, you should do a full format to securely erase sensitive data before throwing or giving away a USB drive.)

Which file system should you choose?

You should probably choose exFAT. If you don’t know what file format you need, or if you don’t have a specific use in mind. ExFAT is supported by Linux, macOS, Chrome OS, and Windows, meaning it will work with the vast majority of all computers you’ll ever come across. The exFat file system also supports USB drives and files larger than 100 petabytes. Obviously, you don’t have to worry about that limitation with your flash drive before 2040 at the earliest. The only downside is that storing a lot of small files can result in some wasted space due to the block sizes.

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If you don’t expect to move large files, consider FAT32. FAT32 is old by computer standards – it has been around since the mid 90s. Its age has one big advantage and one big disadvantage: it is basically universally supported by all computers and game consoles, but it cannot handle files larger than four gigabytes.

Other formats, such as NTFS, will work fine if you stick with Windows alone. There are also formats specific to macOS, such as APFS. You can try any number of them to see if you have a preference. Changing the file system is easy, you just need to reformat the USB drive. Keep in mind that reformatting the drive will “erase” any data you have stored on the drive.

Whichever file system you choose, remember: USB flash drives are not great long-term storage devices. They are small, can be easily lost or damaged, and they are usually quite easily damaged. If you have important data, you need to back it up to the cloud and multiple other places.

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