How to format a USB drive on Windows 10

You don’t need to use any complicated tools to format your USB flash drive. You can do this directly in File Explorer. But what do all the options mean, and which ones should you choose? Here is what you need to know.

How to format a USB drive

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

You will likely have an icon on your desktop called “This PC” – just go ahead and double-click it if you have it. If you haven’t, just 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’ll see a list of connected drives under “Devices and Drives” when you open it.

USB drive shown in . format "This computer."

If you are not sure which drive is a USB drive, simply disconnect and reconnect it again. The This PC window refreshes whenever hardware changes, so you’ll be able to detect it when Windows recognizes the hardware.

Related: How not to “safely remove” a USB drive again on Windows 10

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

You now have a few options available. The format screen has several options. For the most part, you can leave it alone, but here’s a breakdown of what each option means if you want to change something:

  • capacity – This tells you the size of the drive you selected.
  • file system – This allows you to choose between a range of file systems. Each has different properties that specify maximum file sizes, maximum storage size, and operating system compatibility. The file system you use is important.
  • allocation unit size Allocation unit size is basically how the space on a USB drive is divided. Smaller units result in less wasted space, but at a moderate performance cost. Leave it alone unless you have a particular need.
  • volume label – That’s just the name of the drive. Set it as you like.
  • Format Options – You can choose between quick format and full format. The quick format will not actually erase any data, it will only allow it to be overwritten. The full format will overwrite the entire USB drive. Since flash memory has a limited number of writes, full formats should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. (For example, you should run a full format to safely erase any sensitive data before disposing or giving away a USB drive.)

Format screen.

What file system should you choose?

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

Related: What is a file system, and why are there so many of them?

If you don’t expect to need to transfer any large files, you should consider FAT32. FAT32 is outdated by computer standards – it’s been around since the mid-1990s. Its age comes with one major advantage and one major downside: It’s generally supported by all PCs and game consoles, but it can’t handle files larger than four gigabytes.

Other formats, such as NTFS, will work just fine if you stick to Windows only. There are macOS-specific formats too, such as APFS. You can try any number of them to see if you have a preference. Changing the file system is easy, all you have to do is reformat the USB drive again. Just keep in mind that reformatting the drive will “wipe” any data you have stored on the drive.

No matter which file system you choose, remember: USB flash drives aren’t great long-term storage devices. They are small, easy to lose or damaged, and tend to be damaged fairly easily. If you have important data, you should backup it to the cloud and in various other places.

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