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How to format a USB flash drive

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Formatting a USB flash drive might sound pretty technical. But you don’t need a degree in computer programming to get it sorted. It’s actually a simple process that can solve loads of different issues or prepare your drive for a specific kind of use.

Whether you’re looking to delete some data, fix a corrupted drive or change its file system, formatting is the way to go. So, let’s get you up to speed and show you how to format a USB…

What is formatting?

This is just the term that describes preparing it for use by setting up a file system. Formatting can help to fix errors, improve performance, and make it compatible with other devices.

This process removes all the data on the drive though – so make sure you back up any important files before you get started!

File system options

Before you start formatting your USB flash drive, you need to pick a file system. The file system decides how your data is organised and accessed on the drive. Here are the most common types:

  • FAT32: This one’s the most widely compatible file system, working with almost all kinds of operating systems and devices out there. But it does come with a file size limit of 4GB, which means you can’t store any files larger than that on it. Those chunky projects will have to be housed somewhere else…

  • exFAT: An updated version of FAT32. It’s compatible with most modern operating systems and doesn’t have the 4GB file size limit. It’s a good choice for big files and cross-platform use.

  • NTFS: The default system for Windows. It supports large files and has a few handy functions like file permissions and data encryption. It won’t work with MacOS though.

  • APFS: This is the default system for MacOS. It comes with high performance and a few advanced features, but it’s not compatible with Windows. So, if you swap a lot between the two systems, you’ll want to use something else.

Formatting drives in Windows

Formatting a USB flash drive in Windows is super easy. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Plug your drive into a USB port on your PC or laptop.

  2. Press ‘Windows + E’ to open File Explorer.

  3. Find your USB drive in the list of devices.

  4. Right-click on the USB drive and choose ‘Format’ from the menu.

  5. In the Format window, you’ll see options for the file system. Select FAT32, exFAT or NTFS (depending on what you need).

  6. This one’s optional, but you can give your drive a name to help you spot it later on.

  7. Check the ‘Quick Format’ option if you want the process to go a bit faster. This skips a deeper scan.

  8. Click ‘Start’ to get the formatting process rolling.

  9. A warning will pop up telling you that all data will be erased. Click ‘Ok’ to carry on.

  10. It should only take a minute or so for it to be completed. Once it’s done, you’ll get a notification letting you know the format is finished.

Formatting drives on MacOS

It’s just as straightforward if you’re on MacOS. Here’s how to format a USB on Mac:

  1. Pop the drive into a USB port on your Mac.

  2. Open ‘Disk Utility’ by going to Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility.

  3. In Disk Utility, find your USB flash drive in the list on the left-hand side. Click on it to select it.

  4. Wipe the drive by clicking the ‘Erase’ button at the top of the Disk Utility window.

  5. A new window will appear asking you to choose a format. Pick exFAT, FAT32 (labelled as MS-DOS [FAT]), or APFS based on what you need.

  6. Give your drive a name in the ‘name’ field.

  7. Click the ‘Erase’ button to start formatting the drive. Disk Utility will warn you that this will wipe all the data on the drive. Click ‘Erase’ again to confirm.

  8. Formatting will take a few moments. When it’s complete, a notification will flash up saying the drive is ready to use.

So, now you know everything there is to know about formatting your USB flash drives and memory sticks. But there’s plenty more to learn about data storage. If you’re heading off to university soon and are wondering “how much data storage do I need at uni?” Then we’ve got you covered.

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