2 DataTraveler Max USB drives, one plugged in a laptop and the other next to it on the desk

How to format a USB flash drive

Formatting a USB flash drive is something most computer users don’t think about, as most drives are formatted out of the box, and ready for most use cases. However, there may come a time when you need to completely erase all the data on your drive, or you need to make the drive compatible with a different type of computer than it has already been formatted for. If you’ve ever experienced a flash drive working on a PC but not on a Mac or vice-versa, it’s the drive’s formatting that’s usually the culprit. This article will explain how to format your drive in Windows and on a Mac OS 10+.

What is formatting?

Formatting is the process of prepping a storage device, like a hard drive, solid-state drive, flash drive etc, to store information. It creates a filing system that organises your data and allows you to maximise the space for your files. It’s typical to format a drive when a new operating system is going to be used or additional space is required.

There are two types of formatting on a USB drive:

  • Quick format: Deletes the file system table and the root folder. This option is frequently used for USB flash drives to efficiently free up the available space to transfer or store other files. It’s not the most secure way to delete your files because the data may still be recoverable with data recovery tools.
  • Full format: Will scan for bad sectors and write zeros in all sectors, which deletes all data permanently. This action can take a long time, depending on the capacity of the drive.

File system options

When formatting your drive, it’s important to understand the different formatting options available for your ideal use. The file systems most commonly used in USB flash drives are:

  • FAT32 is a common option you’ll hear because it’s recognised by both Mac and Windows operating systems, but it offers no security and caps files at 4GB in size. Most USB flash drives will have a FAT32 file system out-of-box. It is the most compatible file system for older/modern computers (PC and Mac) plus gaming consoles and other devices with a USB port.
  • exFAT is the ideal file system for USB flash drives. It doesn’t have the 4GB file size limit and it’s compatible with most Windows and Mac operating systems. Older operating systems might require an update to properly read and write to a USB drive with an exFAT file system.
  • NTFS format is the file system Windows likes to use by default for internal drives running the operating system or used as a secondary storage drive. It has a much larger max file size but is read-only on Mac OS X (unless you install a third party NTFS read/write utility).
  • Mac OS Extended is the native solution for Mac users and has the max file size of any of them. Only use this option if the drive will only be used in Mac OS. Windows will not detect this file system without a third party utility.

There are tools available to use NTFS on a Mac (Fuse) or HFS on PC (HFSExplorer). Another option, for those who use both Windows and Mac OS regularly, is to partition your hard drive and have a portion of the drive formatted for each OS.

Formatting drives in Windows

USB formatting screen in Windows 10
  1. Insert a USB drive into a USB port.
  2. Open File Explorer.
  3. Click on This PC from the left pane.
  4. Under the "Devices and drives" section, right-click the flash drive and select the Format option.
  5. Use the "File system" drop-down menu and select the preferred option.
  6. In the "Allocation unit size" drop-down menu, use the default selection.
  7. In the "Volume label" field, confirm a drive name that will appear in File Explorer. For example, KingstonUSB.
  8. Under the "Format options" section, select the Quick format option or don’t depending on the use case.
  9. Click the Start button.
  10. Click the Yes button.
  11. Once format is finished, the USB flash drive will be all set to store documents, pictures, videos, and other files on the removable drive.

Formatting Drives on a Mac OS 10+

  1. Insert a USB drive into your USB port.
  2. Launch “Disk Utility” (from Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility).
  3. Select the USB drive from the list on the left.
  4. Select “Erase” at the top.
  5. Type in a “Name” for the drive, then select a “Format” (file system).
  6. Select “Erase”.
  7. Once complete, select “Done”.
  8. Once format is finished, the USB flash drive will be all set to store documents, pictures, videos, and other files on the removable drive.


Formatting a USB flash drive can be a great option if you want to erase your data from the flash drive with speed and efficiency or if you want to use your flash drive on a different operating system. By taking the time to format your USB drive, this will ultimately optimise its performance.


Related Articles