How to format a USB drive on Windows 11

Do you want to clean a USB drive or change its file system? It’s easy to format a USB drive on Windows 11, and we’re here to show you how.

USB drives allow us to easily transfer files between different devices, be it different computers or – with the advent of USB OTG – even phones. But when files you forgot to delete pile up, they can get a little messy, so sometimes, it’s a good idea to start over and free up space on your drive. The easiest way to do this is to format a USB drive, and Windows 11 makes that very easy, just as previous versions of Windows did.

Benefits of formatting a USB drive

Formatting a USB drive deletes all files on it, or rather, de-indexing them. This means that the space occupied by these files is considered unused, and new files can overwrite that space. From the user’s point of view, this space will be free. However, it is important to keep in mind that until these files are overwritten, they may still be recoverable using specialized software, so this is not a solution if you want to sell someone a drive and it contains sensitive data. on him.

Another possible reason for formatting a USB drive is to change its file system. There are quite a few options available these days, and each has benefits compared to the others. Have you ever tried to transfer a multi-gigabyte file to a USB drive only to be told that it is not possible because the file is too large for the destination file system? This is due to limitations of some file systems, especially FAT and FAT32. This is where options like NTFS and exFAT come in because they support files as large as the maximum partition size.

Screenshot of Windows 11 File Explorer showing an error message when trying to copy a 5GB file to a USB drive.  The error states that the file is too large for the destination file system.

Of course, NTFS and exFAT also have downsides, especially compatibility. NTFS was developed by Microsoft, and nowadays it is mostly possible to use NTFS drives on modern desktop operating systems, but especially with older platforms, you may find that NTFS is not always compatible. exFAT is an attempt to bridge the gap between FAT and NTFS, allowing for larger file sizes while providing broader compatibility. However, for older operating systems, you may still find that exFAT does not work perfectly.

Depending on your use case, formatting the drive allows you to change the file system to what best suits your needs.

How to format a USB drive in Windows 11

With that explanation out of the way, let’s get into how to format a USB drive on Windows 11. The process is actually quite simple:

  1. Connect the USB drive to your computer.
  2. Open File Explorer and head to File this computer page in the navigation pane on the left.
  3. Find the USB drive you just connected. Make sure you select the correct drive to avoid losing important data.
  4. Right-click on the drive and click appearance in the context menu.
    File screenshot

  5. A formatting dialog will appear with some options:
    1. Eligibility It is the size of the drive, and it cannot be changed.
    2. file system, as described above, affects compatibility and also maximum file and partition sizes. FAT32 is the best choice for compatibility, but it only allows file sizes up to 4GB. exFAT and NTFS do not have this size limit, but it may not be compatible with older devices, especially NTFS. exFAT is probably the best compromise for modern devices.
    3. allocation unit size It changes the size of clusters of files, which means that a minimum amount of space will always be occupied by a file, even if the file itself is smaller than the cluster size. Nowadays most files are too large for this to make much difference so the default value should be good enough.
    4. Volume label The name associated with the drive when it is connected to a device.
    5. quick format It is an option that is enabled by default to speed up the process. If you disable it, Windows will also check for bad sectors on your drive to assess file integrity and potential risks to other files you store on it. This takes much longer, and should only make sense for older drives, as newer drives shouldn’t have bad sectors yet.
      Screenshot of the formatting dialog in Windows 11

  6. Once you have selected the options you want, click Start and then yes to confirm that you want to delete all data on the drive.

Once the process is over, you’ll have a completely free flash drive to store your new files in and use on any device you want. The process is quick and easy, and hasn’t really changed significantly in many years, so most of these steps apply to previous versions of Windows as well.

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