Reading Time: 6 minutesUSB flash drives are excellent portable media. But you might need to format it in some cases, such as being unable to save files, corrupted data, and poor performance. This is also necessary when you have a newly bought flash drive that is incompatible with your computer.
If you have already saved some files on your flash drive, formatting it might render them inaccessible. But with the right steps, you can format your flash drive without losing data on Windows 10.
What does formatting a USB actually do?
The common misconception about formatting is that it simply deletes your files from your USB flash drive. While you indeed can’t access your files after, it’s not necessarily true that they’re permanently removed from your storage.
When you format a USB flash drive, you are actually preparing it to handle and store data. This includes selecting a compatible file system, creating partitions, and adding a drive label.
If you’re on Windows, you have two formatting options — quick and full format.
- Quick format deletes the records and pointers that “point” to your files. Your data hasn’t been deleted from the physical components of your thumb drive yet. Until new information overwrites them, you can still use data recovery software to retrieve your files.
- Full format completely removes the files from your storage. It would also look for bad sectors in your flash drive, which can lead to further errors and corruption if not fixed.
So, the good news is you can still recover data lost after a format. Nowadays, this has become relatively easy with the help of file recovery software.
How to format a flash drive on Windows without Losing Data
Creating a backup of your data before formatting your flash drive is the best way to avoid losing them. You can do this by copying and pasting your files to either cloud storage or another storage medium like an external hard drive.
However, simply copying your files to another location might not work in some cases. For example, the reason you’re actually formatting your USB flash drive is to fix errors that make you unable to access the files inside. You can still create backups of your files, but you’ll need backup tools to do this.
Once your backup is ready, you can proceed to formatting your flash drive.
Option 1: File Explorer
The most well-known method to format USB drives in Windows is through File Explorer.
Step 1. Start by launching File Explorer by pressing Windows + E and clicking “This PC”. If your flash drive is already plugged in, you should see your USB drive listed.
Step 2. To start the formatting process, right-click and select Format. A pop-up should appear with formatting options, including changing the default file system of the USB drive.
Step 3. Click Start to begin the process. The system will then prompt a warning sign to make sure you want to continue. Select ‘Okay’ to proceed. Depending on how much data is on your USB stick, this could take a few seconds to minutes. Once ready, another prompt will inform you that the process is completed.
Option 2: Disk Management tool
Windows also comes pre-installed with a Disk Management tool that allows users to perform various hard-drive related functions, including detachable USB drives, from a single convenient location.
There are two quick ways to access the tool. The first option is to right-click the Windows start button and select Disk Management or type diskmgmt.msc in Command Prompt.
Step 1. Locate your USB flash drive in Disk Management.
Step 2. Select the USB drive you want to format and right-click to see the Format option. Again, like in Command Prompt, the software will ask you to add a Volume label (name of USB drive) and select which File system you want to format to.
Step 3. Click “Okay” to confirm and begin the formatting process.
Option 3: Command Prompt
Command Prompt lets users enter and execute text-based commands to do routine tasks, including formatting USB flash drives.
Step 1. Open Command Prompt by typing “cmd” in the search bar or press the Windows Key + R. Make sure to select “Run as administrator” option when selecting it.
Step 2. Make sure your USB drive is plugged in and type
format H: /Q /X /V:label /FS:filesystem /A:size
What does the command mean?
Q denotes quick formatting,
X dismounts the drive (similar to when you remove the stick),
H refers to the letter of the drive. If your drive has a different name or letter, use that instead.
/V:label refers to the volume label or name that you want to use. Make sure to replace “label” with your preferred one.
/FS:filesystem specifies whether you want to use NTFS, FAT32, exFAT, or other file systems.
/A:size denotes the allocation unit size, which is commonly set to 4096 bytes if you use NTFS. Make sure to replace “size” in the command with your preferred size.
Press Enter to execute the command and you should see the following pop-up:
Step 3. Press Enter a second time. You will be asked to give the USB flash drive a Volume label which simply refers to the name assigned to a storage device. To keep the default name, press Enter to continue with formatting.
And with that, your USB flash drive is formatted.
Tip: To know more switches that you can use when formatting using CMD, run this command: help format
How to recover data after formatting USB drive
Forgot to back up data before formatting your USB stick? The good news is not all hope is lost. So, how to format a USB without losing data? Use a tool Disk Drill.
Step 1. Download and install Disk Drill. The free version lets you recover up to 500MB of data and is a great way to test out the software. Once the download is complete, install the program.
Step 2. Disk Drill displays readable drives in an easy-to-use visual interface. Click on the formatted flash drive and select “Search for lost data”.
Step 3. Once the scan is complete, you’ll get an overview of the total number of recoverable files that you can restore. To see a detailed breakdown of each file, select “Review found items”.
Step 4. The tool will display the file name, type, and even provide a prediction about the likelihood of recovery. If you want to recover everything that was found simply click on “Recover All”. Alternatively you can manually select only files you need and then click “Recover”.
Step 5. Disk Drill will ask you to provide a location to send the lost data. It’s recommended that you put these files in a folder somewhere on your hard drive instead of the USB drive. Then just click “Next” and wait for Disk Drill to work its magic.
And that’s it! You can now access and use your lost files again.
When you need to fix errors on your USB flash drive or create a new filesystem, you can simply format it on Windows. Of course, to prevent losing your data, you should first create a backup of your files. If you weren’t able to do so, data recovery software programs like Disk Drill can easily retrieve your formatted data.