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How to Format a USB Drive for Mac and PC Use

hand plugging White USB flash drive into silver laptop

Although the current trends favor using the cloud and decentralized applications for storage and file transfer, the USB drive still plays a relevant role in business applications. A USB drive requires no internet connection, can transfer files to and from a local device quickly, can be physically disconnected and secured away and are physical objects that can carry your branding and company identity.

If you're interested in formatting USB drives for business use, it is crucial to understand that the process depends on whether your company primarily uses Windows PCs, Macs or a mix of both. Here are the step-by-step procedures for all three use cases.

The File System: Why the Formatting Method Matters

One of the primary differences between Windows PCs and computers running macOS is the file system. The file system is a collection of processes dictating your operating system's data reading and writing methods. For example, a file system determines how files are named, stored, organized and retrieved.

The file system on Windows is New Technology File System (NTFS) which has been in use since the release of Windows NT 3.1 in 1993. On macOS, the file system is simply known as Apple File System (APFS), introduced in 2017 with macOS 10.13 and iOS 10.13.

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How to Choose the Right File System

Brand-new USB drives, from single thumbsticks to USB wristbands sold wholesale, cannot be immediately used and recognized by a computer because they have not yet been formatted to use a file system that the computer can recognize. Depending on the OS your business computers use the most, you have three formatting options: NTFS, APFS or exFAT.

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  • If you are confident that your USB drives will only be used on Windows systems, you can format a USB drive to use NTFS. The primary advantage is making your drives compatible with virtually all Windows systems with USB ports (the USB standard was released in 1996).
  • If your drives are meant exclusively for use on Apple devices, you can format your drive to use APFS. APFS is supported on all macOS, iOS, tvOS and watchOS devices featuring USB ports.
  • If you want your USB drives to be compatible on both Windows and Mac computers, the most versatile option is to format your USB drives to exFAT (extensible File Allocation Table). Although exFAT was developed by Microsoft and is a descendant of earlier FAT16 and FAT32 file systems, it is recognized by both Windows and Mac systems.

hand plugging black usb flash drive into usb port

How to Format Your USB Drive to exFAT

Whether your USB drives are standard thumbsticks or USB business cards, the formatting process remains the same. Here are the steps to follow on each operating system.

Formatting to exFAT on Windows:

  1. Insert your USB drive into your Windows PC. Brand-new drives should cause Windows to display a text box asking you if you want to format it. Click the "Format Disk" button.
  2. A new window titled "Format Windows" should appear, displaying your drive's actual capacity in gigabytes, typically slightly under the drive's advertised capacity (e.g., a nominally 32 GB drive might actually have 29.5 GB or 29.8 GB of free space). Under it is a file system drop-down menu. Click it and select "exFAT."
  3. If "Quick Format" is checked, uncheck it.
  4. Volume label refers to the drive's name. Entering a name is optional.
  5. Once ready, click Start. Windows may display another window asking you to confirm. Click "OK."

Windows will then automatically format your drive to the exFAT file system. Simply let it finish the process and it'll be ready for use and compatible with any Windows or Mac computer.

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Formatting to exFAT on Mac:

  1. Insert your USB drive into your Macintosh computer.
  2. Open the Disk Utility app by typing "Disk Utility" in Launchpad or using the keyboard shortcut Command + Space.
  3. Select your USB drive on the left-hand menu when the Disk Utility window opens. It should be under the "External" list.
  4. Ensure that you have selected the correct drive and then click the "Erase" button.
  5. You will be prompted to give the drive a new name and choose a file system in the new window. Select "ExFAT" from the drop-down list.
  6. When ready, click Erase.

Your Mac will automatically format your drive to the desired format. Unplug the drive when finished. It is now ready for use on any Mac or Windows system.

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About the author:

Ubie

The Face of UMD

Hey, I'm Ubie (You-Bee) the mascot of USB Memory Direct and by far the biggest fan of USB drives out of all of us all here. If you want to know more about USB drives, some of the cool marketing stuff we do, or technology advancements we are working on keep an eye out for posts under this account!