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Format Flash Drive For MAC And PC {Windows 11/10/8/7}

Guide: Formatting A USB Flash Drive For Mac & PC Compatibility 

Format Flash Drive For MAC And PC: It’s no surprise that PCs and Macs do not work well with each other due to differences between the two operating systems (Windows vs. macOS). One main difference is the file system. By default, Macs are with HFS+ (since 2017, there’s a new Apple File System, APFS, optimized for flash storage), while PCs are with NTFS.

If you have a USB drive and plan to use it on a Mac and a PC, things can get tricky here. What do I mean?

If your disk were initially formatted to NTFS on a PC (or HFS+ on a Mac), most likely, you’d suffer limitations; for example, the data on your drive can’t be read or written on one of your computers.

Fortunately, there is a file system (actually two, I’ll explain) that you can format your flash drive to be fully compatible with Mac and PC. In other words, you can access the industry and transfer data without any hassles.

That file system is — exFAT. Note that another file system called FAT32 does the same thing but with one major flaw. See the table below for more info.

How to Format a Drive for Mac & PC Compatibility

You can format a hard drive or USB flash disk precisely so that it will be compatible with both Mac OS X and Windows PCs. Though this excellent cross-platform consistent ability is unknown to many users, it’s not a complex process. Suppose you frequently use both a Mac and Windows PC. In that case, you will find this particularly useful because any data, media, or files stored on the drive will always be accessible from any operating system. It only takes a few minutes to start, and it’s effortless, and we’ll walk you through the entire process in a few simple steps.

Major File System Comparison

Compatible with macOS? Compatible with Windows? Max. file size Max. partition size
HFS+ Yes No No limit No limit
NTFS Partially Yes No limit No limit
FAT32 Yes Yes 4GB 8GB
exFAT Yes Yes No limit No limit

As you can see, exFAT is the only file system that works with all versions of Windows and macOS and does not have any max file size or partition-size limits. Therefore, it’s perfect for a USB flash drive or external disk, especially when you need to save files more than 4GB in size. You should format your storage drive with exFAT instead of FAT32, assuming that all devices you want to use the drive support exFAT.

Formatting a flash drive for both Mac and PC compatibility is essential when you need to share files between these two operating systems. Since Mac and PC use different file systems by default (Mac uses HFS+ or APFS, while PC uses NTFS), it’s crucial to choose a file system that is supported by both platforms. The two most commonly supported file systems are FAT32 and exFAT.

To begin the formatting process, it is important to first back up any data on the flash drive that you want to keep. Formatting will erase all existing content on the drive, so taking a backup is crucial to avoid data loss.

On a Mac, the formatting process can be done using the built-in “Disk Utility” application. Open “Finder” and navigate to “Applications” > “Utilities” > “Disk Utility.” In the left sidebar, select the flash drive you want to format. Then, click on the “Erase” tab in the top-middle section. Choose the desired file system for compatibility with both Mac and PC, such as “MS-DOS (FAT)” or “exFAT.” It’s important to note that FAT32 has a file size limitation of 4GB, while exFAT does not have this limitation. After selecting the file system, you can give the drive a name (optional) and click on the “Erase” button to initiate the formatting process.

Latest Version

Updated on
August 1, 2023

You may notice that NTFS is marked “Partially” under the Compatible with macOS column. This is because an NTFS-based drive can be read by macOS, but you can’t write data for the purpose.

Now that you’ve learned, exFAT is the ideal file system. How to know what current file system your flash drive is with, and how to format it to exFAT?

Read on for step-by-step instructions…

How To Check A USB Drive’s File System?

First, plug your flash drive into the USB port on your computer. Make sure your device can be detected and recognized. I’m here to use a 32GB Lexar USB key as an example.

If you are on a Mac…

Once the Lexar disk shows up on the desktop, right-click on the drive icon and select “Get Info.”

Alternatively (in case the disk does not show up on your desktop), open Finder; on the sidebar menu, locate your USB drive under Devices, right-click and select “Get Info.”

In the new dialogue, pay attention to General > Format, where it says “MS-DOS (FAT32)”. That means my Lexar disk is currently with the FAT32 file system.

If you are on a PC…

Go to This PC, under “Devices and drives,” highlight the disk that represents your USB flash drive, right-click and select Properties.

In the new Properties window, check General > File system, and you’ll see what type of file system your flash drive currently uses. Note: since I’ve formatted my Lexar drive on my Mac, it now shows exFAT.

How To Format Your USB Flash Drive To ExFAT?

Necessary: make sure you have at least one backup of all the data stored on the device before you proceed. Because the process of reformatting a disk drive will likely erase all content and make recovery impossible. 

Also, since I don’t know whether you are on a PC or Mac to perform this operation, I’m here to break down this guide into two parts. The first part is for Mac users, and the second is for PC users (Windows 10-based). In no particular order.

Part 1: Formatting USB Drive On Mac

Please note: since OS X 10.11 El Capitan (the latest is 10.13 High Sierra), Apple made a few changes to Disk Utility (see details from this ComputerWorld article). The app now has a new user interface that looks slightly different on Yosemite or earlier OS X versions.

Step 1: Open Disk Utility. The quickest way is to search on Spotlight and click the result under “TOP HIT.” Alternatively, you can access it via Finder > Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility.

Step 2: Under the “External” tab, highlight your flash drive. Note: right below your device name, it also shows information about the purpose, e.g., size, file system, etc. In my case, I can see it’s a 32GB volume in MS-DOS(FAT) file system.

Step 3: Now click the “Erase” button at the top. In the new pop-up window, choose the format “ExFAT.” You may also change the device name if you want. Then hit the “Erase” button to continue. Kind reminder: ensure you have backed up the data before doing this.

Step 4: Wait until the erasing process to complete. It should be quick (only a few seconds to format my 32GB Lexar drive).

Step 5: This step is optional. I’m showing this to verify that the USB drive has been reformatted to the file system I wanted. I saved several files to the disk and opened Disk Utility again. And yes … it’s now with the exFAT file system.

Part 2: Formatting USB On A Windows PC

Please note: I’m here to use a Windows 10-based HP laptop to format my Lexar drive if you are on an earlier operating system like Windows 7, XP, etc. The screenshots may look slightly different. For example, in Windows XP, “My Computer” is equivalent to “This PC’ on Windows 10.

Step 1: Locate your USB stick under “This PC,” right-click on it and select the “Format…” option.

Step 2: A new window pops up, prompting options you must select before starting. You only have to check under “File system” and make sure you have chosen “exFAT.” You may also rename the device drive under “Volume label.” Then click the “Start” button to continue.

Step 3: You’ll see this warning. Once again, ensure you’ve backed up all critical data stored in the drive. Click “OK.”

Step 4: It says “Format Complete,” done!

Pro tip: You may encounter issues formatting a flash drive on a PC or malfunctioning the disk. If so, the following articles may be of help to you:

Final Words

Most external hard disks and flash drives are formatted for Microsoft Windows operating systems. That makes using the industry a bit troublesome on Mac machines. FAT32 is popular, but the 4GB file-size limit makes it inconvenient; for instance, when you want to make a bootable macOS Sierra USB drive, the system file takes about 8GB of storage space, according to Apple.

Thankfully, exFAT — a strict upgrade over FAT32, is a file system optimized for USB flash drives. As I said, if you want to use the device for both a PC and Mac, you should consider reformatting it to exFAT once you figure out the drive isn’t with another file system.

I hope the above guide is helpful to you. Once again, as a kind warning: formatting a flash drive will likely erase all files and data stored in the device; it’s vital to ensure you have made at least one copy of the data before you get started.

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