Can’t Format USB Flash Drive? Here’s How to Fix It & Retrieve Data Properly

Have you ever encountered this situation? You plugged a USB flash into your computer, the drive couldn't be recognized. You tried to format the disk, it popped up an error "Windows was unable to complete the format". What's wrong? You felt a bit confused even annoyed.

Does that mean it's time to throw it away? Nope. In this article, I'm going to show you a few tricks to make it work again, and possibly retrieve the data stored in it if you don't have backups.

Typical symptoms

  • Windows says "the USB disk is not formatted, do you want to format it now?".
  • Windows refuses to format USB key or to access files in it.
  • Error message "the USB drive is not initialized".
  • Windows says "there is no disk in drive F. Insert disk and then try again".
  • The USB key is inaccessible.
  • Other similar errors.

Possible causes

  • The disk is corrupted or crashed due to improper ejection, unexpected PC shutdown during a data writing process.
  • Compatibility issues exist between your flash drive and the Windows PC.
  • There are some buffers out there that disable external drive services.
  • USB file system error. For example, a USB stick is originally formatted with FAT32. But you formatted it into NTFS or another type of file system.

How to fix the USB error and recover data

Step 1: try insert your drive on a different PC or even a Mac. See if it is going to be recognized correctly. Sometimes this helps clear the compatibility or buffer issues. If this doesn't work, go to next step.

Step 2: check if you have backups of the data. If you do, skip step 3 and format your USB with the tricks from step 4. If you don't have data backup and the files saved on the USB drive are important to you, try step 3 first.

Step 3: retrieve your inaccessible data. The best way is to rely on a Windows data recovery software (see our review). Download and install a recovery program on your PC, connect your USB drive, then let the software scan your disk for recoverable items. Note: this method may not recover all your files.

Step 4: format the drive in Disk Management. For Windows 10, right click the Start button (located at the bottom left corner), select "Disk Management". Find your USB disk here, right click it and hit "New Simple Volume". Then follow the instructions to perform a quick format. Now go to "This PC" (or "My Computer") and see if you can open the USB drive correctly.

Note: if you still can't format your USB key using this method, go to step 5.

Step 5: use HP USB Disk Storage Format Tool. It is a nice alternative in case Windows internal formatting feature doesn't work. Nothing complicated. Just download it on your Windows PC, select the USB drive, choose desired file system you wish to format, and you are pretty much good to go.

Step 6: try recovering your lost data again. If step 3 doesn't retrieve all your data, it's time to re-try the Windows file recovery program you've just installed. Most likely you'll get more data back. Note: a quick format operation won't permanently erase the data, unless the data is written over.

Your feedback

So what do you think about this PC troubleshooting guide? Have you managed to fix the USB error and retrieve your data? Let me know which formatting method worked for you, or which steps you are stuck in. Either way, leave a comment below.

Jessica Carrell

Jessica is one of the co-founders at AnySoftwareTools. She is a photographer, teacher, Apple advocate, and lover of learning. Recently she's keen on following news related to the big five tech giants and many SaaS startups in bay area.

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