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

Last updated: Jan. 6, 2017

Have you ever encountered this situation? You plugged a USB key into your PC, 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 went wrong? You felt a bit confused even annoyed.

Does that mean it's time to throw away your flash drive? Nope.

In this article, I'm going to show you a few tricks to make it work again (hopefully), and retrieve the "inaccessible" data in case you didn't have backups.

Typical symptoms

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

Possible causes

  • The disk is corrupted due to improper ejection, unexpected PC shutdown during data writing/transferring process.
  • Compatibility issues exist between your flash drive and the PC you're using.
  • 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've re-formatted it to NTFS or another file system.

How to fix USB disk error and recover data

Step 1: try inserting your flash drive into a different PC or a Mac computer. See if it'll be recognized correctly. Sometimes this helps clear the compatibility or buffer issues.

If this doesn't work out for you, go to next step.

Step 2: check if you have data backup. 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 the "lost" data. The best way is to use a Windows data recovery software (see our review). You first get a recovery program and install it on your PC, connect your USB drive, then let the software scan your disk to look for recoverable items.

Note: this method may not recover all your files, but it's worth trying.

Step 4: format your USB flash drive . 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. Follow the instructions to perform a quick format. Now go to This PC (or My Computer if you're on Windows 7/Vista/XP) and see if you can open the disk 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's a third-party formatting utility 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 (e.g. FAT32, ex-FAT), and you are good to go.

Step 6: recover your lost data again (if you have). If step 3 didn't retrieve all your data, it's time to re-try the file recovery program you've just installed in step 3. Chances are you'll get more data back. Note: a quick format operation won't permanently erase the data right away, unless the data has been overwritten.

Your feedback

So what do you think about this troubleshooting tutorial? Have you managed to fix the USB error and perhaps retrieve your data? 

P.S. we've also created a comprehensive USB data recovery guide, which features eight chapters for handling different USB data loss ​situations.

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 the content manager at AnySoftwareTools. She is a lover of photography, technology, teaching, and learning. Recently she's keen on following news related to tech giants and SaaS startups in bay area.

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