How to Format USB Drive for Mac & PC Compatibility

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 using Apple File System (APFS), while PCs are with NTFS.

format USB for PC and Mac

If you have a USB drive, and you plan to use it on both a Mac and PC, things can get a bit tricky here. What do I mean? If your disk was initially formatted to NTFS, the data on your drive can’t be read or written if you use the USB on a Mac computer.

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

That file system is β€” exFAT. Note that there is another file system called FAT32 that pretty much does the same thing but with one major flaw. See the table below for more info.

 Compatible with macOS?Compatible with Windows?Max. file sizeMax. partition size
HFS+YesNoNo limitNo limit
NTFSPartiallyYesNo limitNo limit
exFATYesYesNo limitNo 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.

So, you should format your storage drive with exFAT instead of FAT32, assuming that all devices you want to use the drive support exFAT.

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 to the drive.

Now that you’ve learned exFAT is the ideal file system to go. How do I know what current file system my 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 of all, 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 Windows 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 is currently with. Note: since I’ve formatted my Lexar drive on my Mac, now it shows exFAT.

How to Format USB Drive to ExFAT?

Important Note: make sure you have at least one backup of all the data stored on the USB before you proceed. Because reformatting a disk drive will erase all content and make recovery almost impossible.

Since I don’t know whether you are on a PC or Mac, I’ll break down this guide into two parts. The first part is for Mac users, and the second part is for PC users.

Part 1: Formatting USB Drive on Mac

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 drive 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, select ExFAT. You may also change the device name if you want. Then hit the “Erase” button to continue.

Step 4: Wait until the erasing process to complete. It should be very quick.

It only took 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 … you can see 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 with options you need to select before starting. The only thing you have to check is under “File system,” 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, make sure you’ve backed up all important data stored in the drive. Click “OK.”

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

Final Words

Most of the external hard disks and flash drives are formatted for Microsoft Windows operating systems. That makes using the drive 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 USB drive which the system file takes about 8GB of storage space.

Thankfully, exFAT β€” 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 you found the above tutorial guide helpful. Any other questions about formatting a USB flash drive on Mac or PC? Drop a comment below and let us know.

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  • MSI Afterburner downloads

    I was looking for a USB Format tutorial
    and finally found it

  • Andy

    After much frustration – I really liked your simple approach to reformat a USB drive on my Mac that worked the first time!

    Thank you!

  • Kunj

    So simple. Explained really well. Thanks! Got my job done.

  • Sama

    exFAT has also received native support in Linux kernel in late 2019. Hopefully natively supported in all major new gaming consoles coming in 2020.

  • Shannon

    Thanks for the help! This is going to make my new job so much easier.

  • Himagain

    Disappointed to see absolutely no follow up help for this ‘dangerous” activity.
    Didn’t work for me either – not a Newbie but – didn’t really know the format differences b4.
    Didn’t work on either of my systems W10 /8G .
    wORKED OK ON FAT not FAT32. ??
    (Formatting a 32G Scandisk ultra v3.0)

  • Collins

    Sorry it doesn’t work, I formatted on MacBook Air running 10.12.6 and while attempting to load a 5GB file I received the message that the drive wasn’t large enough, Lets see 64GB exFAT but would only load 700MB

  • Agnesia Anggun

    thank you so much, it works well.

  • noone

    document.write(“thank you”);

  • Vonn Hockenberger

    Excellent ! Explanation and really appreciate the detail and example pictures. Think you may have missed one explanation. Am doing a large presentation with lighting and audio. Program director wanted before, intermission and after performance music. I was given a mem. stick with the music but all of my “PCs” read “Not Formatted – Can Not Read”. The mem.stick was made on a Mac. and we need to use on a PC.
    1) Presume that there is no PC software to add that will allow the PC to read/play the music.
    2) Presume that the mem.stick author will have to supply a new mem.stick formatted for a PC or supply new mem.stick formatted on Mac. with the exFAT ?
    3) Presume that any data files could be read but wondering about music formats put on from a Mac and compatible with a PC ? ie PC using MP4 MAC using xxx

  • carddamom

    Infortunatly does not work, I had a exFat formatted drive and then Windows decided that it was a Raw drive…

  • Barbara

    I’m no where near a techie; I have never formatted a flash drive before using it. I am now using a PC but with the changes Microsoft Windows is making I am thinking of getting the iPad Pro. I never changed to Windows 10. I still have an old version, van’ remember which one (it’s about 5 years since I bought the PC. So, the only thing I have been doing is downloading embroidery designs for my sewing/embroidery machine.
    I do have occasion when I look at the flash drives on my computer; are you saying I will not be able to see them on the IPadPro?

  • Mike H

    Thanks for the great article, very useful. I do see one discrepancy. If I understand your table above, under FAT32, the max partition size is 8MB, so I should have to have four 8GB partitions on a 32GB flash drive using FAT32. I formatted my 32GB flash drive under FAT32 (using my MAC and High Sierra) as a single 32GB partition, and put 31.09GB on the drive. Are there newer variations of the FAT32 format that allow larger files and partition sizes?

  • armanc

    Thank You! Very clear and useful post.

  • Jonathan

    Useful article. Thanks a lot.

  • Kevin

    Will Windows 10 downloaded from my Mac onto USB transfer Windows to a non Mac system.

  • D. Jacobson

    On my Mac (running Sierra) the disk utility asks for a “Scheme”, and the options are “GUID Partition Map”, “Master Boot Record”, or “Apple Partition Map”. What do you recommend for this?

    • Simon

      Use Master Boot Record if you want it to be readable and writable on PC and Mac.

      If you only intend to use the drive with Mac OS, then any of those schemes is ok. GUID is probably best.

  • Tim Boycott-Brown

    Thank you so much for the clarity and helpfulness of this article, your selflessness is an example to us all.
    Tim BB

    • Avatar photo
      AnySoftwareTools Team

      You’re welcome Tim πŸ™‚


    I have a Mac 10.4.3 OS and followed your above method to reformat a 264 MB usb flash drive from Mac OS Extended (journaled) to EXFAT with no success.
    Tried 4 times, each time it came back Mac OS Extended (journaled) .

    Any help you could offer would be appreciated.



  • loreapp


  • nigel

    With the latest High Sierra on mac the ex-fat files system is not recognised on many devices, have had to return to fat 32 to use my memory sticks.Also files sizes over 2gb are also rejected.

  • Simon

    Thanks – much appreciated!

  • minh

    hi, thanks a lot for this useful article.

  • imre

    I have reformatted a Sandisk usb 2.0 flash drive with exfat as described in the instructions. I have a Mac 10.13.2. I exported a screenflick movie to it. Afterwards the usb stick is not recognized by the mac. Now what?

    Thank you,

  • Adrian

    It worked. Thank you

  • Billy

    thanks for such a clear. easy to follow solution to a problem I thought might not have an answer and cost me! I’ve tried to explain the above to a non techie friend by saying that the flash drive is the book, the data is the words in the book, the format is the paper that the words are printed on – different book publishers use different kinds of paper etc πŸ™‚

    • Avatar photo
      AnySoftwareTools Team

      That’s a great analogy. Very smart!! Thanks for sharing Billy πŸ˜€

  • Tony Fontaine

    Thank you Jessica for the informative article. The article was easy to read and understand. The screen shots also helped. I sent my mother to your article since she is new to Mac OS. Good job once again, and keep informing us Novices.

  • George

    Do keep in mind that this usually doesn’t apply for external HDDs. Mine can only be formatted in NTFS.

  • Hugh

    Thanks for the step-by-step. Worked just as you said!

  • Harsh Chaklasiya

    Thankyou so much!

    • Jerome Norlander

      I spent too long, today, trying to get technical help by googling and watching YouTube videos (which often are very helpful). But for the most part they were more like ads. Well you can do this and this and this, just don’t ask me how.

      I was a technical writer for 25 years before I retired, and I see very little good technical writing these days. But this was near perfect! Glad to see that somebody knows how to do it! Thank you/