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.
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 — 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 size
|Max. partition size
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.
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.
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!
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 — 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.