Can I encrypt an external hard drive?


Yes, it is possible to encrypt an external hard drive. Encryption protects the data on your external hard drive by scrambling it so that it can only be accessed with the correct encryption key. This prevents unauthorized access to your sensitive files if your external hard drive is lost or stolen.

There are several methods you can use to encrypt an external hard drive on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. The most common options are using BitLocker on Windows, FileVault on Mac, and LUKS on Linux. The encryption software built into these operating systems allows you to securely encrypt the entire external drive.

Why Should I Encrypt My External Hard Drive?

Here are some key reasons you may want to encrypt your external hard drive:

  • Protect sensitive data – Encryption prevents unauthorized access to your private files in case your drive is lost, stolen, or accessed by someone else without your permission.
  • Privacy and security – Encryption scrambles your data so it is unreadable without the password. This adds an important layer of security for your sensitive documents and peace of mind.
  • Compliance – Some industry and governmental regulations like HIPAA require encryption of sensitive data at rest. Encrypting external drives can help meet compliance requirements.
  • Safe data disposal – Simply formatting a drive does not completely erase data. Encrypting external drives allows safe disposal or repurposing of old drives without worrying about data remanence.

In summary, encrypting external hard drives is a best practice for security and privacy in the digital age where data breaches are common. The minimal effort is well worth securing your important information.

How to Encrypt an External Hard Drive on Windows

Windows includes the BitLocker encryption tool for protecting entire drives. Here is how to use BitLocker to encrypt an external drive on Windows:

  1. Connect your external hard drive to your computer via USB and ensure it shows up in File Explorer.
  2. Open the Control Panel and click “System and Security” then “Manage BitLocker”.
  3. Click “Turn on BitLocker” on the connected external drive.
  4. Choose your encryption method. For most home users, “Compatible Mode” with a password is recommended.
  5. Enter a strong password to help secure the drive. Be sure to record this password in a safe place.
  6. Click “Start Encrypting” to run the encryption process. This can take some time depending on the drive size and speed.
  7. Once encryption completes, the drive will lock and require the password to access the contents. Your data is now secured.

The same BitLocker tool can also be used to encrypt internal hard drives and SSDs on Windows machines. Using BitLocker to encrypt external drives helps protect those drives on the go.

Additional BitLocker Tips on Windows

  • Consider saving your recovery key in case you forget your password. The recovery key acts as a backup password for the encrypted drive.
  • You can choose to store the recovery key in your Microsoft account, print it, or save to a file.
  • With external drives, it’s best to store the recovery key separately from the encrypted drive as a security precaution.
  • To decrypt the encrypted drive in the future, simply turn off BitLocker encryption from the Control Panel.

Encrypting External Drives on Mac with FileVault

FileVault comes built-in on MacOS and allows full disk encryption. Here is how to use FileVault to encrypt external drives on Mac:

  1. Connect the external drive via USB to your Mac computer. The drive should mount and appear on your desktop or in the Finder windows sidebar.
  2. Open Finder and right click on the connected external drive.
  3. Choose “Encrypt [name of drive]” from the right click menu.
  4. A verification prompt will appear. Click “Encrypt Disk” to continue.
  5. Enter and confirm an encryption password. This password will be required to unlock the drive.
  6. macOS will encrypt the entire drive in the background. This may take some time for large drives. The encrypted drive will have a yellow lock icon.
  7. To access encrypted data, click the drive and enter the password when prompted.

FileVault full disk encryption provides excellent security for external drives. The data becomes immediately inaccessible without the password after the drive is ejected or unplugged from your Mac.

Tips for Using FileVault on External Drives

  • If you forget your FileVault password, there is no recovery key. Your data will be permanently inaccessible.
  • You can securely discard and reformat FileVault encrypted drives since a simple erase makes data unrecoverable.
  • You can also encrypt internal startup drives with FileVault for full disk encryption.
  • FileVault encryption works across Macs running macOS High Sierra and above.

Encrypting External Drives on Linux with LUKS

LUKS (Linux Unified Key Setup) is the standard for full drive encryption on Linux operating systems. Here is how to create an encrypted external drive on Linux:

  1. Attach the external drive to your Linux computer via USB port.
  2. Open the Linux terminal console and find the drive label such as /dev/sdb.
  3. Enter the command sudo cryptsetup -y luksFormat /dev/sdb and type your user password when prompted.
  4. Confirm formatting by typing “YES” and hitting enter.
  5. Enter a strong passphrase when prompted to encrypt the drive.
  6. Record your passphrase somewhere safe or you may lose access to the drive.
  7. Type sudo cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/sdb my_encrypted_drive and enter your passphrase to unlock the drive.

The external drive is now encrypted and will require the passphrase on any Linux system to decrypt and mount. Take care not to lose or forget the passphrase.

Tips for Using LUKS Encryption on External Drives

  • You can also encrypt the boot partition or home directory with LUKS instead of just external drives.
  • Some Linux distributions offer GUI tools like GNOME Disks to simplify the LUKS encryption process.
  • Make use of a recovery key or password hint in case you forget your LUKS passphrase. This avoids permanent data loss.
  • LUKS is compatible across Linux distributions like Ubuntu, Debian, CentOS, etc.

Choosing an Encryption Type

All three full disk encryption methods above provide excellent security with negligible impact on performance. However, a few points may help determine the best option for your needs:

BitLocker (Windows) FileVault (Mac) LUKS (Linux)
Ease of Use Very Simple Simple Moderate
Password Reset Options Recovery Key None Passphrase/Key file
Open Source No Mostly Yes
Hardware Encryption Support Yes Yes Limited
Multipurpose Usable Disks/Partitions Full Disks Only Disks/Partitions

In summary:

  • BitLocker is easy to use but proprietary. It has backup key access.
  • FileVault is macOS-only full disk encryption without password recovery.
  • LUKS is open source and very versatile for multiple platforms, but more hands-on.

Choose the solution that best matches your operating system platform and data security needs.

Should I Encrypt my External SSD or HDD?

Encryption applies equally well to both external hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). Any external USB drive with storage media can be encrypted using one of the above tools.

However, there are some additional factors to consider when encrypting external HDDs versus SSDs:

Encrypting an External HDD

  • HDDs are mechanical drives with moving disk platters. Data may be recoverable after format or deletion.
  • Full disk encryption provides a much higher level of security on HDDs and prevents forensic recovery attempts.
  • Performance impact is minimal since HDDs are already much slower than SSDs.
  • Use encryption on external HDDs whenever possible, especially for sensitive data portability.

Encrypting an External SSD

  • SSDs have no moving parts and sanitize data quickly. Remanence risks are lower compared to HDDs.
  • However, SSD encryption is still recommended since forensic tools may be able to recover remnants of sensitive deleted files.
  • The performance overhead of encryption is slightly more noticeable on the faster SSDs compared to HDDs.
  • Balance security needs and convenience when encrypting external SSDs used across multiple machines.

In summary, while both HDDs and SDDs benefit from encryption, it provides slightly more security advantages on external HDDs given their mechanical nature.

Potential Downsides of Encrypting External Drives

While encryption provides excellent security, there are some potential usability downsides to consider as well:

  • Encrypted external drives may not work across operating systems without decrypting.
  • Lost passwords or passphrases can make data permanently inaccessible.
  • Background encryption can slow down the computer until completed.
  • Users must remember passwords or record password hints for later access.
  • Some encryption programs like BitLocker require paid versions of Windows.
  • Encrypted drives have a small performance overhead during reads/writes.
  • Hardware failures may still occur unrelated to encryption.

Weigh these factors against the security and privacy benefits before fully committing to encrypting an external drive. Some key best practices help overcome these downsides:

  • Store the recovery key or password hint in a safe secondary location.
  • Use strong memorable passwords and change them periodically.
  • Only keep frequently used external drives encrypted.
  • Encrypt and backup important data rather than entire drives.
  • Test drive encryption beforehand if performance is critical.

How to Encrypt Portable External SSDs

Portable external SSDs with fast USB 3.0+ speeds are convenient for on-the-go data transfer and backups. Their small form factors also make them easier to lose or misplace. A major benefit of portable external SSD encryption is preventing unauthorized data access if the drive is lost.

Software-Based Encryption

Any external SSD can have encryption added using built-in operating system tools like BitLocker, FileVault, or LUKS covered previously. This software encryption provides full security without needing special hardware. However, encrypted OS-based drives may not be readable across different operating systems.

Hardware-Based Encryption

Many external SSD manufacturers offer models with built-in encryption hardware. For example:

  • Western Digital My Passport SSDs have built-in 256-bit AES hardware encryption.
  • Samsung T5 and T7 portable SSDs come with AES 256-bit hardware-based encryption.
  • Some Kingston SSDs utilize XTS-AES 128 or 256 bit encryption.

These models encrypt data using dedicated security chips rather than main system resources. The encryption works across operating systems with minimal performance impact. However, they require proprietary vendor software to set passwords and may not be as flexible for advanced users.

Encryption Tips for External SSDs

  • Choose devices with hardware encryption for easy cross-platform use.
  • Opt for software encryption like BitLocker for granular control and encryption across all drives.
  • Use strong unique passwords for each encrypted external SSD.
  • Physically secure portable external SSDs when not in use.
  • Implement password expiration policies to force periodic refresh.

Following best practices tailored to your specific needs helps external SSDs provide security while maintaining lightning-fast performance.

Should I Use an Encrypted SD Card?

SD cards are commonly used for storage expansion in mobile devices like phones, tablets, and laptops. While the small size makes them handy to carry around, it also makes them prone to loss or theft. Encrypting SD card data can provide protection in these scenarios.

Benefits of an Encrypted SD Card

  • Prevents unauthorized access to sensitive photos, videos, documents stored on the card.
  • Useful for protecting private data across devices like cameras, drones, handheld gaming systems.
  • Allows secure deletion by simply resetting the encryption key.
  • Can set up access controls depending on device type or user accounts.

Limitations of Encrypted SD Cards

  • Not all devices support installing encryption apps for SD cards.
  • Software encryption may degrade device performance and battery life.
  • Hardware encrypted SD cards cost more money.
  • Does not protect data already synced to the cloud from linked apps.

Recommendations for Encrypting SD Cards

  • Use built-in device encryption like BitLocker on Windows phones and tablets.
  • Opt for hardware encrypted SD cards for devices without native encryption support.
  • Install reputable third party encryption apps if device allows.
  • Frequently backup encrypted SD card data and store securely in case the card is lost.
  • Erase SD cards before discarding them to sanitize your discarded data.

Encryption adds worthwhile data security for SD cards holding private media or documents. But also be aware of encryption limitations to balance security needs on your mobile devices.

What’s the Most Secure Encryption Method?

When considering disk encryption tools, you want the most effective option to protect sensitive data from unauthorized access. Here are characteristics of the most secure drive encryption:

  • Uses strong standardized algorithms like AES-256 bit or XTS-AES 256 bit.
  • Employs full drive encryption rather than individual file or folder encryption.
  • Includes a hardware security module (HSM) for crypto processing.
  • Offers two-factor authentication (2FA) for decryption.
  • Provides zero knowledge privacy – vendors have no access to keys.
  • Supports additional authentication mechanisms like smart cards or biometrics.
  • Underwent extensive third-party auditing and testing before release.
  • Actively maintained and updated by developers.

The top proprietary solutions like BitLocker, FileVault, and VeraCrypt meet most of these criteria and provide robust security. Open source options like LUKS offer transparency and allow community audits. Some encrypted external drives include dedicated hardware encryption chips for added security.

Where possible, opt for full drive encryption rather than individual file encryption. Combine encryption with strong unique passwords, physical security, and caution sharing access. This multi-layered approach is needed for optimum external drive security.


Encrypting external hard drives and SSDs provides important security and privacy in case your devices get lost or stolen. Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems include built-in tools like BitLocker, FileVault, and LUKS to encrypt entire external drives with minimal hassle. While no data protection method is entirely foolproof, drive encryption adds a valuable layer of security with relatively little impact to performance or usability once configured. Take time to assess your specific risks, backup any important data, and set up encryption using strong passwords. With the proliferation of data breaches worldwide, adding drive encryption helps protect your sensitive information and peace of mind.