Can you just unplug an external hard drive?

Unplugging external hard drives without properly ejecting them first can lead to serious consequences. External HDDs are extremely popular for expanding storage and backing up data on computers. However, these devices require special care to avoid potential data loss or hardware damage. Impatient users may be tempted to simply unplug the drive when finished rather than going through the proper steps to disconnect it. But this innocent act of convenience can turn into a nightmare if files get corrupted or the drive fails outright.

This article will examine best practices for safely disconnecting external hard drives on Windows and Mac OS. Proper ejection is necessary to ensure the operating system flushes any cached writes and cleans up open files before powering down. We’ll also look at exceptions where unplugging without eject is normally safe, as well as troubleshooting options if errors occur. Follow these tips, and you can avoid damaging your valuable data or external drive.

What Is an External Hard Drive?

An external hard drive is a portable data storage device that can be attached to a computer via a USB connection, Thunderbolt, FireWire, or wirelessly. External hard drives typically use the same hard disk mechanisms used inside desktop and laptop computers, but housed in a portable external enclosure.

External hard drives were first introduced in the early 1980s by companies like IBM to provide backup storage for mainframe systems. The first model was the IBM 3380 drive introduced in 1980. It used removable disk packs that could store 2.52GB of data. In 1983, Sony introduced the first 3.5-inch external hard drive aimed at personal computer users, which could store 10MB of data. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, external hard drives grew in storage capacity along with internal drives. They became popular for providing additional storage and data backup options for home and business users.

Today, external hard drives are widely used with desktop and laptop PCs, games consoles, media players, and other devices. They allow users to store large amounts of data and transport it between devices. Modern external drives use USB, Thunderbolt, or wireless connections. They typically range from 500GB to 10TB in capacity.


The History of External Hard Drives and Portable Backup Systems

Benefits of External Hard Drives

External hard drives offer several key benefits that make them useful for both personal and professional needs:

Extra Storage Capacity

One of the main reasons people use external hard drives is for the extra storage space they provide. External HDDs come in large capacities from 500GB to multiple terabytes (TB), allowing you to store far more data than what fits on your computer’s internal drive [1]. This additional capacity is ideal for large files like high-resolution photos, videos, games, and media libraries.

Portability and Accessibility

Since external HDDs are not fixed inside your computer, they offer greater portability and accessibility to your data. You can easily unplug an external drive and take your files anywhere, then plug into another device and access them. This makes externals ideal for on-the-go computing and transfers between different systems [2].

Backup and Data Protection

One of the most common uses for external hard drives is as a backup destination for important files. The ample extra capacity allows you to maintain multiple backups of your computer’s internal drive and safeguard your data in case of system failure. Having an external backup ensures you always have access to copies of essential documents, photos, and other media.

Risks of Improper Ejection

Improperly unplugging or ejecting an external hard drive can lead to data corruption and drive errors. When the drive is disconnected suddenly, any files that were open may not get a chance to be saved and closed properly. This can cause those files to become corrupted and unreadable.

According to the Seagate support article “Disk Not Ejected Properly on Mac,” the message “Disk Not Ejected Properly” usually appears when a drive is disconnected without ejecting first, and this risks damaging files or entire file systems on the drive [1].

In addition to data corruption, improperly disconnecting external drives can sometimes cause the drive to experience errors. As noted on the Apple Discussions thread “Improperly ejected external hard drive is not displaying,” repeated improper ejections can lead to an external drive not even being recognized by the computer anymore [2].

There is also a small physical damage risk if the drive is disconnected while actively reading or writing data. This can potentially damage the drive’s internals and render it unusable. However, modern external drives are designed to minimize this risk.

When Is It Safe to Unplug?

Generally, it is safe to unplug an external hard drive without ejecting first if the drive is not currently being accessed or written to by the computer (Gnome). This means no files are open or in use on the external drive. As long as the computer is not reading or writing data to the external hard drive at the moment it is unplugged, there is very little risk of data loss or corruption. However, it is still best practice to properly eject the drive first before unplugging.

To avoid any chance of data corruption, it is ideal to eject the external hard drive first or make sure no programs are using the drive before unplugging (Quora). The computer will then know the external drive is going to be disconnected and can prepare accordingly. Simply waiting until the external hard drive is not being accessed, even if for a brief moment, creates a much lower risk scenario for unplugging without ejecting.

Ejecting vs Unplugging

There is an important difference between ejecting an external hard drive and simply unplugging it. When you eject the drive, it ensures that any data still in the write cache is flushed to the drive before disconnecting. This prevents potential data loss or file system corruption.

Unplugging the drive without ejecting does not give the operating system a chance to prepare the drive for disconnection. This means any files still being written could be interrupted mid-write and become corrupted. The file system could also be left in an unstable state if the drive is unplugged prematurely.

While the terms eject and unmount are sometimes used interchangeably, ejecting is the safer method. It ensures data is written before disconnecting. Unplugging without ejecting risks potential data loss or file system damage.

Best Practices

To avoid potential issues, it is highly recommended to always properly eject the external hard drive before unplugging it. The standard best practice is to use the “Safely Remove Hardware” tool in Windows or the “Eject” option on Mac. This ensures that all writes to the drive have completed and caches are flushed before disconnecting.

Specifically, on Windows, locate the external hard drive icon in the system tray and right-click it. Select “Eject” from the menu that appears. Alternatively, go to File Explorer, right-click on the external hard drive, and select “Eject”. Wait for the confirmation that it is safe to remove the hardware before unplugging the drive.

On Mac, right-click on the external hard drive icon on the desktop or in the Finder sidebar and select “Eject”. Wait for the icon to disappear before disconnecting it. This prevents corruption and lost data.


While generally safe to leave an external hard drive plugged in, there are some rare cases when you may need to unplug it:

  • If you need to move your computer and don’t want the drive exposed to excess vibration or shocks during transport, unplugging it can help prevent damage (1).
  • When performing maintenance on your computer like cleaning or reconfiguring cables, temporarily unplugging drives simplifies access (2).
  • If your drive begins acting erratically like freezing, disconnecting, or running very slow, unplugging it then reconnecting it may resolve minor software/connection issues (3).
  • To conserve electricity on laptops when battery power is low and the drive isn’t actively being used.

In these cases, make sure to properly eject the drive first before unplugging to prevent potential corruption. Unless faced with one of these scenarios, keeping your external drive plugged in is generally safe.




Troubleshooting Errors

Improperly ejecting or unplugging your external hard drive can sometimes lead to errors that prevent your computer from recognizing the drive. Here are some troubleshooting steps to try if this happens:

First, try plugging the external drive into a different USB port on your computer. The original port may have encountered issues from abrupt removal of the drive.

If that doesn’t work, go to Disk Management and see if the external drive shows up there without a drive letter assigned. You may be able to assign a new drive letter to make the disk accessible again.

Running chkdsk may also help repair any file system errors on the drive. To do this, open the Command Prompt as Administrator and type “chkdsk x: /f” where x is the drive letter.

If the drive has corrupted system files, you can attempt to repair the Master Boot Record. From the Command Prompt, type “bootrec /fixmbr” to rewrite the MBR code.

For severe corruption, you may need to reformat the external hard drive completely. This will erase all data, so try other options first or recover important files. In Disk Management, right-click the disk and select Format.

As a last resort, you can contact a disk recovery service to attempt restoring lost data, but this can be expensive. Avoiding improper ejection from the start is the best way to prevent headaches.


In summary, it is not recommended to simply unplug an external hard drive while it is still mounted and in use by your computer. The proper way to safely disconnect an external drive is to eject it first before unplugging. This ensures any data writes have finished and caches are flushed to avoid file system corruption or data loss.

The key points to remember are:

  • Always eject the drive first through your operating system before disconnecting.
  • Avoid force ejecting or unplugging during activity like file transfers.
  • Unplugging without ejecting risks data loss or drive errors.
  • Ejecting flushes caches and writes before disconnecting.
  • Use the Safely Remove Hardware option in Windows or the Eject command on Mac.

By following proper ejection procedures, you can avoid data loss and ensure the integrity and longevity of your external hard drive. Simply unplugging without ejecting first is never recommended.