Does macOS use FAT32 or NTFS?

macOS is Apple’s proprietary operating system that runs on Mac computers. It comes pre-installed on all new Mac devices and is the second most popular desktop operating system after Microsoft Windows. As of 2022, macOS has around 9% global market share for desktop operating systems.

Like all operating systems, macOS uses a file system to organize and manage data storage on Mac hard drives and storage devices. The two most common file systems used by Mac computers are FAT32 and NTFS. This article will examine which file system macOS uses by default, as well as the advantages and limitations of each file system.

What is FAT32?

FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32) is a file system originally developed by Microsoft in 1996 for Windows 95 OSR2 as an evolutionary improvement over the older FAT16 file system. FAT32 was designed to support larger disk sizes and larger files, while also improving on FAT16’s limitations (1).

FAT32 uses 32-bit addressing to reference clusters rather than the 16-bit addressing used by FAT16, which allows it to support significantly larger partition sizes up to 2 terabytes. It also introduced new improvements like smaller cluster sizes to reduce wasted space, VFAT long filenames, and multiple filestreams (2).

Overall, FAT32 provides an upgrade over FAT16 with support for bigger disk partitions, better small file performance, and advanced features while maintaining compatibility with older operating systems. However, it has limitations like a maximum file size of 4GB and lack of permissions or encryption capabilities.

What is NTFS?

NTFS (New Technology File System) is a proprietary file system developed by Microsoft for use in Windows NT operating systems. First introduced in Windows NT 3.1 in 1993, NTFS has since become the default file system for Microsoft’s Windows NT line of operating systems [1].

NTFS replaces the older FAT file system and was designed for use with high-capacity, high-throughput storage media. Key features of NTFS include [2]:

  • Support for large partition sizes and large files.
  • Improvements to metadata for faster searching and organization.
  • Support for advanced data structures.
  • Improved reliability and disk space utilization.
  • Security and permissions for files and folders.

NTFS allows for greater security, auditing, compression, encryption, and features for high-end needs compared to older file systems. It remains the most advanced file system available natively in Windows operating systems.

Default macOS File System

The default file system for Mac computers running macOS 10.13 or later is Apple File System (APFS). APFS replaced Mac OS Extended (HFS+) as the default file system starting with macOS High Sierra in 2017 (Source).

APFS was designed by Apple specifically for solid-state drives and flash memory. It includes features like strong encryption, space sharing, fast directory sizing, block cloning for files, and improved file system fundamentals (Source).

So in summary, the default file system for modern macOS versions is APFS, which replaced HFS+ in 2017.

FAT32 Support

Yes, macOS has full support for reading and writing FAT32 drives. The FAT32 file system was commonly used on Windows machines before NTFS became the default, and it is still widely used today for external portable drives due to its compatibility across operating systems.

All modern versions of macOS including Catalina, Big Sur, Monterey and later can mount and access FAT32 drives with no additional software required.1 FAT32 support is built into macOS and works out of the box when you connect an external FAT32 drive via USB, Thunderbolt or Firewire.

In addition to reading FAT32 drives, macOS can also write to them and modify files, allowing you to use a FAT32 formatted external drive for storage and file transfers between Mac and Windows machines. The main limitations are that individual files cannot exceed 4GB in size, and disk capacity is capped at 2TB.

Overall, FAT32 offers legacy support and cross-platform compatibility at the cost of some limitations. But for basic external storage that needs to work on both Windows and Mac, it remains a simple and usable option.

NTFS Support

macOS has limited built-in support for reading and writing to NTFS drives. While macOS can read files from an NTFS drive without any additional software, it cannot natively write files to NTFS volumes due to lack of full support for the file system When you connect an NTFS drive to your Mac, you’ll be able to view files but won’t be able to edit, delete, copy, or write files to it.

To enable full read/write capabilities for NTFS on macOS, you need to install third-party software like Paragon NTFS for Mac or iBoysoft NTFS for Mac which adds NTFS write support. These tools allow Mac users to write, move, copy, edit and delete files on NTFS drives seamlessly. However, these third-party solutions aren’t free and typically require a paid subscription or license for full read/write access


When it comes to performance on macOS, FAT32 and NTFS have some key differences. According to Datto, NTFS is generally faster than FAT32 in terms of throughput and transfer speeds. This is because NTFS uses smaller cluster sizes, which helps improve performance when working with large files.

However, FAT32 may have faster seek times when working with many small files. This is due to the simplicity of the FAT32 file system structure compared to the more complex NTFS file system. The simpler structure allows FAT32 to locate files faster on average.

Overall, NTFS offers better performance on macOS for large files, while FAT32 may be faster for small files. But the performance differences are generally minor, especially on modern macOS versions and hardware. The choice between FAT32 and NTFS often depends more on compatibility needs rather than performance.


FAT32 has broad compatibility and can be read and written to by all major operating systems including Windows, macOS, and Linux. According to Howtogeek, FAT32 drives can be read and written to by both Windows and macOS, however they have a 4GB per-file size limit.

NTFS was designed for Windows systems and has limited compatibility with other operating systems. According to PCMag, NTFS drives can be read but not written to by macOS. For reading and writing from macOS, a third party NTFS driver for Mac is required. NTFS does not have inherent support in Linux but can be enabled through third party software as well. Therefore, FAT32 has wider cross-platform and boot support compared to NTFS.



FAT32 and NTFS each have limitations that are notable when choosing a file system for macOS. The main limitations of FAT32 include the following:

FAT32 has a maximum file size of 4 GB. Any files larger than 4 GB cannot be stored on a FAT32 formatted disk 1. In contrast, NTFS has no practical file size limit. The maximum NTFS file size is 16 exbibytes (EB)

FAT32 also has a maximum volume size of 2 TB. Volumes larger than 2 TB cannot be formatted with FAT32. NTFS has no volume size limit for practical purposes. The theoretical limit is 256 TB.

In addition, FAT32 only supports 8.3 file name formats, while NTFS supports much longer 255 character Unicode file names.

The main limitations for NTFS include:

NTFS does not have native support in macOS. Additional software is required to enable full read/write access on NTFS drives. Without this, only read access is allowed in macOS.

NTFS is proprietary to Windows. While read/write access can be added, there may be stability and compatibility issues compared to native file systems.


Both FAT32 and NTFS are file systems used widely across different operating systems. macOS uses a UNIX-based file system (APFS) by default which has many benefits in performance, encryption, and scalability. While macOS can read and write to FAT32 to maintain compatibility with Windows, NTFS support is limited without additional software. FAT32 is an older file system with more limitations in file size and partitions but works across platforms. NTFS is newer and more capable but is proprietary to Windows. For most macOS users, APFS provides the best performance while still having the option to access FAT32 and NTFS drives when needed. Using native macOS file formats where possible is recommended for optimal speed and compatibility. The ability to access other file systems adds flexibility for working across different operating systems when required.