How do I format a USB drive for both Mac and PC?

This guide will walk through how to format a USB drive so it can be used interchangeably between Mac and Windows computers. With more households and businesses using a mix of both operating systems, being able to share files and data seamlessly between Macs and PCs via USB drives is becoming increasingly important. The goal is to format the drive in a way that maintains full read/write compatibility on either platform.

By properly formatting the USB drive to the exFAT file system, it can work seamlessly between macOS and Windows with no need for special software or procedures. This allows you to easily share files and transfer data seamlessly between Mac and Windows machines through the USB drive, without worrying about compatibility issues.

Background on File Systems

There are three main file systems to choose from when formatting a USB drive – NTFS, FAT32, and exFAT.[1] NTFS (New Technology File System) was introduced by Microsoft in 1993 and is the default system for modern versions of Windows. It supports large partition sizes and file sizes over 4GB. FAT32 (File Allocation Table) was introduced in 1996 and is compatible with older operating systems like Windows 98. It has a max file size of 4GB and partition limit of 32GB. exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) was introduced in 2006 and has larger file size and partition limits than FAT32. It’s optimized for flash drives and has wider compatibility with Macs.

Default Formats

By default, Mac OS and Windows use different file systems to format USB drives. Mac OS formats USB drives as Mac OS Extended (HFS+), while Windows defaults to NTFS:

“Mac OS formats USB drives as Mac OS Extended (HFS+)” (Apple Discussions).

“Windows defaults to NTFS” (Kingston).

The problem is that Mac OS cannot natively write to NTFS drives, while Windows does not recognize HFS+ drives. So if you format a USB drive on a Mac, that drive will not be usable on a Windows PC by default, and vice versa.

To make a USB drive compatible between both operating systems, it needs to be formatted with a file system that Mac OS and Windows both support.

Cross-Platform Solutions

When choosing a file system for a USB drive that needs to work across both Windows and Mac platforms, there are two main options that provide this capability – FAT32 and exFAT. FAT32 is compatible with both operating systems out of the box, which makes it a convenient plug-and-play solution. However, FAT32 has some limitations including a maximum individual file size of 4GB and maximum partition size of 32GB.

For larger USB drives and transferring larger files, the preferred solution is the exFAT file system. exFAT removes the file size and partition size limitations of FAT32, enabling files over 4GB and partitions over 32GB. While not supported natively on older operating systems, exFAT has widespread compatibility on newer Windows, Mac, and Linux distributions. For reliably transferring files between Mac and Windows with no file size limits, exFAT is the best cross-platform file system choice.

Limitations of FAT32

The main limitation of FAT32 is its 4GB file size limit. FAT32 uses 32-bit file allocation tables, which means the maximum possible file size is 232 bytes minus 1 byte for metadata. This works out to an exact file size limit of 4,294,967,295 bytes or 4GB (minus 1 byte). Any file larger than this amount will be unable to be saved to a FAT32 formatted USB drive.

This 4GB file size limitation can be restrictive when transferring larger files like videos, disk images, and media files [1]. For example, a single DVD or Blu-ray quality video file can easily exceed 4GB. Games, operating system files, and backups are other common large file types impacted by the FAT32 limit.

While it’s possible to split files into smaller chunks to work around this barrier, it adds complexity and makes transferring single large files impossible. The 4GB barrier is essentially a hard limit of the FAT32 file system.

Format with exFAT

exFAT is a good cross-platform file system to use for external drives because it is optimized for flash drives and supports file sizes larger than 4GB. Here are the steps to format a drive with exFAT on Mac and Windows:

On Mac:

  1. Connect the USB drive to your Mac.
  2. Open Disk Utility (located in Applications > Utilities).
  3. Select the USB drive in the left sidebar.
  4. Click Erase at the top.
  5. Choose “exFAT” as the format.
  6. Give the drive a name and click Erase.

On Windows:

  1. Plug the USB drive into your Windows PC.
  2. Open File Explorer and right-click the drive.
  3. Select “Format…”
  4. Under File System, choose “exFAT”.
  5. Give the drive a name and click Start.

The USB drive will now be formatted to exFAT and compatible with both Mac and Windows machines. Just remember to eject the drive properly before unplugging it.

Format on Mac

The easiest way to format a USB drive on a Mac is to use the built-in Disk Utility app. Disk Utility allows you to quickly erase and reformat any connected drive into a variety of file system formats, including exFAT for cross-platform compatibility.

To format a USB drive on Mac using Disk Utility:

  1. Connect the USB drive to your Mac.
  2. Open Finder and go to Applications > Utilities and launch Disk Utility.
  3. In the sidebar, select the USB drive you want to format.
  4. Click Erase at the top of the Disk Utility window.
  5. For Format, select “exFAT” from the dropdown menu.
  6. You can rename the USB drive under Name if desired.
  7. Click Erase to begin formatting the USB drive.

This will completely erase and reformat the USB drive into the exFAT file system. Once complete, the USB drive will be compatible with both MacOS and Windows right away with no additional formatting needed. The exFAT format has good cross-platform support while avoiding the limitations of FAT32 like the 4GB file size limit.

For more details, refer to How to Format a USB Drive on Mac.

Format on Windows

On Windows, you can use File Explorer to format your USB drive in exFAT. Here’s how:

1. Insert your USB drive into your Windows PC.

2. Open File Explorer, right-click on your USB drive, and select “Format…”. This will open the Format dialog box.

3. In the File System dropdown, select “exFAT”.

4. Check the “Quick Format” box. This will format your drive more quickly.

5. Click “Start” to begin formatting the drive.

That’s it! Your USB drive will now be formatted to exFAT. You can confirm this by right-clicking the drive again and selecting “Properties”. Under File System, it should show “exFAT”.

Now your USB drive will be compatible with both Mac and Windows machines. Just remember, exFAT does have some limitations compared to NTFS and HFS+, like no built-in file encryption. But for basic cross-platform file transfers, exFAT works great.

Source: exFAT Format with Windows 10

Testing the Drive

Once you have formatted the USB drive, it’s important to test it out on both operating systems to confirm it is working properly. Here are the steps:

On Mac:

  • Plug the USB drive into your Mac.
  • Open Finder and locate the USB drive.
  • Create a test folder on the USB drive.
  • Add a test file to the folder (e.g. a text file).
  • Eject the USB drive safely.

On Windows:

  • Plug the USB drive into your Windows PC.
  • Open File Explorer and locate the USB drive.
  • Open the test folder you created.
  • Confirm you can open the test file.
  • Safely eject the USB drive.

If you are able to create files/folders and open them properly on both operating systems, then your USB drive has been successfully formatted for cross-platform use. If not, you may need to redo the formatting steps.


To summarize, formatting a USB drive to work seamlessly between Mac and Windows computers can be easily accomplished by using the exFAT file system. This format provides the compatibility needed for cross-platform use while avoiding the limitations of the older FAT32 system. The process involves using the Disk Utility tool on Mac or the File Explorer formatting option on Windows to quickly setup the drive.

Once formatted with exFAT, the USB drive can be used to transfer files back and forth between Mac and Windows machines without needing to reformat each time. The contents of the drive will be accessible to both operating systems for convenient universal use. Just be sure to complete the initial format process correctly to maximize compatibility.

With the steps outlined above, you should now feel confident in setting up a USB flash drive, external hard drive, or other storage device to work interchangeably between macOS and Windows OS. Properly formatting the drive ahead of time will save you headaches down the road.