Should I format my external hard drive to NTFS or exFAT?

NTFS (New Technology File System) is a proprietary file system developed by Microsoft in the early 1990s for use with Windows NT. As described by Wikipedia (, NTFS was designed to meet the advanced capabilities required by Windows NT and subsequent Windows operating systems.

Some key features of NTFS include (

  • Improved support for metadata and advanced data structures
  • Increased reliability, availability, and performance
  • Security access control lists for files and folders
  • Disk space quotas for users
  • Journaling for robust recovery

NTFS is the default file system for all modern Windows operating systems starting with Windows NT 3.1. It is supported by all Windows versions currently in use. However, NTFS is proprietary and not directly compatible with other operating systems like Linux, Mac OS, etc. without additional software.

What is exFAT?

exFAT (Extensible File Allocation Table) is a proprietary file system introduced by Microsoft in 2006 and designed for use on flash memory devices like USB flash drives and SD cards. It was created as an improvement over the older FAT32 file system.

Some key features and capabilities of exFAT include:

  • Supports very large file sizes – up to 16 exbibytes
  • Uses smaller allocation units than FAT32 for more efficient storage on large capacity flash devices
  • Supports Unicode file names, allowing for use of other languages besides English
  • Faster at deleting and overwriting files compared to FAT32
  • Optional built-in free space bitmap to aid locating free space and prevent fragmentation

exFAT has compatibility with Windows (Vista and newer), Mac OS X (10.6.5 and newer), Linux, Android, and other modern operating systems. However, compatibility can sometimes require installing additional software or drivers. Overall exFAT aims to bridge the gap between NTFS and FAT32 and be a universally compatible file system for removable flash storage devices across different operating systems.

NTFS vs exFAT: Key Differences

There are several key differences between NTFS and exFAT that are important to understand when deciding which file system to use:

Maximum file size limits

NTFS supports much larger maximum file sizes – up to 16 exbibytes (EB). exFAT is limited to 16 tebibytes (TB) [1].

Cluster sizes

The minimum cluster size on NTFS is 4KB, whereas exFAT’s minimum cluster size is much larger at 32KB. This means NTFS is more efficient than exFAT when storing a large number of small files [2].

File name limits

NTFS supports file names up to 255 characters. exFAT only supports file names up to 255 UTF-16 characters or 127 UCS-2 characters.


NTFS has wider compatibility with operating systems like Windows, macOS, Linux, etc. exFAT has more limited compatibility, but is supported by most modern OSes.


NTFS supports file system permissions for access control. exFAT does not have built-in permissions.


NTFS is more reliable than exFAT and uses journaling to prevent data corruption. exFAT does not have journaling capabilities.

When to Use NTFS

NTFS is best for situations when security is critical. As a modern file system, NTFS offers many security features like encryption and permissions that older file systems lack.

NTFS is also recommended for internal or system drives on Windows computers. Since NTFS is natively supported in Windows, it integrates seamlessly and allows you to take advantage of all Windows features.

You should also format drives used exclusively with Windows to NTFS. NTFS allows Windows to run optimally and access the full functionality of the drive. Though NTFS can be read by Mac OS X and Linux, these other operating systems lack full support. So NTFS is preferred for Windows-only drives.

As this article points out, NTFS offers security features like access permissions and encryption that FAT32 lacks. For situations requiring security like internal drives, NTFS is the better choice.

When to Use exFAT

exFAT is a good option for external storage drives that are used to transfer files between operating systems like Windows and macOS. Unlike FAT32, exFAT removes the 4 GB file size limit so it can support larger files like movies and disk images (Howtogeek). exFAT is also a lightweight file system like FAT32, so it’s faster at writing and copying data than NTFS. This makes it well-suited for external storage drives where portability is key.

For flash drives like USB sticks, exFAT is often the best file system option. It supports large individual file sizes while also being compatible with both Windows and macOS right out of the box. NTFS requires driver installation to work with macOS, while FAT32 limits file sizes to 4 GB. The allocation unit/cluster size of exFAT is small enough to avoid wasting too much space on smaller flash drives (PartitionWizard). Therefore, exFAT hits the sweet spot between compatibility, large file sizes, and efficiency for use with flash drives.

How to Format to NTFS

There are two main ways to format an external hard drive to NTFS on Windows – using Disk Management and using the command line.

Using Disk Management

Disk Management is a built-in Windows tool that allows you to manage disk partitions and volumes. To format an external hard drive to NTFS using Disk Management:

  1. Connect the external hard drive to your computer.
  2. Right click “My Computer” or “This PC” and select “Manage” > “Storage” > “Disk Management”.
  3. Right click on the external hard drive partition you want to format and select “Format”.
  4. Under “File System”, select “NTFS”.
  5. Check the “Quick Format” box and click “OK”.

Formatting the drive may take a few minutes to complete. Once done, the external hard drive will be formatted to NTFS (source).

Using Command Line

The command line can also be used to format an external hard drive to NTFS quickly. To do this:

  1. Open the Command Prompt as Administrator.
  2. Type “diskpart” and press Enter.
  3. Type “list disk” to list all disks.
  4. Select the external hard drive disk number by typing “select disk X” (replace X with disk number).
  5. Type “clean” to delete all partitions on the disk.
  6. Type “create partition primary” to create a primary partition.
  7. Type “format fs=ntfs quick” to format the partition to NTFS.

The external hard drive will now be formatted to NTFS (source). Be sure to replace the disk number with the actual external drive number.

How to Format to exFAT

There are two main ways to format a drive to exFAT in Windows – using Disk Management and using the command line.

To format to exFAT using Disk Management:

  1. Open Disk Management (press Windows key + R and type “diskmgmt.msc”)
  2. Right-click on the drive you want to format and select “Format”
  3. Under “File System” select “exFAT”
  4. Check “Quick Format” and click “Start”

To format using the command line:

  1. Open an elevated command prompt (search for cmd, right click and Run as Administrator)
  2. Type the command format /FS:exFAT X: where “X” is the letter of your drive
  3. Type “Y” and hit Enter to confirm

The format process may take several minutes depending on the drive size. Once completed, the drive will be formatted to exFAT.

Migrating Data Between File Systems

When migrating data between NTFS and exFAT file systems, you have two options:

Converting Drives Between NTFS and exFAT

To convert a drive from NTFS to exFAT without losing data, use a third-party partitioning tool like MiniTool Partition Wizard (source). This allows converting the file system without having to reformat the drive and lose data. Make sure to backup your data first just in case.

To convert a drive from exFAT to NTFS, you can use the native ‘convert’ command in Windows. Open an elevated Command Prompt and enter ‘convert C: /FS:NTFS’ where C: is the exFAT drive. This will convert exFAT to NTFS non-destructively.

Transferring Files Between NTFS and exFAT

When transferring files between NTFS and exFAT drives, keep in mind that NTFS supports larger individual file sizes (up to 16TB) compared to exFAT (up to 16GB). So very large files may become corrupted if transferred from NTFS to exFAT.

Also, NTFS has more robust file permissions and encryption capabilities. These can be lost if transferring files from NTFS to exFAT. So for maximum compatibility and security, it’s best to keep files in NTFS format if possible.

Other than those caveats, files can be freely transferred between NTFS and exFAT drives without issues using copy/paste or drag and drop.

Troubleshooting Tips

If you run into issues formatting or using drives with NTFS or exFAT, there are some troubleshooting steps you can take:

To fix formatting issues, open Disk Management in Windows and check for errors on the drive. You may need to delete and recreate the partition to properly format it. Some common errors include “Drive is not accessible” or “File system is raw.” You can use the Check Disk tool to scan for and fix errors.

If you accidentally formatted a drive and lost data, recovery software like EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard can help recover deleted files. Make sure not to save anything new to the drive before running data recovery, as this can overwrite your lost data.

For unsupported file system errors, you may need to convert between NTFS and exFAT using the Format tool in Windows. This will erase all data, so recover data first if needed. Sometimes chkdsk can fix unsupported file system errors as well.

In some cases, you may need to initialize the disk properly in Disk Management if it shows as “Unallocated.” Right-click the disk and choose Initialize Disk to get it working again.

If you get errors related to corrupted system files, sfc /scannow can check and replace damaged Windows files related to NTFS or exFAT. Booting into safe mode may also resolve some file system issues.

While exFAT has wider compatibility, it’s less reliable than NTFS. Frequent exFAT errors may indicate it’s better to use NTFS instead, if your devices allow it.

Final Recommendations

When deciding whether to format your external hard drive to NTFS or exFAT, consider the following recommendations:

Use NTFS if:

  • You need strong security features like file permissions, encryption, compression, etc.
  • You are formatting a boot drive or system partition.
  • You need to store very large files over 4GB in size.
  • You want to use advanced storage features like disk quotas or file auditing.

Use exFAT if:

  • You want maximum compatibility across different operating systems.
  • You frequently share external drives between Windows and macOS.
  • You don’t need advanced security features or storage management.
  • You want a lightweight file system without much overhead.

In general, NTFS is preferred for system drives and exFAT for removable storage. But assess your specific needs and usage – factors like OS compatibility, storage requirements, and security features will determine the best choice.

Some best practices when formatting external drives include:

  • Back up your data first before reformatting.
  • Check compatibility – some older devices may not support exFAT.
  • Pick the right allocation unit size based on storage needs.
  • Enable quick format if you are in a hurry.
  • Scan for errors to ensure integrity after formatting.

With the right file system, you can enjoy reliable external storage. Evaluate whether advanced NTFS features are necessary or exFAT’s compatibility works better.