What is the best partition format for Mac and Windows?

Quick Answer

The best partition format for compatibility between Mac and Windows is exFAT. exFAT allows a drive to be read and written to on both Windows and macOS.

What is a Partition?

A partition divides a physical storage device, like a hard drive or SSD, into logical sections. This allows for multiple operating systems and file systems to exist on the same disk.

Partitions show up as separate drives when you attach a storage device to your computer. For example, you may have a 1TB hard drive that is split into two 500GB partitions, which would show up as two separate 500GB drives.

Common Partition Formats

There are several common partition formats used by Windows and Mac:


NTFS (NT File System) is the default file system for Windows operating systems. It is optimized for performance and security features like encryption and permissions.

NTFS can only be read by macOS, not written to. So it is not ideal for cross-platform compatibility.


APFS (Apple File System) is the modern file system used by macOS 10.13 and later. It includes features like fast metadata operations, copy-on-write technology, encryption, and crash protection.

APFS drives can only be read by Windows, not written to. So like NTFS, it has limited cross-platform compatibility.


exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) was introduced in 2006 and is optimized for flash drives and external storage devices. It is supported for both read and write operations on Windows and macOS.

This makes exFAT the best option for external storage drives that will be used with both operating systems. The downside is that exFAT lacks some more advanced features like permissions and encryption.


FAT32 (File Allocation Table) is an older file system that has good cross-platform compatibility with both Windows and macOS. However, it has limitations including a maximum individual file size of 4GB and a maximum partition size of 32GB in Windows and 128GB in macOS.

So FAT32 is mainly useful for smaller external storage drives and flash drives. It is not ideal for larger external hard drives or system drives.

What is the Best Format for External Hard Drives?

For external hard drives and solid state drives, the best format for cross-compatibility between Windows and Mac is exFAT.

Here’s why exFAT is ideal for large external storage drives:

  • It allows the drive to be read and written on both operating systems.
  • There are no file size or partition size limits like with FAT32.
  • It supports modern large capacity hard drives and SSDs.
  • The performance is reasonably good on both Windows and Mac.

The only downside to exFAT is that it lacks some of the more advanced features like file permissions, encryption, and reliability mechanisms. But for simple external storage, it’s the most hassle-free and flexible choice.

What is the Best Format for USB Flash Drives?

For small USB flash drives, the best format is FAT32.

Here are reasons why FAT32 works well for flash drives:

  • It has excellent cross-platform compatibility between Mac, Windows, Linux, game consoles, media players, and more.
  • Flash drives are typically lower capacity and fit within the FAT32 file and partition size limits.
  • The performance drawbacks of FAT32 are less noticeable on flash media vs. external hard drives.
  • FAT32 supports hot plugging to immediately use a flash drive between different devices.

Unless you specifically need to store files over 4GB on your flash drive, FAT32 is typically the ideal format. exFAT can also work if you need larger file or partition support.

What is the Best Format for System Drives?

For system drives and boot partitions, it’s best to use the native format for each operating system:

  • For Windows: NTFS is the best format. It is optimized for performance on Windows and includes helpful features like file permissions, encryption, disk quotas, and more.
  • For macOS: APFS is the best format. It is designed specifically for macOS 10.13 and newer. APFS includes optimizations like fast metadata, copy-on-write, and enhanced encryption options.

Trying to use a cross-platform format like exFAT or FAT32 for your system/boot drive can result in subpar performance or instability issues. It’s best to stick with the native file system each OS prefers.

How to Format a Drive on Windows

To format a drive on Windows:

  1. Open File Explorer and right-click on the drive you want to format.
  2. Select “Format…”
  3. Under “File System” select the desired format: exFAT, NTFS, or FAT32.
  4. Give the drive a name under “Volume Label” if desired.
  5. Check “Quick Format” to format faster. This skips scanning for bad sectors.
  6. Click “Start” then confirm to begin formatting.

Formatting will erase all existing data on the drive, so be sure to back up your files first!

How to Format a Drive on Mac

To format a drive on macOS:

  1. Connect the drive to your Mac if it isn’t already.
  2. Open Disk Utility. This can be found under Applications > Utilities.
  3. Select the drive you want to format in the left sidebar.
  4. Click “Erase” along the top menu bar.
  5. Give the drive a name and select the desired format: APFS, exFAT, or MS-DOS (FAT32).
  6. Click “Erase” to begin formatting.

Again, this will erase all data so make sure anything important on the drive is backed up!

How to Format a Drive for Both Mac and PC

To format a drive for compatibility with both Mac and Windows:

  1. Connect the drive to your Mac or Windows PC.
  2. Open Disk Utility on a Mac or File Explorer on Windows.
  3. Select the drive and choose to format it.
  4. Pick exFAT as the format type. This works for both operating systems.
  5. Give the drive a name if desired.
  6. Click erase/format to confirm.

Now the drive will have the exFAT format and work seamlessly between macOS and Windows!

Tips for Formatting External Drives

Follow these tips when formatting external drives:

  • Always backup important data before formatting.
  • Use exFAT for most external hard drives and SSDs.
  • Use FAT32 for smaller flash drives and memory cards.
  • Use the native format (NTFS or APFS) for system/boot drives.
  • Quick format to skip disk scans if the drive is newly purchased.
  • Regularly reformat your external drives for optimal performance.


The best partition format for cross-platform compatibility is exFAT. It has good support for large capacity drives and works nicely between Windows and Mac.

For system/boot drives, it’s best to use the native format – NTFS for Windows and APFS for newer Macs.

FAT32 is ideal for smaller flash drives due to its universal support across devices.

Reformatting an external drive is simple on both Windows and Mac. Just remember to always backup your data first! Properly formatting for your needs will give you the best performance and cross-compatibility.