What should a memory card be formatted to?

When it comes to formatting memory cards, there are a few key factors to consider: the device you’re using the card with, the card’s capacity, and the file system. Proper formatting helps ensure maximum performance and stability when using the memory card.

Quick Answer

For most consumer devices like cameras, phones, and tablets, memory cards should be formatted using the FAT32 file system. FAT32 works across operating systems and allows support for larger capacity cards up to 32GB. For cards 64GB and larger, exFAT is recommended as it removes the 32GB limit while retaining FAT32’s cross-platform compatibility. Specific devices may also recommend or require a certain file system, so check your device’s manual as well.

What is Formatting a Memory Card?

Formatting a memory card wipes all data on the card and restructures it with a new file system. This process erases any existing photos, videos, files, and other data stored on the card. Formatting essentially resets the card to a blank, ready-to-use state. It’s an important maintenance task for keeping memory cards in optimal condition.

Why Format a Memory Card?

There are several key reasons to format a memory card:

  • Resolve performance issues – Formatting fixes problems like slow transfer speeds, write errors, or difficulty accessing stored files.
  • Prepare card for first use – New memory cards need to be formatted before initial use to set up the proper file system.
  • Erase data completely – Formatting scrubs a card clean of all user data for security purposes.
  • Fix filesystem errors – Corrupted filesystem structures are repaired during a format.
  • Organize card space – Any fragmented data is consolidated during the format process.

When Should You Format a Card?

In general, memory cards should be formatted under the following circumstances:

  • Brand new card before first use
  • Card being used in a new device for the first time
  • Noticed performance decreases like slow transfer rates
  • Card has developed filesystem errors
  • Unable to write new data to the card
  • Need to permanently erase all data on the card
  • To periodically optimize a heavily used card

File Systems for Memory Cards

The most common file systems used to format memory cards are:

  • FAT32 – Compatible with all major OS; max individual file size of 4GB
  • exFAT – Compatible with newer OS; no max file size limit
  • NTFS – Used by Windows; not compatible with macOS/Linux by default
  • HFS+ – Used by macOS; not compatible with Windows/Linux by default
  • ext4 – Used by Linux; not compatible with Windows/macOS by default


FAT32 (File Allocation Table 32) is the recommended format for memory cards up to 32GB. Key advantages of FAT32:

  • Compatible with all common consumer devices and major operating systems – Windows, Mac, Linux, game consoles, cameras, etc.
  • Supports memory cards up to 32GB in capacity
  • Enables transfer of files up to 4GB in size
  • Simpler file structure improves compatibility across devices

The main drawbacks of FAT32 are the 4GB per file limit and 32GB card limit. Therefore, it’s not ideal for cards larger than 32GB or storing very large files.


exFAT (Extended File Allocation Table) removes FAT32’s file size and capacity limits. Key advantages of exFAT:

  • Compatible with newer operating systems – Windows, macOS, Linux
  • Supports very large capacity memory cards above 32GB
  • No limit on individual file sizes
  • Faster at writing very large files compared to FAT32

The main drawback is exFAT is not quite as universally compatible with older devices. But it’s still recommended for cards larger than 32GB due to the lack of restrictions.


NTFS (New Technology File System) is the default format for Windows hard drives and OS partitions. Key features:

  • Designed specifically for use with Windows
  • Supports huge individual file sizes up to 16TB
  • Enhanced security features like file permissions and encryption

NTFS is not optimal for memory cards since it has limited compatibility with non-Windows devices. It’s best suited for Windows-only workflows.


HFS+ (Hierarchical File System Plus) is the standard file system for Apple Mac devices. Key features:

  • Developed specifically for macOS
  • Supports enormous individual file sizes up to 8EB
  • Journaling capability for improved data integrity
  • Powerful permissions system for security

Like NTFS, HFS+ has limited cross-platform compatibility. It works seamlessly with Macs but should be avoided for memory cards used across different devices.


ext4 (Fourth Extended File System) is the most widely used file system in Linux. Key features:

  • Included as default filesystem in Linux distributions
  • Stable and reliable for Linux systems
  • Supports huge individual file and volume sizes
  • Fast performance for Linux environments

Because ext4 is designed for Linux, it has limited compatibility with Windows and macOS. It’s not an optimal choice for portable memory cards.

Formatting Memory Cards in Windows

Memory cards are formatted on Windows using the FAT32 or exFAT file systems. Here are the steps to format a card on Windows:

  1. Insert your memory card into the computer via a card reader or slot.
  2. Open File Explorer and right-click on the memory card drive.
  3. Select “Format…” from the pop-up menu.
  4. Under “File system” select FAT32 or exFAT.
  5. Check the “Quick Format” box to format faster.
  6. Click “Start” to begin formatting.
  7. Wait for the process to finish. This can take several minutes depending on the card.
  8. Close the format window when finished.
  9. The card is now formatted and ready to use.

By default, Windows selects the NTFS file system for formatting. Make sure to manually select FAT32 or exFAT instead before starting.

Format Memory Cards on Windows 10

The process is the same as above for Windows 10. To recap:

  1. Insert memory card.
  2. Right-click and select Format.
  3. Choose FAT32 or exFAT as file system.
  4. Check Quick Format box.
  5. Click Start.
  6. Wait for format to complete.

Format SD Card on Windows 7

SD cards also follow the same formatting process on Windows 7:

  1. Insert SD card into computer.
  2. Right-click and choose Format.
  3. Pick FAT32 or exFAT filesystem.
  4. Enable Quick Format option.
  5. Click Start to begin formatting.
  6. Wait for process to finish.

Formatting Memory Cards on Mac

To format memory cards on Mac OS, use the FAT32 or exFAT formats. Here are the steps:

  1. Connect the memory card to your Mac.
  2. Open Finder and select the card on the left sidebar.
  3. Click Erase at the top.
  4. Provide a name for the card.
  5. Select MS-DOS (FAT) or ExFAT format.
  6. Click Erase to start formatting.
  7. Wait for the card to finish erasing.
  8. The card is now formatted for Mac.

By default, Mac will try to format with its HFS+ file system. Make sure to choose MS-DOS or ExFAT instead when erasing the card.

Format SD Card on Mac

SD cards follow the same steps for formatting on Mac:

  1. Insert the SD card into your Mac.
  2. Locate the SD card under Finder.
  3. Click Erase.
  4. Enter a name for the card.
  5. Select MS-DOS or ExFAT format.
  6. Click Erase to begin formatting.
  7. Allow process to complete.

Format USB Flash Drive on Mac

To format a USB flash drive on Mac:

  1. Plug the flash drive into your Mac.
  2. Find the drive under Finder.
  3. Select Erase from the toolbar.
  4. Give the drive a name.
  5. Choose MS-DOS or ExFAT format.
  6. Click Erase to start formatting.
  7. Wait for completion.

Formatting Memory Cards on Linux

Linux offers a few different tools to format memory cards. Here are the steps for each:

Using GParted

  1. Install GParted if not already present.
  2. Insert your memory card and launch GParted.
  3. Select your card from the upper right corner.
  4. Choose Device > Create Partition Table.
  5. On the Partition tab, select Type as FAT16 or FAT32.
  6. Click Apply to format the card.

Using MKFS Command

  1. Insert your memory card into the system.
  2. Open the terminal and run lsblk to identify the card.
  3. Use mkfs.fat -F 32 /dev/XXX replacing XXX with your device name.
  4. This will format the card to FAT32.
  5. Use mkfs.exfat /dev/XXX instead for exFAT.

Using GNOME Disks

  1. Insert your memory card into your computer.
  2. Open the Disks utility.
  3. Select your memory card from the sidebar.
  4. Click on the three dot icon and select Format Disk.
  5. Choose FAT32 or exFAT from the dropdown.
  6. Click Format to begin formatting your card.

How to Recover Data After Formatting

If you accidentally formatted your memory card and lost important photos, files, or other data, there are options to try recovering it:

  • Disk recovery software – Programs like EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard can restore formatted data.
  • Data recovery services – Experts disassemble storage and attempt raw data recovery for a fee.
  • Photo/file recovery apps – Some free tools like Recuva are made specifically for retrieving deleted media.
  • Undelete utilities – Built-in commands like photorec can rescue files in some cases.

The best recovery results happen if you avoid writing new data to the card after formatting. This minimizes overwriting the lost files. Act quickly and use read-only recovery tools when possible.


Properly formatting your memory card is crucial for optimal performance and stability. Most consumer devices work best with cards formatted to the FAT32 or exFAT file systems. FAT32 supports up to 32GB cards while exFAT accommodates larger capacities without restrictions. Specific devices may recommend other formats, so consult your device manual as well. When in doubt, FAT32 or exFAT provide the most universal compatibility across Windows, Mac, Linux, cameras, game consoles, and other gadgets.