What USB do external drives use?

External hard drives are extremely common and widely used for extra storage, backups, transferring files between computers, and more. But with different types of USB connections available, what USB connection do external hard drives use?

Quick Answer

Most external hard drives today use a USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 connection. USB 3.0 and 3.1 offer faster data transfer speeds compared to older USB 2.0, allowing you to quickly transfer files to and from the external drive. Some newer external drives may use USB 3.2 or USB-C connections for even faster speeds.

What is an External Hard Drive?

An external hard drive is simply a hard drive that is external to your computer and connected via a USB cable, rather than being installed internally. It provides additional storage space and allows you to backup files, transfer data between computers, expand the storage capacity of a laptop or desktop, and more.

External hard drives come in many different storage capacities, typically ranging from 500GB to 10TB for consumer models. They are widely used by consumers as well as businesses. Here are some of the main uses for external hard drives:

  • Backing up your computer’s internal hard drive
  • Extra storage space for large files like photos, videos, music, etc.
  • Expanding storage and transferring files for game consoles
  • Portable file and data transfer between computers
  • Time Machine or File History backups for Mac and Windows
  • Storing and accessing files from different computers
  • Collaborating and sharing large files
  • Archiving old files that you don’t need regularly

USB Connections for External Hard Drives

There are a few different USB connection types used for external hard drives:

USB 2.0

USB 2.0 is an older, slower USB connection that offers data transfer speeds up to 480 Mbps. It was the standard USB connection used on most external hard drives until recently.

USB 3.0

USB 3.0 represented a major step up from USB 2.0. It offers data transfer speeds up to 5 Gbps, over 10 times faster than USB 2.0. Most external hard drives today use USB 3.0.

USB 3.1

USB 3.1 is a newer iteration of USB 3.0 that offers data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbps. External hard drives with USB 3.1 connections provide the fastest speeds, but USB 3.0 is still more common.

USB 3.2

USB 3.2 is the newest USB connection type, supporting speeds up to 20 Gbps. Some newer high-performance external SSDs use USB 3.2 for extremely fast data transfer.


USB-C is a physical connector type that can support multiple USB connection versions, including USB 3.1 and USB 3.2. Some newer external drives use a USB-C port instead of the larger, rectangular USB-A ports.

What Connection do Most External Hard Drives Use?

The majority of external hard disk drives today use a USB 3.0 connection. It offers nearly universal compatibility and fast 5 Gbps speeds for quick file transfers. USB 3.0 strikes a great balance between speed, compatibility, and cost considerations.

Here are some examples of popular external hard drives with USB 3.0 connections:

  • WD My Passport Portable External Hard Drive
  • Seagate Backup Plus Slim Portable Drive
  • LaCie Rugged Mini External Hard Drive
  • Toshiba Canvio Basics Portable Hard Drive
  • Samsung T5 Portable SSD

While USB 3.1 and 3.2 offer faster speeds, most average consumers don’t need transfer rates above 5 Gbps. USB 3.0 is fast enough for common external hard drive uses like backing up files, expanding console storage, transferring media, and more.

Should You Look for USB 3.1 or 3.2?

For most users, a USB 3.0 external hard drive provides more than enough speed. But there are some cases where you may want to consider an external drive with a USB 3.1 or USB 3.2 connection:

  • If you regularly transfer very large files like 4K video – the faster transfer speeds will save you time
  • If you work with large graphics, video, or audio files for media production
  • To future-proof your purchase if you plan to keep the drive for 3-5 years
  • If you have a newer laptop or desktop with USB 3.1 or USB-C ports
  • For professional or high-performance applications like gaming, RAID arrays, or network attached storage

For average home or office use, an external hard disk drive with USB 3.0 is probably the best choice for value and compatibility. But there are some situations where paying extra for USB 3.1/3.2 speeds could be worthwhile.

USB 2.0 External Hard Drives

While USB 2.0 external hard drives are slower, you can still find some being sold, often at lower prices. There are a few reasons you may want to consider a USB 2.0 external drive:

  • If you only need occasional file transfers or backups – the slower speed may not matter as much
  • For compatibility with older computers that only have USB 2.0 ports
  • As external storage for game consoles that only support USB 2.0
  • If you find a great deal on an inexpensive, high-capacity USB 2.0 drive

In most cases USB 3.0 hard drives are affordable enough that they are worth the extra speed. But USB 2.0 drives can still make sense in some situations where transfer speed is not the priority.

USB OTG for External Storage on Phones/Tablets

Many Android phones and tablets support USB OTG (On-The-Go), allowing you to connect USB flash drives or even external hard drives. This requires a USB OTG adapter cable, with a micro USB or USB-C connector on one end to plug into your device, and a standard USB female port on the other.

Most USB OTG adapters are USB 2.0 only, limiting transfer speeds. But some newer adapters support USB 3.0 connections. With a USB OTG adapter and app like NexDisk, you can access files on an external drive via your Android device.

Final Thoughts

USB 3.0 is the most common connection found on external hard disk drives today. It offers nearly universal compatibility and fast transfer speeds up to 5 Gbps.

While USB 3.1 and USB 3.2 are faster, USB 3.0 is fast enough for many common external hard drive uses. The average user doesn’t need to spend extra for those newer connections. But they can provide benefits for large file transfers and high performance setups.

Consider how you plan to use your external hard drive – if you just need extra storage space and occasional file transfers, a USB 3.0 drive provides the best value. But if speed is essential to your workflow, choose a high-performance USB 3.1 or USB 3.2 drive.


Why do external hard drives use USB?

External hard drives use USB connections because USB ports are standard ports found on virtually any computer. The ubiquitous nature of USB allows external hard drives to have universal connectivity with Windows PCs, Macs, laptops, and even some mobile devices using USB OTG adapters.

Do all external hard drives use the same USB?

No, external hard drives can use different types of USB connections. The most common are USB 3.0, USB 3.1, and USB-C. Older external drives may use the slower USB 2.0 standard. The type of USB connection determines the maximum data transfer speed.

What’s the difference between USB 3.0 and 3.1?

USB 3.0 supports maximum data transfer speeds up to 5 Gbps, while USB 3.1 is faster at up to 10 Gbps. In practice, USB 3.0 is fast enough for most external hard drive uses, but USB 3.1 is beneficial for very large file transfers.

Should I get USB 3.0 or USB-C?

Either will work, as USB-C is just the physical connector type. You’ll want to look for an external hard drive that specifically supports high speed USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 connections. A USB-C connector with USB 3.1 Gen 2 supports the fastest speeds.

Is USB 2.0 fast enough for an external hard drive?

USB 2.0 is usable but slow for an external drive, with maximum speeds of just 480 Mbps. For only a little more money, an external hard drive with USB 3.0 is over 10 times faster and well worth it for most users.

USB Version Speed
USB 2.0 480 Mbps
USB 3.0 5 Gbps
USB 3.1 10 Gbps
USB 3.2 20 Gbps


USB 3.0 is the standard external hard drive connection, with USB 3.1 growing in popularity for newer high-speed drives. While USB 2.0 is older and slower, it can still be useful for more casual external storage needs. Make sure to consider the interface and speed capabilities when choosing an external hard drive based on your specific needs.

Leave a Comment