Format an External Drive for Mac & PC Compatibility

This post will teach you how to format an external hard drive or a USB flash disk so it can be used on both Mac and Windows PC.

If your hard drive is only working with Windows or Mac, then its file system is probably NTFS (Windows only) or APFS (Mac only). To make it compatible with both Mac and Windows PC, we need to convert the file system to FAT or ExFAT, which is accessible from both operating systems.

You may see a file system called FAT32, it’s just a variant of FAT. Actually, FAT32 is the only version of FAT that is still widely used.

Important note: formatting a drive deletes permanently all data stored in it. You should make a copy of your drive’s data on your computer before proceeding.

This walkthrough works with any external/internal hard drive, flash drive, USB drive, or SSD,… so you can apply the same process to any other storage device that is accepted by Mac & PC.

How to format a Drive for Mac and Windows PC

To make a drive compatible with both Mac and PC, we need to format it to either FAT or ExFAT. Before deciding which file system you should use, let me explain the differences between these two.

  • FAT is the most widely compatible file system. It even works with video game consoles, Android USB expansions, and many other devices.
  • ExFAT also works with all operating systems, but it may not work on older versions of Mac OS X, Windows, some Android devices and media players. The PC needs to run Windows XP and later, and the Mac needs to run Mac OS X 10.6.5 and later.
  • FAT only supports files up to 4GB in size and your hard drive must be 8TB or less. If you have ever seen a dialog box saying “Your file is too large for the destination”, then FAT is what causes it.
  • ExFAT has no limitations on file sizes or hard drive sizes.
  • When it comes to writing and reading data, ExFAT is faster.

Most of you would choose ExFAT as it outperforms FAT in most aspects.

Here’s how to format your hard drive to FAT or ExFAT on Mac.

Step 1: Open Disk Utility on your Mac. You can quickly search for it in Spotlight Search or find it within the /Applications/Utilities folder.

Step 2: Connect your external hard drive to the Mac. If you Mac recognize the hard drive, its name will appear on the left sidebar under External.

Step 3: Click the drive name, then click Erase. Click the pulldown menu alongside Format and select MS-DOS (FAT32) or ExFAT.

Format Drives on Mac

Step 4: Click the Erase button to start formatting the drive for Mac & PC.

After formatting, your drive will be compatible to work with both Mac and Windows PC.

The above process is performed on Mac. If you want to do it on Windows, here’s how:

Step 1: Plug in the drive and open Windows File Explorer.

Step 2: Go to This PC (aka Computer or My Computer).

Format Drive for Mac & Windows on Windows

Step 3: Find the drive and right-click on it, select Format…

Step 4: Click the drop-down menu beneath File system, and select your file system of choice (FAT or ExFAT).

Step 5: There is a checkbox for Quick Format under Format options. If you uncheck it, the computer performs a normal format – files are removed and the drive is scanned for bad sectors. If it’s checked, only the files are removed and no scan is performed.

Step 6: Click Start then OK to confirm that you want to format the drive.

Read & Write NTFS hard drive on Mac

NTFS is the default file system for drives on Windows. You’re able to mount and read NTFS formatted drives on a Mac. But if you want to write to them, you need to either use third-party software or enable NTFS writing on the Mac.

If you need to use the external drive on the Mac and the PC just for a couple of times, you can go with that. Otherwise, you should choose FAT or ExFAT for long-term use.


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