Do you need to format an external hard drive without losing data? Maybe your hard drive is a disorganized mess, and you want to start from scratch, or perhaps it doesn’t work well with your computer due to file system corruption.
No worries because we’ve got your back! This guide is your ultimate road map to reformatting your external hard drive (be it a Seagate, a Western Digital, or any other brand) without losing your precious files.
Why You Might Be Required to Format Your External Hard Drive
Formatting is a quick & easy solution to many hard drive-related issues. Here are some of the most commonly encountered situations where formatting is required:
- ⚠️ External hard drive errors: You know those annoying pop-ups that keep telling you there’s an error with your external HDD, such as the “You need to format the disk in drive X: before you can use it” message? These are your HDD’s way of saying it’s time to take action. And often, reformatting your external hard drive without losing data is the best way to get rid of error messages.
- 🥩 Lack of a file system (raw external hard drive): When your computer says your hard drive is “raw,” it means it can’t recognize its file system (because the file system is unsupported or because there’s no file system to begin with). By formatting the disk without losing data, you can create a file system that your operating system can recognize to make the drive usable.
- 🍎 Incompatible file system: Operating systems, such as Windows 10, Windows 11, macOS, and various flavors of Linux speak different languages when communicating with storage devices. For example, Windows is fluent in NTFS, while macOS is a pro at APFS and HFS. If you’re a Windows user and won’t use your external hard drive with any other computer, then the NTFS file system is a good choice. But if you plan to use it with many different computers, then a universally understood file system like FAT32 or exFAT is a better choice. Formatting using the method described in this article lets you change the drive format without losing data in no time.
- 🦠 Viruses or malware infection: Viruses or malware can make your files inaccessible or even harm your computer. If your external hard drive’s caught a nasty digital bug, sometimes the only cure is a clean sweep. By formatting your external hard drive without losing data, you can give it a clean start and eliminate all viruses and other kinds of malware in the process.
- 💻 Reusing an old hard drive for a different purpose: Your old hard drive can be reused for a different purpose in no time, and you don’t even need to manually go through its contents to check if there’s anything you might still need. By following the instructions provided in the next section of this article, you can create a complete backup of your old hard drive, ensuring every precious file is saved. Then, you’re free to format the hard drive without losing data and repurpose it for whatever you decide.
Can I Reformat an External Hard Drive Without Losing Data?
Yes, you can reformat an external hard drive without losing data, but the key lies in your approach and goals. What many people don’t realize is that there are two main types of formatting:
- Quick formatting: This type of formatting is like when you sweep all clutter under the rug. The clutter is still there—it’s just not visible. If you want to save as much time as possible, then you can use this to your advantage with the help of hard drive data recovery software, which lets you choose which files you want to pull back out from under the rug. Alternatively, data recovery software can save your data when you apply the Quick format option by mistake.
- Full formatting: When you use this type of formatting, your external hard drive undergoes a thorough clean-up, with all files becoming overwritten and impossible to recover. In fact, even the best data recovery services can’t recover data after a full format. Needless to say, full formatting isn’t a good choice if your goal is to recover data afterward.
While Quick formatting can be used to format a disk without losing data, the safest and most reliable method is to create a backup before you dive into the process. This way, your data will be moved to a safe location first, and you’ll be 100% able to recover files from a formatted hard drive,
The last approach you can take is to convert one file system to another without formatting the hard drive, which is like changing the language of a book without rewriting it. This is a quick and safe method, but it’s not always possible to use it—it depends on the file system your external hard drive is currently using and the file system you want to switch to. For example, Windows users can convert a drive from FAT32 to NTFS without losing any data using a built-in command.
Here’s a table that provides a quick overview of the available options:
|Available Options||Pros and Cons||Solutions|
|I want to back up data first, then format the hard drive without losing data.||➕ Safe
➖ Takes time
|Back up your files before formatting and then format your external hard drive using File Explorer or Disk Management. Finally, recover files from your backup.|
|I want to format the hard drive and then recover the data.||➕ Quick
➖ Not safe
|Format your external hard drive using File Explorer or Disk Management and then use data recovery software to recover important files.|
|I need to format an external hard drive from FAT32 to NTFS without losing data.||➕ Quick
➖ Not always available
|Use the convert command to change the external hard drive format without losing data.|
How to Format an External Hard Drive Without Losing Data
Now that you understand your options, we can finally dive into the meat of the matter: how to format a hard drive without losing data. Let’s get to it!
Step 1. Back Up Your Files Before Formatting
The first step is to create a complete byte-to-byte backup of your external hard drive. This backup will be as large as your external hard drive, and it will contain every single file and piece of data currently stored on your drive—including data that has been recently deleted but not yet overwritten.
Creating such a comprehensive backup ensures that nothing gets left behind, and that’s important because you will soon use the backup to recover files after formatting.
There are many different tools that can help you create a byte-to-byte backup of your external hard drive. We recommend Disk Drill because you can also use it to recover data from an external hard drive backup.
To back up your files before formatting using Disk Drill:
- Download Disk Drill from its official website and install it on your Windows PC. You can download Disk Drill for free and use its byte-to-byte backup feature without any limitations.
- Launch Disk Drill and select the Drive Backup feature from the left pane.
- Choose the external hard drive you want to backup and click the “Byte-to-byte Backup” button. Disk Drill supports a wide range of file systems, including FAT16, FAT32, exFAT, NTFS, NTFS5, HFS, HFS+, APFS, EXT2/EXT3/EXT4, and even RAW disks.
- Select a location for the backup image and confirm. Keep in mind that the backup image will be as large as your external hard drive.
- Give Disk Drill all the time it needs to create the backup image.
Step 2. Format an External Hard Drive Using Suitable Method
Once you’ve backed up your external hard drive, it’s time to perform the actual formatting.
Using File Explorer
File Explorer is the default file manager in Windows 10 and Windows 11, and it makes it possible to format any external hard drive that has a drive letter assigned to it in a few simple steps:
- Launch File Explorer and select “This PC” from the left pane.
- Right-click your external hard drive.
- Choose the “Format” option.
- Remember to check the “Quick Format” box.
- Select the desired file system and click “Start” to begin.
Using Disk Management
Raw external hard drives and those that for some reason don’t have a drive letter assigned to them are not displayed in File Explorer. Such drives need to be formatted using the Disk Management tool. Like this:
- Press the Win + X keys and select “Disk Management” from the menu.
- Right-click your external hard drive and choose the “Format” option.
- Make sure the “Perform a quick format” option is checked.
- Choose your desired file system and click “OK.”
- Wait for the formatting process to finish.
Using CMD Convert Command
The Convert command in Windows can change the file system of a volume from FAT or FAT32 to NTFS without formatting the volume or losing data. Here’s how to use it:
- Press the Windows + X keys and select “Terminal (Admin)” from the menu.
- Type the following command to convert a FAT or FAT32 drive to NTFS: convert x: /fs:ntfs (replace ‘x:’ with the letter of your external hard drive)
- Press Enter to start the conversion process.
Step 3. Recover Files from Your Backup
Now that your external hard drive is formatted, it’s time to put the byte-to-byte backup we created earlier to good use. We’ll be using Disk Drill, the same tool that has helped us back up our external hard drive into an image.
With Disk Drill, it’s possible to easily mount the image as a virtual drive and then scan it for all existing and deleted files (the tool can recognize and recover over 350 different file types).
You can then filter out the scan results (or search for specific files using the search bar) and preview individual files to quickly find exactly what you’re looking for and recover it to the formatted external hard drive. Here’s how it works:
- Start Disk Drill on your Windows PC. If you haven’t installed it yet, you can download it from its official website.
- Click on the “Attach disk image” button and locate the backup image you’ve created to reformat an external hard drive without losing data.
- Select the newly mounted virtual drive and click the “Search for lost data” button to scan it. Disk Drill will start scanning your backup image for both deleted and existing files.
- Click the “Review found items” button to see a list of found files. You can preview these files before recovery, filter them by type, or use the search bar to locate something specific. Since we’re interested only in the files we’ve backed up, our focus is the Existing folder..
- Click the checkbox next to each file you want to recover to your freshly formatted external hard drive. Better yet, click the top checkbox to select all files at once.
- Click the “Recover” button and select a destination for the recovered files. Make sure to select your external hard drive.
- Open File Explorer and check if the selected files have been successfully recovered.
Congratulations! You’ve successfully managed to recover data from your external hard drive backup, thus completing the formatting process without losing a single important file.
The takeaway is that you don’t have to lose your precious data when reformatting your external hard drive. As long as you choose the right approach based on your specific needs and follow our step-by-step instructions, you should be able to navigate your next reformatting journey with confidence.