Formatting a Hard Drive in Windows Tutorial

A visual, step-by-step guide to formatting drives in Windows

Formatting a hard drive is the best way to erase all the information on a drive and is also something you must do to a new hard drive before Windows will let you store information on it. It might seem complicated - granted, formatting a drive isn't something anyone does very often - but Windows makes it really easy.

This tutorial will walk you through the entire process of formatting a hard drive in Windows that you've already been using. You can also use this tutorial to format a brand new hard drive that you've just installed but that scenario requires an additional step which I'll call out when we get to that point.

Note: I created this step by step tutorial in addition to my original how-to called How To Format a Hard Drive in Windows. If you've formatted drives before and don't need all this detail, those instructions will probably do you fine. Otherwise, this tutorial should clear up any confusion you might have had reading through those more summarized instructions.

The time it takes to format a hard drive in Windows depends almost entirely on the size of the hard drive you're formatting. A small drive may take only several seconds while a very large drive could take an hour or so.

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Open Disk Management

A screenshot of opening Disk Management in Windows 10
Power User Menu (Windows 10).

The first thing you need to do is open Disk Management, the tool that's used to manage drives in Windows. Opening Disk Management can be done a number of ways depending on your version of Windows, but the easiest way is to type diskmgmt.msc in the Run dialog box or the Start menu. 

Note: If you have problems opening Disk Management this way, you can also do so from the Control Panel. See How To Access Disk Management if you need help.

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Locate the Drive You Want to Format

Screenshot of the Disk Management utility in Windows 10
Disk Management (Windows 10).

Once Disk Management opens, which might take several seconds, look for the drive you want to format from the list at the top. There's a lot of information in Disk Management so if you can't see everything, you might want to maximize the window.

Make sure to look for the amount of storage on the drive as well as the drive name. For example, if it says Music for the drive name and it has 2 GB of hard drive space, then you've likely selected a small flash drive full of music.

Feel free to open the drive to make sure it's what you want to format, if that would make you confident that you're going to format the right device.

Important: If you don't see the drive listed on the top or an Initialize Disk windows appears, it probably means that the hard drive is new and has not yet been partitioned. Partitioning is something that must be done before a hard drive is formatted. See How To Partition a Hard Drive for instructions and then come back to this step to continue the formatting process.

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Choose to Format the Drive

A screenshot of clicking Format in Disk Management
Disk Management Menu (Windows 10).

Now that you've found the drive you want to format, right-click on it and choose Format.... The Format X: window will appear, with X of course being whatever drive letter is assigned to the drive right now.

Important: Now is as good a time as any to remind you that you really, really, really need to make sure that this is the right drive. You certainly don't want to format the wrong hard drive:

  • Existing Drive: If you're formatting a drive that you've been using and that has data on it, double-check in Windows Explorer that the drive letter you're choosing here in Disk Management is the same as the one you see in Windows Explorer that has the information on it that you want to erase. You may be very sure already but do me a favor and check again. This isn't a place to make a mistake because you're in a hurry or are overly sure of yourself.
  • New Drive: If you're formatting a new drive, a great way to tell that it's the right one is to look at the File System column in the top part of Disk Management. Your existing drives will show file systems of NTFS or FAT32 but a new, unformatted drive will show RAW instead.

Note: Another noteworthy thing to mention here: you can not format your C drive, or whatever drive Windows is installed on, from within Windows. In fact, the Format... option isn't even enabled for the drive with Windows on it. See How To Format C for instructions on formatting the C drive.

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Give a Name to the Drive

A screenshot of renaming a hard drive in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Options (Windows 10).

The first of several formatting details which we'll cover over the next several steps is the volume label, which is essentially a name given to the hard drive.

In the Volume label: textbox, enter whatever name you'd like to give to the drive. If the drive had a previous name and that makes sense for you, by all means keep it. Windows will suggest the volume label of New Volume to a previously unformatted drive but feel free to change it.

In my example, I previously used a name that was generic - Files, but since I plan to store just document files no this drive, I'm renaming it to Documents so I know what's on it the next time I plug it in.

Note: In case you're wondering, no, the drive letter is not assigned during the format. Drive letters are assigned during the Windows partitioning process but can easily be changed after the format is complete. See How To Change Drive Letters after the format process is done if you'd like to do that.

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Choose NTFS for the File System

A screenshot of choosing NTFS when formatting a hard drive in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Options (Windows 10).

Next up is the file system choice. In the File system: textbox, choose NTFS.

NTFS is the most recent file system available and is almost always the best choice. Only choose FAT32 (FAT - which is actually FAT16 - isn't available unless the drive is 2 GB or smaller) if you are specifically told to do so by a program's instructions that you're planning on using on the drive. This is not common.

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Choose Default for the Allocation Unit Size

A screenshot of choosing the allocation unit size of a hard drive format in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Options (Windows 10).

In the Allocation unit size: textbox, choose Default. The best allocation size based on the size of the hard drive will be chosen.

It's not at all common to set a custom allocation unit size when formatting a hard drive in Windows.

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Choose to Perform a Standard Format

A screenshot of renaming a hard drive in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Options (Windows 10).

Next is the Perform a quick format checkbox. Windows will check this box by default, suggesting that you do a "quick format" but I recommend that you uncheck this box so a "standard format" is performed.

In a standard format, each individual "part" of the hard drive, called a sector, is checked for errors and overwritten with a zero - a sometimes painfully slow process. This ensures that the hard drive is physically working as expected, that each sector is a reliable place to store data, and that existing data is unrecoverable.

In a quick format, this bad sector search and basic data sanitization is skipped entirely and Windows assumes that the hard drive is free of errors. A quick format is very fast.

You of course can do whatever you like - either method will get the drive formatted. However, especially for older and brand new drives, I'd prefer to take my time and do the error checking right now instead of letting my important data do the testing for me later on. The data sanitization aspect of a full format is nice too if you're planning on selling or disposing of this drive.

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Choose to Disable File and Folder Compression

A screenshot of renaming a hard drive in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Options (Windows 10).

The final format option is the Enable file and folder compression setting that is unchecked by default, which I recommend sticking with.

The file and folder compression feature allows you to choose files and/or folders to be compressed and decompressed on the fly, potentially offering a considerable savings on hard drive space. The downside here is that performance can be equally effected, making your day to day Windows use much slower that it would be without compression enabled.

File and folder compression has little use in today's world of very large and very inexpensive hard drives. In all but the rarest occasions, a modern computer with a large hard drive is better off utilizing all the processing power it can and skipping on the hard drive space savings.

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Review Format Settings and Click OK

A screenshot of renaming a hard drive in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Options (Windows 10).

Review the settings you've made in the last several steps and then click OK.

As a reminder, here's what you should see:

  • Volume label: [label of your choosing]
  • File system: NTFS
  • Allocation unit size: Default
  • Perform a quick format: unchecked
  • Enable file and folder compression: unchecked

Look back at whatever previous steps you need to if you're wondering why these are the best options.

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Click OK to Loss of Data Warning

A screenshot of the confirmation prompt to format a hard drive in Windows 10
Disk Management Format Confirmation (Windows 10).

Windows is usually pretty good about warning you before you might do something damaging, and a hard drive format is no exception.

Click OK to the warning message about formatting the drive.

Warning: Just as the warning says, all the information on this drive will be erased if you click OK. You can't cancel the format process halfway through and expect to have half of your data back. As soon as this starts, there's no going back. There's no reason for this to be scary but I do want you to understand the finality of a format.

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Wait for the Format to Complete

A screenshot of Disk Management formatting in Windows 10
Disk Management Formatting Progress (Windows 10).

The hard drive format has begun!

You can check the progress by watching the Formatting: xx% indicator under the Status column in the top part of Disk Management or in the graphical representation of your hard drive in the bottom section.

If you chose a quick format, your hard drive should only take several seconds to format. If you chose the standard format, which I suggested, the time it takes the drive to format will depend almost completely on the size of the drive. A small drive will take a small amount of time to format and a very large drive will take a very long time to format.

Your hard drive's speed, as well as your overall computer's speed, play some part but the size is the biggest variable.

In the next step we'll look at whether the format completed as planned.

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Confirm That the Format Completes Successfully

A screenshot of Disk Management in Windows 10
Disk Management Formatted Drive (Windows 10).

Disk Management in Windows won't flash a big "Your Format is Complete!" message, so after the format percentage indicator reaches 100%, wait a few seconds and then check again under Status and make sure it's listed as Healthy like your other drives.

Note: You may notice that now that the format is complete, the volume label has changed to what you set it as (Video in my case) and the % Free is listed at nearly 100%. There's a little overhead involved so don't worry that the drive isn't completely empty.

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Use Your Newly Formatted Hard Drive

A screenshot of a newly formatted hard drive in Windows 10
Newly Formatted Drive (Windows 10).

That's it! Your hard drive has been formatted and it's ready for use in Windows. You can use the new drive however you want - back up files, store music and videos, etc.

If you'd like to change the drive letter assigned to this drive, now is the best time to do that. See How To Change a Drive Letter for help.

Important: Assuming you chose to quick-format this hard drive, which I advised against in a previous step, please remember that the information on the hard drive isn't truly erased, it's just hidden from Windows and other operating systems. This is probably a perfectly acceptable situation if you're planning on using the drive again yourself after the format.

However, if you're formatting a hard drive because you're planning on removing it to sell, recycle, give away, etc., follow this tutorial again, choosing a full format, or see How To Wipe a Hard Drive for some other, arguably better, methods of completely erasing a drive.