How To Format a Hard Drive

You Must Format a Drive Before Using it in Windows 10, 8, 7, Vista, or XP

Photo of a hard disc drive platter
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You need to format a hard drive if you plan on using it in Windows.

To format a hard drive means to delete any information on the drive and to set up a file system so your operating system can read data from, and write data to, the drive.

As complicated as that might sound, it's not really difficult to format a hard drive in any version of Windows. This ability is a very basic function that all operating systems have and Windows makes it pretty easy.

Important: If the hard drive you want to format has never been used, or was just wiped clean, it must first be partitioned. See How To Partition a Hard Drive in Windows for instructions. Once partitioned, return to this page for help formatting the drive.

Time Required: The time it takes to format a hard drive in Windows depends almost entirely on the drive's size, but your computer's overall speed plays a part too.

Follow the easy steps below to format a hard drive in Windows 10, Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, or Windows XP:

How To Format a Hard Drive in Windows

Optional Walkthrough: If you'd prefer a screenshot-based tutorial, skip the instructions below and try my Step by Step Guide to Formatting a Hard Drive in Windows instead!

  1. Open Disk Management, the hard drive manager included with all versions of Windows.

    Note: In Windows 10 and Windows 8, the Power User Menu gives you the quickest access to Disk Management. You can also open Disk Management from the Command Prompt in any version of Windows but opening it via Computer Management is probably easier unless you're really quick with commands.

    See What Version of Windows Do I Have? if you're not sure which of those several versions of Windows is installed on your computer.
     
  1. With Disk Management now open, locate the drive you want to format from the list at the top.

    Important: Don't see the drive you want to format listed or does an Initialize Disk or Initialize and Convert Disk Wizard window appear? If so, it means you still need to partition the drive. See How To Partition a Hard Drive in Windows and then return here to continue.

    Note: Formatting the C drive, or whatever letter happens to identify the drive that Windows is installed on, can not be done from Disk Management... or from anywhere else in Windows. See How To Format C for instructions on how to format your primary drive.
     
  1. Once located, right-click or tap-and-hold on the drive and choose Format.... A "Format [drive letter]:" window should appear.

    Warning: Obviously it's very, very important to choose the correct drive to format. Once started, you can't stop a format without causing problems. So...
     
    • If you're formatting a drive that has data on it, double-check that it's the correct drive by looking at the drive letter and then checking in File Explorer or Windows Explorer (depending on your version of Windows) that it is, in fact, the correct drive.
       
    • If you're formatting a new drive, the drive letter assigned should be unfamiliar to you and the File System will probably be listed as RAW.
       
  2. In the Volume label: textbox, either give a name to the drive or leave the name as is. If this is a new drive, Windows will assign the volume label New Volume.

    I recommend giving a name to the drive so it's easier to identify in the future. For example, if you're planning on using this drive to store movies, name the volume Movies.
     
  3. For File system: choose NTFS unless you have a specific need to choose another file system.

    NTFS is always the best file system option to use in Windows unless you have a specific need to choose FAT32. Other FAT file systems are only available as options on drives 2 GB and smaller.
     
  1. Set the Allocation unit size: set to Default unless there's a specific need to customize it. There are very few reasons to change this.
     
  2. In Windows 10, 8, and 7, the Perform a quick format option is checked by default but I recommend unchecking the box so a "full" format is done.

    Yes, a quick format will format the hard drive considerably faster than a standard format, but the benefits usually outweigh the short-term cost (your time) of the full format.

    Windows 10, 8, 7, Vista: In a standard format, each sector on the hard drive is checked for errors (great for new and older drives) and a one-pass write-zero is also performed (great for previously used drives). A quick format skips the bad sector search and basic data sanitization.

    Windows XP: In a standard format, each sector is checked for errors. The quick format skips this check. Automatic data wiping during the the format process isn't available in Windows XP.
     
  3. The Enable file and folder compression option is unchecked by default and I recommend keeping it that way.

    Note: File and folder compression can be enabled to save on disk space and you're welcome to enable it if you think you may benefit from it. However, most drives are so large today that the tradeoff between the saved space and lower drive performance probably aren't worth it.
     
  4. Tap or click OK at the bottom of the window.
     
  5. Tap or click OK to the "Formatting this volume will erase all data on it. Back up any data you want to to keep before formatting. Do you want to continue?" message.
     
  6. The hard drive format will begin. You can keep track of the drive format by watching the Formatting: xx% progress in the Status field.

    Note: Formatting a hard drive in Windows could take a very long time if the drive is large and/or slow. A small 2 GB hard drive might only take several seconds to format while a 2 TB drive could take considerably longer depending on the speed of the hard drive and the computer as a whole.
     
  7. The format is complete when the Status changes to Healthy, which will happen a few seconds after the format counter reaches 100%.

    Windows does not otherwise notify you that the drive format is complete.
     
  8. That's it! You've just formatted, or reformatted, your hard drive and you can now use the drive to store files, install programs, back up data... whatever you want.

    Note: If you created multiple partitions on this physical hard drive, you can now return to Step 3 and repeat these steps, formatting the additional drive(s).

Formatting Deletes Data... But Doesn't Always Erase It

When you format a drive in Windows, data may or may not truly be erased. Depending on your version of Windows, and the type of format, it's very possible the data is still there, hidden from Windows and other operating systems but still accessible in certain situations.

See How To Wipe a Hard Drive for instructions on truly removing all the information on a hard drive and my Wipe vs Shred vs Delete vs Erase: What's the Difference? for some helpful clarification.

If the hard drive you're reformatting won't ever need to be used again, you can skip the format and the wipe, and physically or magnetically destroy it instead. See How to Completely Erase a Hard Drive for more on these other methods.

More on Formatting Hard Drives in Windows

If you want to format your hard drive so you can install Windows again from scratch, please know that your hard drive will be automatically formatted as part of that process. See How to Clean Install Windows for more on that.

Not happy with the drive letter that Windows assigned during the partitioning process? You're welcome to change it at any time! See How to Change Drive Letters in Windows for instructions.

You can also format a hard drive via Command Prompt using the format command. See my Format Command: Examples, Switches, & More for details on how to do that.

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