What Is a Flash Drive?

This portable data storage device is like a tiny hard drive without the moving parts

A flash drive is a small, ultra-portable storage device which, unlike an optical drive or a traditional hard drive, has no moving parts.

Flash drives connect to computers and other devices via a built-in USB Type-A or USB-C plug, making one a kind of combination USB device and cable.

Flash drives are often referred to as pen drives, thumb drives, or jump drives. The terms USB drive and solid-state drive (SSD) are also sometimes used but most of the time those refer to larger, not-so-mobile USB-based storage devices like external hard drives.

USB Flash drive being inserted into a Mac Book Pro
kyoshino / Getty Images

Using a Flash Drive

To use a flash drive, just insert it into a free USB port on the computer.

On most computers, you'll be alerted that the flash drive was inserted and the contents of the drive will appear on the screen, similar to how other drives on your computer appear when you browse for files.

You can also use a flash drive with an Android phone or connect one to an iPhone or iPad.

Exactly what happens when you use your flash drive depends on your version of Windows or other operating system, and how you have your computer configured.

Available Flash Drive Sizes

Most flash drives have a storage capacity from 8 GB to 64 GB. Smaller and larger flash drives are also available, but they're harder to find.

One of the first flash drives was just 8 MB in size. The largest one we're aware of is a USB 3.0 flash drive with a 2 TB (2048 GB) capacity from Kingston.

Learn how to choose the right flash drive if you're not sure what kind you need.

More About Flash Drives

Flash drives can be written and rewritten to an almost unlimited number of times, similar to hard drives.

They've completely replaced floppy drives for portable storage and, considering how large and inexpensive they've become, have even nearly replaced CD, DVD, and BD disc for data storage purposes.

  • What is the difference between a PhotoStick and a flash drive?

    A flash drive is a storage device with only one port, typically a USB-C. Although a PhotoStick and USB flash drive look almost identical, the PhotoStick has two ports: one is a USB for connecting to a computer, and the other connects to smartphones. Also, the PhotoStick automatically copies photos and videos, but it isn't a good choice for general storage.

  • What is a flash drive used for?

    A flash drive is handy for file storage, backups, archiving files, or transferring just about any type of file between computers. Flash drives are inexpensive, lightweight, and simple to operate.

  • What is a Type-C flash drive?

    A Type-C flash drive refers to USB-C, which is the current port standard on flash drives. The charging jack on the USB-C flash drive is smaller than the one on the USB-A flash drive that was widely used in the past, and it provides a much higher data transfer rate.

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