How to Encrypt a USB Drive on Windows 10

Protect your USB drive from unauthorized access

by: - Last updated on: June 15th, 2021
Key Takeaways
  • USB Drives provide easy access to flash storage and come in handy when you want to take backups, transfer files between devices, or operating system images.
  • Like any other storage device, though, USB drives are also susceptible to security risks. And since you sometimes carry sensitive information on them, it is important to safeguard them from unauthorized access.
  • Encrypting your USB flash drive is the best way to prevent its unsolicited access and protect its data. If you are on Windows 10, the process of encrypting a USB drive is pretty straightforward and involves just a few steps.

Flash drives, or thumb drives, are portable devices that provide easy access to flash storage. Commonly used to take backups, transfer files between devices, and install operating system images, these drives facilitate large storage media on a tiny and compact form factor.

encrypting a USB drive on Windows 10

IMAGE: Anete Lusina (Pexels)

However, like any other storage device, USB drives are also susceptible to security risks. As a result, carrying sensitive information on a thumb drive increases the risk of your data ending up on someone else’s computer.

To this end, a good practice when storing sensitive information on your flash drives is to encrypt the drive to limit access to its data. That way, even if an unauthorized person gets hold of your drive, they would not be able to access its files unless they decrypt the drive with its password.

If you are on Windows 10, encrypting your USB drive is pretty straightforward. Here is a guide to help you in the process and secure your USB drive with encryption.

How to Encrypt a USB Drive on Windows 10

With Windows 10, depending on which Windows 10 edition you have on your PC, you have two ways to encrypt a USB drive.

If you are running Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise, or Education, you can use BitLocker To Go — Microsoft’s native disk encryption utility — to encrypt your flash drive. However, if your device is on Windows 10 Home, you can use a third-party disk encryption utility.

1. Encrypting a USB Drive on Windows 10 Using BitLocker To Go

BitLocker is Microsoft’s disk encryption utility that comes built-in on different Windows versions, including Windows 10. It uses the AES encryption algorithm with configurable key lengths of 128 or 256 bits to protect your data.

BitLocker To Go is a version of BitLocker drive encryption for removable storage devices that you can use to encrypt USB flash drives, SD cards, and external drives (HDD and SSD) formatted in NTFS, FAT16, FAT32, or exFAT file systems.

Follow the steps below to encrypt your USB drive with BitLocker To Go:

  1. Connect the USB drive you want to encrypt.
  2. Click Start and search for the Control Panel.
  3. In the Control Panel, click System and Security and select BitLocker Drive Encryption.
  4. On the BitLocker Drive Encryption window, select your removable drive under Removable data drives -BitLocker To Go.
  5. Click Turn on BitLocker next to the selected drive.
  6. Tick the checkbox for Use a password to unlock the drive and create an encryption password. [Make sure to choose a strong password.]
  7.  Click Next.
  8. On the next screen, select an option for how you want to save the recovery key from Save to your Microsoft account, Save to a file, or Print the recovery key.
  9. Hit Next.
  10. Choose how much of your drive you want to encrypt: you can opt to encrypt only the used disk space or encrypt the entire drive.
  11. Select an encryption mode between New encryption mode and Compatible mode. If you plan on using the drive on older versions of Windows, choose the Compatible mode. Else, select New encryption mode.
  12. Click Next.
  13. Finally, tap on Start encrypting to initiate the encryption process on your drive.

Depending on how much data you have on your drive and the encryption mode you chose, the encryption process can take time accordingly. So sit back and wait for the process to complete.

Once the drive is encrypted, remove it from your computer.

2. Encrypting a USB Drive on Windows 10 Using VeraCrypt

If you are running Windows 10 Home on your PC, you have to resort to using third-party disk encrypting utilities to encrypt your USB drive. In this regard, there are various options out there that promise to provide strong, on-the-fly encryption (OTFE). However, the one we will use in this guide is VeraCrypt.

Veracrypt is a freeware drive encryption utility available for all major platforms, including Windows. It is essentially a fork of TrueCrypt, which was another encryption software that ceased development in 2014. When it comes to encryption, the software largely uses the AES encryption algorithm alongside a few cascaded algorithms, such as AES-Twofish, AES-Twofish-Serpent, and more.

Below are the steps on how to encrypt your USB drive using VeraCrypt:

  1. Head over to VeraCrypt website and download the software on your Windows 10 machine.
  2. Double-click on the .exe file to start the installer, and follow the on-screen instructions to install VeraCrypt.
  3. Plug in the USB drive you want to encrypt.
  4. Launch VeraCrypt and click on the Create Volume button.
  5. On the VeraCrypt Volume Creation Wizard, select the radio button that reads Encrypt a non-system partition/drive.
  6. Hit Next.
  7. On the next screen, select your USB device and click OK.
  8. In the Volume Creation Mode screen, select a creation mode. If your drive is empty, choose Create encrypted volume and format it. Else, select Encrypt partition in place.
  9. Click Next.
  10. On the next screen, create a strong password for your drive and hit Next.
  11. In the Collecting Random Data screen, move your mouse randomly to increase the strength of the encryption keys.
  12. Click Next.

Again, depending on how much data is stored on your USB drive, it may take a while for the encryption process to complete. Once it is complete, remove the drive from your computer.

Protecting USB Drives With Encryption

Encrypting your USB flash drive protects its data from unauthorized access and makes it unreadable. So when you plug in your encrypted drive on a PC, you need its decryption password — set at the time of its encryption— to decrypt it and unlock access to its content.

Since password plays a crucial role in the entire process, make sure you keep a backup of the recovery keys for your encrypted USB drive. Failure to provide the correct password at the time of decryption will prevent you from decrypting the drive and accessing its content.

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