Windows – Is it possible to put a full installation of Windows 10 on a USB flash drive

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I have a laptop in which the internal drive bay has been destroyed, but the rest of the laptop works fine. I was wondering if it's possible to do a full installation of Windows 10 on a USB flash drive.

I'm aware of Windows To Go, but I'm not sure if it's what I want. I don't need a "portable" installation of Windows, I intend for the flash drive to be permanently connected to the computer. I would prefer for the system to function as normally as possible.

If I can't figure out how to do this, I'll probably just install Linux onto the flash drive instead.

Best Answer

The official "Windows To Go" feature from Microsoft is only for Windows Enterprise or Education and requires a certified USB flash drive (which are expensive).

The other alternative requires:

  • The Rufus freeware
  • A Windows ISO

I describe below the procedure using Rufus. An alternative product is FlashBoot, that you may try if the installation as done by Rufus has problems. A write-up of the process using FlashBoot can be found in the ghacks article How to create a running copy of Windows on USB Flash Drives.

Create and use the USB with Rufus as follows:

  • In Rufus, select the USB device you want to install Windows on in the Device box

  • Click Select and point at the Windows ISO to install

  • Click on the "Image option" box and select "Windows To Go"

  • Click "Partition Scheme" and select "MBR"

  • Click "Target System" and select BIOS or UEFI.

  • Click the "Start" button for Rufus to format the drive and install Windows

  • Wait for the process to complete and then safely remove the USB drive from the PC

  • Leave the USB connected to the computer

  • Restart the computer and enter BIOS

  • Set the PC to boot from the portable USB by changing the boot order

  • Save BIOS changes and check that the boot from the USB does succeed

Notes:

  • Starting with Windows version 1809 the USB needs to be formatted as type NTFS and not FAT32, since the file is larger than 4 GB
  • Booting from "Windows To Go" or the Rufus-generated boot USB will require answering some dialogs, so is never as quick as from hard disk.

For more information see How (and Why) to Run Portable Versions of Windows.