How to Reformat an External Drive for Mac

If you just bought yourself a shiny new external drive and can’t get it to work on your Mac, it’s possible that the drive isn’t compatible with macOS. But unlike other electronic devices on the market, you can reformat the external drive to work with the operating system(s) of your choice. It’s easy to do on a Mac using Apple’s built-in Disk Utility, and here’s where we show you how.

What file format should I choose?

When it comes to reformatting an external hard drive, the biggest decision you’ll have to make is regarding the file format. You see, there is not one but many different file formats for you to choose from, providing various levels of compatibility between different operating systems. The file format you choose largely depends on what you’re going to do with the external drive and the operating system you use every day.


APFS is Apple’s choice of file format for Macs running macOS High Sierra or later. Introduced as a replacement for Mac OS Extended, the new file format offers improved efficiency and reliability, albeit at a hefty price: APFS is not compatible with Sierra Macs prior to High, and it also won’t work with Windows or Linux machines.

With a focus on speed and reliability, it’s no surprise that APFS is exclusively for SSDs and flash storage devices – if you have a standard external hard drive, you’ll have to choose another option.

Mac OS Extended

If you’re running macOS Sierra or an earlier version of macOS/Mac OS X, Mac OS Extended is the default file format. It will play fine with your Mac, but like APFS above, Mac OS Extended is not compatible with PCs running Windows or Linux.

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You can also choose Mac OS Extended (Encrypted) to protect the data on the drive with a password – a great security feature for those handling sensitive data and/or moving with an external drive .


FAT32 is the right choice for some, providing cross-platform compatibility between Mac, PC and Linux, ideal for those who run on different platforms on a daily basis. However, the old file system had one major flaw: it was limited to a maximum of 4GB, and it was also prone to disk failures.


ExFAT is an upgraded version of FAT32. Like its older sibling, ExFAT is compatible with Mac, PC, and Linux, but doesn’t have the same 4GB file limit. While it’s not as efficient as Apple’s APFS, the general support makes this the choice of most external hard drive users.


NTFS is the default file format for Windows PCs, and like Apple’s APFS and Mac OS Extended, it’s only compatible with Windows machines. That being said, there is no way to reformat to NTFS on a Mac (and why would you?) without using third-party software.

To clarify, we recommend staying away from NTFS if you’re looking to use your external hard drive on your Mac.

How to reformat an external drive on Mac

Thankfully, reformatting an external drive on a Mac is a relatively straightforward process — Apple even provides Macs with a built-in utility to do this. It should be noted that reformatting the drive will erase everything stored on the drive, so make sure you transfer important files before following the steps below.

  1. Connect your external drive to your Mac.
  2. Open Disk Utility. You can search for apps by going to Spotlight (Command + Space) or by going to Finder > Applications > Utilities.
  3. Select the external drive in the External drive subheading on the left side. If you’re using more than one drive, make sure it’s the one you want to reformat as the process is largely irreversible.
  4. When you’re ready, press the Delete button.
  5. Enter the name of the drive and select the format of your choice in the Format drop-down menu.
  6. Click Erase to reformat your drive – this shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, but can vary depending on the size of your memory and the type of drive you’re using. You’ll also be asked if you want to run First Aid on the drive before erasing – this is for people with damaged drives, so skip it if you want.
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You’re now ready to use your external drive on your Mac (along with Windows and Linux if you’ve used ExFAT!). For more on how to get the most out of your Mac and accessories, see How to use iPad as a second display on Mac and how to use a PS4 or Xbox One controller on Mac.

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