How to Wipe a Hard Drive or SSD: Format Drive to Erase All Data

Formatting your computer’s hard drive is an important step if you are dealing with it and want to erase all your personal data as well as if you want to completely erase your old Windows installation. We explain how to use the tools built into Windows to completely erase a PC or laptop drive.

Note that the process can vary depending on whether it’s your only hard drive and whether you have a spare PC. For example, you cannot format the hard drive that Windows is running on. To do this, you need to boot your PC from the Windows installation disc, USB flash drive, or another bootable drive.

How do I completely erase my hard drive?

When you format the drive, it frees up space for new files. But there are many different types of formats. Be careful with ‘Quick Format’ to keep all your data intact and make the drive empty. It’s just a quick way to erase the drive, which is great if you’re reusing it yourself, but not so good if you’re throwing away the disc or giving it to someone else.

In fact, if you are disposing or transferring it to someone else, you should securely delete the content to ensure that no personal information can be recovered.

Warning: Make sure you back up any photos, videos, music, and other documents from your drive before formatting. While deleted files can be recovered in some cases, it’s best to assume that no files will be accessible once you’ve used the techniques below.

The right way to format a hard drive or in Windows is as follows, but if you have an SSD, check the manufacturer’s website as there may be a specific tool available to format it.

Type diskmgmt.msc or Disk Management in the search box, or if you have Windows 10, press Win + X and then K.

It’s the easiest way to launch Disk Management, but you’ll also find it in the Control Panel if you search for ‘disk’ and select ‘Create and format hard disk partition’.

Disk Management is not as powerful as a standalone partition management tool like Paragon Hard Disk Manager, but it is still capable of formatting drives.

Right-click the drive you want to erase and click Format…

As you can see below, this will only affect the part (called partition) of the disk that you select. Sometimes one partition will use the entire disk, but there can be several partitions on one disk.

How to format a hard drive

Enter a name for the drive next to the Drive label and select the file system you want the drive to be formatted for. If it’s an internal hard drive, you’ll want to use NTFS. Leave the allocation size set to default. Uncheck ‘Do a quick format’ if you are removing the drive, otherwise the data won’t actually be erased.

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How to format a hard drive

Click OK and you’ll be asked if you’re sure you want to erase the drive, so confirm that you do and the drive will be formatted.

How to format a new hard drive?

When you install a new (additional) hard drive in your PC, you may wonder why it doesn’t appear in Windows. The reason is because it needs to be initialized and formatted. Again, you can do this in Disk Management.

When Disk Management loads, it will analyze all the drives on your computer and will prompt you to initialize any new disks it finds.

Disk initialization

You should choose GPT (GUID Partition Table) if your laptop or PC is modern and has a UEFI BIOS or your drive is 2TB or more.

If you don’t see a prompt, look in the list of drives and you should see a drive that says ‘Uninitialized’. Right click on it and select Initialize Disk.

Once done, right click on the Unallocated space created and select New Simple Volume…

Follow the instructions, select the amount of space you want to partition (in MB – 1024MB = 1GB) and the drive letter you want (one will be selected, but you can choose to change it if you want).

When you format the partition, our advice is the same as in the Quick Format section above.

If you choose a size for the partition that is less than the total capacity of the drive, say 500B on a 1TB drive, you will get some unallocated space on the drive that you can format by repeating the process you just completed.

Can I format a hard drive from the BIOS?

Many people ask how to format hard disk from BIOS. The short answer is you can’t.

If you need to format a disc and you can’t do it from within Windows, you can create a bootable CD, DVD, or USB drive and run a free third-party formatting tool.

One option is Darik’s Boot and Nuke (DBAN), which is free for personal use. This program will completely erase and format your hard disk, but does not support secure erasing of SSDs.

How to format a hard drive

DBAN is supposed to only be able to create bootable CD/DVD-R discs, but if you don’t have any blank discs or burners, there’s another solution in the form of a separate third-party program separate.

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Universal USB Installer will quickly and easily convert the DBAN ISO image you downloaded to run from a bootable USB. Just insert an empty USB flash drive, run the Universal USB Installer and follow the prompts.

You will be asked to scroll through and select the Linux Distribution you want to install onto the USB (in this case the latest DBAN version), followed by its location on your computer and the USB drive letter you want to install it to.

Once that information is complete, click create.

How to format a hard drive

To boot from this USB drive instead of your usual boot device (in most cases, this will be the hard drive), you will have to change some settings in the BIOS. If you are not sure how to access the BIOS menu, read our guide on how to enter the BIOS.

In the BIOS, navigate to the boot order setting and change the primary boot device to a USB drive (no need to plug it in to make this selection). After you have saved your settings and exited the BIOS, plug in the bootable USB, restart your computer.

How to format a hard drive

Your PC will automatically start the DBAN software, which will guide you through the hard drive erasing process, with options for different levels of data erasure.

It will treat the USB like another drive, so to avoid accidentally wiping it, remove it after you’ve booted into DBAN.

How to format a RAID drive?

If you have two or more disks configured as RAID, there are different ways to format these drives. Before you use any of them, make sure you back up any files you want to keep.

  • Use a software utility that came with your motherboard or RAID controller.
  • Enter the BIOS of the RAID controller (look for the message while starting the PC) and look for the option to format the drive(s) or reconfigure the RAID as individual disks (this will erase them all) .
  • Unplug the drive you want to format and connect it to another SATA port on your motherboard, which is not part of the RAID controller. Then follow the Windows Disk Management method below as the disk will not show up in Windows Explorer.

Can I quickly format my hard drive?

Yes, but don’t use this method if you want the data to be permanently deleted. Quick format does not delete the data, but instead only deletes the pointers to the file.

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This is the fastest but least secure way to format a hard drive. Open a File Explorer window (Win + E) then right-click the hard drive you want to erase. You cannot format the Windows installation drive for obvious reasons.

Select Format… from the menu and a new window will appear with several formatting options. Note: Windows 8 users will need to search for ‘This PC’.

Quick format hard drive

By default, Quick Format is selected, and you can choose the file system and allocation unit size, and change the drive label (drive name). Normally, you can leave all the settings as is and click the Start button. In less than a minute, your hard drive will be formatted.

Format options

You should choose NTFS as the file system for internal disks and EXFAT for large capacity removable drives – and make sure the Allocation Unit Size is set to ‘Default’‘.

How to resize partition

You can use Disk Management to extend or shrink a partition. Simply right-click one and select the appropriate option from the menu that appears. If shrink, the partition will be checked to see how much free space it contains.

Shrink partition

It’s a bit confusing because the numbers are displayed in MB instead of GB, but you can adjust the size to shrink and the ‘Total size after shrinking’ will be updated. You can’t shrink a partition beyond the point where the files are – you can first free up space by defragmenting the drive.

Conversely, you can only extend a partition if there is unused space on the drive. Otherwise, the option will be grayed out.

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