In this how-to guide we’ll run through how to create a bootable USB flash drive with Windows 10 installation files on it. This will allow you to perform a Windows installation on any computer using the created USB stick.
If you want to reinstall Windows and start afresh with your PC, this guide tells you how to do it using a USB Windows 10 installer.
Guide Last Updated: July 2021
Why Is This Useful and When Would You Use It?
If your computer doesn’t have an optical drive, then installing programs from a bootable flash drive USB stick is your main alternative.
When would you need to use this method? Whenever you want to install Windows 10 to a computer via a USB flash drive, particularly if you already have a licence key.
If you don’t have an existing licence key that you can use, new Windows 10 licences can be purchased with the option of getting a USB stick shipped to you – which is essentially the same as the bootable USB we’ll be creating in this tutorial.
When building a new PC the hard drive you install will not include an installation of Windows. You’ll need to install Windows (or another operating system) before you can start using your newly built PC.
The usual method is to do install Windows is from a bootable DVD or USB flash drive.
“Bootable” simply means that a computer with no operating system installed can use the USB flash drive as it’s boot disk (the first program that runs when ‘boot’ your computer – which is just another way of saying ‘turn it on’) to load the installation files. You can also force a computer with an operating systems installed to boot from the USB flash drive by changing your boot order settings through BIOS or UEFI (not covered in this guide).
Since many new PCs don’t include an optical drive (DVD/Blu-ray) we’ll focus on the USB flash drive method here.
What You’ll Need
1. The “Windows 10 Media Creation Tool” from Microsoft (free)
This Windows 10 Installation Media Tool has been created by Microsoft to streamline the bootable USB flash drive creation process, which will allow you to install Windows 10 to any computer via a USB stick.
You can get this tool from here, but it’s worth making sure you have all the necessary items ready first. We’ve listed these below.
The tool has a simple wizard interface and will download the Windows installation files and can copy them onto a USB Flash device of your choice.
In previous versions of Windows, this process was something that had to be done with a 3rd party program. (Note: we’ll actually still use a 3rd party program to create the bootable USB flash drive, as we’ve had numerous reports of the Windows Media Creation Tool throwing up errors when trying to create the actual USB drive)
2. A USB Flash drive
You’ll need an empty USB flash drive to put the Windows 10 boot installation onto. This needs to have enough storage capacity to fit the Windows installation files on it – current recommendations (from the installer tool) are to use a drive at least 8GB in size.
If you don’t already have one handy these can be picked up quite cheaply these days.
Make sure you’re willing to part with any files on the flash drive before you run the Media Creation Tool, as this will wipe any files on the drive so that it can be used as a dedicated drive purely for the Windows 10 boot installation.
You can always delete the Windows 10 installation files off the flash drive later though.
3. Access to a separate PC that already has Windows installed
To run the above “Media Creation Tool” and create your bootable Windows 10 flash drive, you’ll need access to a Windows PC.
If you’re just upgrading or reinstalling Windows you could follow this process on your own PC before upgrading to Windows 10. Otherwise, use a laptop or friend’s PC for this process.
4. A suitable internet connection
Part of the process involves downloading the Windows 10 installation files from Microsoft which is then installed on your selected USB flash drive. This is a fairly large download size of several Gigabytes so make sure your internet plan has enough download quota.
How To Steps
Download the “Media Creation Tool” from Microsoft.
Go to https://www.microsoft.com/en-au/software-download/windows10 and click the “Download tool now” button.
Alternatively, try this direct link to download the tool:
The file downloaded is an .exe file which you can then run.
Run the tool.
Choose the option to “Create installation media (USB flash drive, DVD, or ISO file) for another PC“.
On the next screen, the checkbox “Use the recommended options for this PC” should be ticked by default and you can accept these options if you like by simply pressing “Next”.
Alternatively, you may choose to un-check the tick box which will allow you to customize from the options as explained below.
Select your language.
This is the language of the installation media. Note that years ago we had reports of the English (United Kingdom) option throwing errors during the media creation process with a generic “Something Happened” error, so it may be worth trying the English (United States) option if you see such errors.
Select the Edition of Windows.
- Windows 10 – Standard installation complete with all standard Windows features (e.g. Media player, Apps)
Note: Previously the tool used to have options for other versions of Windows 10 (Home Single Language, N, Professional), however the Media Creation Tool was simplified in later updates. With the update, information for both the Home or Pro editions are installed to the bootable media you create. You will be asked during Windows Setup which edition to install, or otherwise if you enter your product key during Windows Setup, it will automatically determine which edition of Windows to install.
Select the architecture which you plan on using for your system.
The selection you make here will dictate which options you have when running the Windows installation later.
Possible options here include:
- 32-bit (x86)
- 64-bit (x64)
You’ll almost always want x64 or if unsure, try checking the “Use recommended options for this PC” tickbox. You could chose “Both” but your download size will be larger.
Choose “ISO file”. NOT “USB flash drive”, which can be buggy and lead to wasted time.
While the goal of this guide is to create a USB flash drive, what we have found from numerous reports (and personal experience) is that using the Windows USB Creation Tool to do this often results in an error. [2021 Update: Testing this on a recent Windows 10 reinstallation and it just resulted in a blue screen with the ‘USB flash drive’ option. Our advice is to therefore still use the “ISO file” option – you’ll save yourself from having to repeat the long and painful download process if errors occur]
If you select ‘USB flash drive’ in this step and it gives you an error later on – like a blue screen when you try to install Windows – you have no other choice but to go back and try the whole process again… including waiting for the lengthy download of Windows. The Windows files that you may have already downloaded on previous attempts at this step doesn’t save anywhere other than the USB flash drive and therefore it’s a painful exercise to re-try and wait for Windows to download again if the USB flash drive has issues.
To avoid this hassle and save much frustration, we’re going to use the Windows Media Creation Tool simply to download the ISO file, and then we’ll use another third party tool to create the USB drive.
If this process happens to fail, you can then easily try again without having to start from scratch downloading Windows.
Hit ‘Next’ and choose a location to store the downloaded ISO file. You can just choose a temporary spot such as local file path on your computer.
We’ll be loading the ISO file onto the USB drive in a later step, so just make a note of where you’ve placed the ISO file.
Wait for the download to complete.
The Media Creation Tool will now download the required installation files from Microsoft. The total size will depend on the options selected but at the time of writing is nearly 8 GB in size.
Once the download completes you will have an ISO file which contains all the information needed for your windows install.
Click “Finish” on the final screen.
The Windows Media Creation tool will give you the option to burn the ISO file to a DVD.
Since we’re looking to create a USB drive instead, simply click ‘Finish’ on this final screen.
Keep a record of the file path/location of the downloaded ISO file which is also displayed on this final screen, as you’ll need to point to this file to burn to the bootable USB you’re going to create.
We checked the size of the ISO file that was created and it was just over 4GB.
Rufus is a 3rd party tool which can create a bootable USB flash drive from the ISO, and can be downloaded here: http://rufus.akeo.ie/
It’s a small download, there’s no installation required, and it’s very easy to use. Simply run the .exe file after downloading.
The Rufus tool has much better compatibility than the Windows 10 Media Creation tool, which is why we’re using Rufus instead of choosing the “USB flash drive” option in Step 4 above.
Use Rufus to create a USB flash drive.
Run Rufus by clicking on the .exe file that you’ve downloaded from the Rufus website.
Make sure the USB flash drive that you wish to format into your Bootable Windows USB is plugged in to your computer.
Warning: Be 100% sure to select the correct drive here as the chosen flash drive will have all of it’s existing data completely destroyed and overwritten during this step. Make sure you check the drive letter of your flash drive before clicking next. We recommend to have no other removable drives connected to the computer before continuing, just to be safe.
7A. Select Your ISO File
After you’ve opened Rufus, it will have defaulted to some settings (we’ll look at these to confirm they are appropriate in a moment). You will first want to point to the ISO file you just downloaded by following these steps, as the settings in Rufus may change after you select your ISO file. Below shows the default screen before selecting any file.
Under the Boot Selection option, click “Select” and navigate to the ISO file that was just created in Step 5 using the Windows Media Creation Tool.
You can also choose a name for the USB stick if you want. We renamed our to “Windows”. We recommend not to include any spaces or special characters in the filename (sometimes these kind of characters can cause issues, and it’s better just to play it safe by not including them).
7B. Choose a partition scheme and target filesystem type
Note: These options in Rufus can automatically change to suit the ISO file which is selected. This is why you must select the Windows 10 ISO file in step 7A. above BEFORE choosing your partition scheme, so that your selected settings aren’t overwritten once you choose the ISO file.
After selecting the ISO, Rufus automatically detects that it is a Windows installation file.
Under Image option, you have 2 options:
- Standard Windows installation
- Windows To Go
Select the default option “Standard Windows Installation“.
Under Partition scheme you have 2 options in the current version of Rufus:
This is a very important choice as setting the wrong option can prevent the USB from being bootable on your system and even lead to installing Windows in a non-ideal way.
Most users will want to choose “GPT“. Refer to the end of this article for in-depth information about these settings.
GPT will also automatically select the Target system as “UEFI (non CSM)”. You can leave this as the default setting.
7C. Choose a file system
Here, most users will want to select “FAT32“. Refer to the end of this article for in-depth information about these settings.
Cluster size is typically not important, we suggest leaving it at the default option.
7D. Double check all the above settings with
Seriously, do it. As previously mentioned, if you change the ISO it will reset the settings fields to default so double check everything is as expected. Our recommend partition scheme is “GPT” with a Target system “UEFI (non CSM)” and recommended filesystem is “FAT32” with the default cluster size.
7E. Format the Drive
That’s it! Click “Start” to begin formatting the USB flash drive, and ‘OK’ to continue at the next screen. This may take some time (ours took around 10 minutes), so sit back and wait until the drive is finished formatting.
Step 8 – Using Your New Windows 10 Bootable USB Drive
This actions in this step depend on the BIOS / UEFI on your motherboard, as these will determine how your PC handles a flash drive upon startup. You’ll need to start with your PC turned off, and turn it on with the new Windows 10 Bootable USB plugged in.
Some motherboards will try to boot from just about any device plugged in if it can’t find anything on the hard disks. Other motherboards will need their boot order changed to enable booting from a USB flash drive. You may also need to disable a “Safeboot” option to allow you to boot to other devices.
8A. Plug your newly created bootable USB flash drive into your new PC and turn the computer on. If it boots to a Windows 10 installation screen you’re ready to proceed with your Windows 10 installation by following the prompts! If not, next step.
8B. If your PC did not boot to a Windows installation screen it means that the computer most likely was not instructed to use the USB as a boot source. You may need to change the boot order of your motherboard in order to make it look at the contents of the USB drive after you power it on.
The exact steps here depend on your motherboard model. Generally speaking, you can temporarily change the boot order for a single boot cycle by pressing the F12 (or sometimes Delete or Esc) key right after turning the computer on (or restarting it, if you’ve already turned it on but it hasn’t booted to the USB Windows 10 drive). Press the power button to turn the PC on and repeatedly press the F12 key until you get a boot order screen. Choose the USB drive from the list and continue – you should boot into the Windows 10 installation.
This F12 method is temporary and will need to be repeated each time you’d like to boot from USB. If you’re having trouble finding how to change the boot order of your motherboard, refer to your motherboard’s manual or post a comment below – we’ll help where we can!
8C. If you cannot select the USB drive then you may need to disable secure boot.
Again, the exact steps of the process depends on your motherboard model. You can typically access the UEFI by repeatedly pressing a key during the boot cycle. The key is usually F1, F2, Esc or Del so either check your motherboard manual or use trial and error. Once in the UEFI look for the Secure Boot option and disable it. This can usually be found under the Security or Boot menus of your UEFI. Once changed, save your settings (usually F10) and repeat step 8B above to boot to your USB.
Once you’ve managed to boot into the Windows 10 Installation wizard you can follow the on-screen steps to install Windows 10 on your PC!
If you’ve followed our guide successfully, you would have created a bootable USB flash drive with Windows 10 installation files on it.
To do this, we used the Windows Media Creation Tool to download the latest Windows 10 ISO installation file. Although the Windows Media Creation Tool has an option for creating a bootable USB, we did not use this due to a high number compatibility clash reports with different USB flash drives. Instead, we walked you through how to use the 3rd party Rufus tool for burning the Windows 10 ISO file to your USB flash drive.
We’ve also run through some quick instructions on how to use your bootable USB flash drive by changing the boot order of your BIOS/UEFI.
Hopefully this works for you, if not please leave us a comment and we’ll try to help out wherever we can!
The In-Depth Look at Rufus Options
Here we go into more detail about the different options presented in Rufus, which require a little understanding of BIOS/UEFI and file systems. This is for those who are interested in learning a little more about these systems only, you do not necessarily need to know this to create your bootable Windows 10 USB.
What is BIOS, UEFI, UEFI-CSM?
In a very simple way, think of the BIOS or the UEFI as the software (or firmware) that your motherboard uses to communicate between the different pieces of hardware in your computer. BIOS was the old method (8+ years ago) and UEFI is the modern method. UEFI-CSM is a legacy/compatibility mode built into most UEFI motherboards which allows you to boot to BIOS-style devices/operating systems while still using some UEFI features. We’ve had some issues booting to Windows 10 USBs when trying to use UEFI-CSM so typically recommend avoiding it unless you know what you’re doing.
If your motherboard supports UEFI (most PCs newer than 8 years old) and you’re trying to install Windows 10, there’s a good chance you’ll want to be booting using the modern UEFI mode – unless you have some other older operating systems installed along side (dual booting).
What about GPT and MBR?
These are the different partition schemes you can use on storage devices. They basically dictate how the boot record and data partitions are organised. MBR was the older scheme and GPT is the newer scheme. GPT has a whole heap of improvements around maximum size and number of partitions etc. None of these features are really relevant to creating a bootable Windows 10 USB but we recommend choosing GPT as it’s the most compatible with newer hardware. If you’re installing Windows 10, we expect you have fairly recent hardware.
File System Type in Rufus
FAT32 is the older filesystem here and technically more compatible. Not all UEFI motherboards support NTFS at this level (this is not related to supporting NTFS inside of Windows!) but some of the most modern motherboards do.
The main drawback to FAT32 is that it has an individual file size limit of 4GB. Most Windows 10 ISOs do not contain files over 4GB so this is usually fine however in some cases the install files may breach the limit and NTFS will be necessary. In those cases you may choose NTFS as the file system and Rufus will try to provide the drivers to the UEFI to allow NTFS to work.
Since FAT32 is more compatible it’s the safest choice here. If you run into filesize issues, go with NTFS.