How To Completely Erase and Format Windows Drives

Most hard drives come “preformatted” and ready to use these days. But you occasionally might need to format one yourself.
For example, formatting typically removes most of the data on a drive, making it a quicker way to erase a large drive than simply deleting everything on it. The biggest reason for reformatting, though, is if you want to change the file system used on the drive to something else. Windows makes several file systems available to you—including FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS—and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. While you’ll typically use NTFS for internal drives on a Windows PC (and, in fact, you’re forced to for your system drive), choosing a file system matters more when you’re formatting an external USB drive.
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Note: Formatting using most format utilities does not technically erase your drive. Instead, it marks the space your data used as available for writing to. So while you could still recover data from drives that have been formatted using the technique we’re discussing here, it requires a special utility and some time. For practical purposes, you can consider the data gone when you format a drive. If, however, you need to securely erase the data from a drive—say you’re tossing the drive or giving it away—consider a third-party tool like Eraser or DBan.
Fortunately, Windows makes formatting drives pretty easy. You can format a drive—and perform other functions like creating and deleting partitions—using Windows’ Disk Management tool. But if formatting is all you want to do, there’s an easier way.
Open File Explorer to the “This PC” view so that you can see all your drives easily.
Right-click any drive in File Explorer, and then click the “Format” option.
The “Format” window offers a number of options:
  • Capacity: This box shows the capacity of the drive. The dropdown shows only the drive you selected, so there’s not much to do with this option other than make sure you’ve got the right drive selected. 
  • File system: Depending on the size of the drive you’re formatting, you’ll see a few options here, including FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS. If you’re formatting a drive over 32 GB, you won’t see the FAT32 option here, but we’ve got a guide to help you work around that if you need to.
  • Allocation unit size: The allocation unit size represents the maximum cluster size on a drive—the smallest units into which data are broken. We recommend leaving this value at its default of 4092 unless you have good reason to change it.
  • Restore device defaults: Use this button to change all the options in the “Format” window back to the default for whatever drive is selected.
  • Volume label: Type a name for the drive as it will appear in File Explorer. 
  • Quick format: The term formatting is used for different things.
    First it is used for low-level formatting of a hard disk. This includes taking the disk and dividing it into small units – the blocks, which can be accessed by the operating system. Nowadays the manufacturers configure the sector size (like 512 bytes or 4096 bytes) and low-level format the disk. Normally the user can’t low-level format a hard disk anymore.
    Second, formatting is used for high-level formatting of a hard disk. This means that the operating system is writing a file system structure to the disk. With good old FAT (File Allocation Table) for example, the system would write a boot sector to the first disk sector and an empty FAT to the following sectors. Empty in this case means that all entries in the File Allocation Table are marked as unused.
    High-level formatting might include scanning the disk for bad sectors (check if every sector can be read), and it might include writing zeroes to all data sectors on the disk.
    When you format a disk, Windows XP does a high level format and it writes a file system structure to the disk. When you say full format, then Windows XP also scans all sectors on the disk for bad sectors (see MSKB 302686). Since Windows Vista, a full format writes zeroes to all data sectors (see MSKB 941961). Accessing each sector on the disk takes much more time than the quick format, which only writes the blocks that contain the file system structure. So normally a quick format is what you want because it is much faster. But there are cases where you might want to do a full format.
    1. You might have a disk that you want to destroy or give away. If you just do a quick format, then the file data is still on the disk, only the file system structure (file names and information where the files are stored on the disk) are deleted. With specialized programs someone might try to “undelete” your files – the data is still there, the task of the program is to guess/know which data block belongs to which file.
    2. You might not be sure if the hard disk is in a good state. Then a full format is a good idea because it accesses every sector, so if any sector is bad, this will be recognized. With a quick format only a few sectors will be written to. With bad luck you end up with a successful quick format, and when you want to write data to the disk later, it fails. Then you will probably be wishing you had done a full format that would have checked the entire disk right at the beginning. Of course you can always run a ‘chkdsk /r’ later to scan a disk for bad sectors.
    You asked about risks and consistency. I wrote about the risks above. Regarding consistency there is no difference. With every format the operating system writes the file system structure, and this structure is the starting point for every file system access. It does not make any difference if unused sectors are zeroed out or filled with random data.
    For more information, you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia Article for Formatting.
When you’ve got all your options set the way you want them, click “Start” to continue. Remember, this will erase the entire drive, so make sure you have anything you need backed up!
Windows warns you’ll lose any data on the drive you’re about to format. Click “OK” to start the format.
When it’s done, you’ll be able to access your newly formatted drive in Windows.