Removable disk drives—like USB flash drives, SD cards, and external hard drives—should be easy to use with your computer. But in some cases, you may connect your drive to a Windows PC or another device with a USB port and find the external hard drive isn’t showing up.
This problem has several possible causes: partition issues on the external drive, using the wrong file system, dead USB ports, or driver issues in Windows. In a worst-case scenario, the drive itself may be dead.
Let’s take a look at what to do when your external hard drive is not showing up in Windows. Note that this guide is also available as a video:
1. Make Sure Your External Drive Turns On
This is a preliminary step, but still one worth checking. Nearly every flash drive, and many external hard drives, don’t require a separate power source—they receive power over USB. However, some desktop external drives do have dedicated power cables, or at least a physical power switch.
If this is the case and your external hard drive is not showing up, you could have an issue with the device’s power cable. Try plugging it into another power outlet, or swap the cable if possible. Check for signs of activity, like flashing lights on the unit or movement inside the drive, before moving on.
If you don’t see any signs that the drive is working no matter what you do, the device might be dead. Be sure to know the signs that your hard drive is failing so you can catch it early if this happens again.
Assuming that your drive turns on but still doesn’t show up, walk through the below points in order.
2. Check the Drive in Disk Management
You should first check whether Windows detects the hard disk when you plug it in. Plug your removable drive into your computer, if it isn’t already.
Next, open the Disk Management tool. To do so, press Win + X (or right-click the Start button) to open the Power User menu and select Disk Management from the list. You can also open the Run dialog with Win + R and enter diskmgmt.msc to open this utility.
As the name suggests, Disk Management lets you see all the hard disks connected to your computer. It allows you to review sizes, partitions, and other disk information.
You should see your external drive listed in the Disk Management window, likely below your primary and any secondary disks. Even if it doesn’t appear in the This PC window because it doesn’t contain any partitions, it should show up here as a Removable volume.
If you do see the drive here, jump down to section #5 below. There, you’ll partition and/or format your drive properly so Windows and other devices can access it.
If your external drive is still not showing up in Disk Management, continue on. You’ll need to determine why your drive isn’t recognized. It’s possible you have a hardware issue, driver problem, or a dead drive.
3. Try Another USB Port and Computer
The reason your external drive isn’t detected may not lie with your device, but instead with the port you’re using to connect it to your computer.
Unplug the drive from its current USB port and try plugging it into another port on your computer. Should it work in one USB port but not another, you may have a dead USB port. See how to diagnose and fix dead USB ports if you suspect this.
If you’ve plugged the drive into a USB hub, try connecting it directly to the computer instead. Some USB hubs don’t provide enough power for your external drive to function.
What if the drive doesn’t show up in Disk Management even after trying both of these steps? It’s tough to know for certain whether the drive is bad or your computer is having a problem. If you have another computer nearby, try plugging the external disk into that to check whether it’s detected.
If the drive doesn’t work on any computer you plug it into, the drive itself is likely dead and you’ll need to replace it. When you try another machine, be sure to check whether it appears in the computer’s Disk Management window, as discussed above.
Even if it’s working, the drive might not appear in the This PC panel of File Explorer if it lacks a volume that Windows can identify.
4. Troubleshoot Device Driver Issues
If the drive does show up on other computers—or you don’t have another computer around to test it on—Windows may have a driver problem with your device. You can check for this using the Device Manager.
You’ll find a shortcut to the Device Manager under the same Win + X menu mentioned earlier. You can also enter devmgmt.msc into the Run dialog to open it.
In the Device Manager, expand the Disk drives category and check for any devices with a yellow exclamation point next to them. It’s a good idea to check the Universal Serial Bus controllers section too.
If you see the error symbol for any entry, that device has a driver problem. Right-click the device with the issue, select Properties, and look at the error message under Device status. This info can help you fix the problem.
We’ve explored how to fix the “This Device Cannot Start (Code 10)” error as well as fixes for “Unknown USB Device”, which provide good troubleshooting steps for driver issues. There are some more general steps you can take if those guides don’t work for your issue, though.
Driver problems can be tricky to fix. If the problem started recently, try running System Restore to roll back the changes. If that doesn’t help, you can right-click on the affected device in the Device Manager and use the Update Driver button to install an updated driver.
However, this rarely finds a new driver for generic devices like flash drives. Instead, you may want to check the manufacturer’s website for a specific driver for your external hard drive; see our guide to updating Windows drivers for more help.
The Driver tab that appears in the Properties menu for each device in the Device Manager has a few other options. Roll Back Driver will revert any recent driver updates (if applicable), which probably won’t have an effect if System Restore didn’t work.
As a final resort, you can use the Uninstall Device button to remove the device from your system. Upon rebooting, Windows will then reinstall the driver and hopefully configure it correctly when you reconnect the drive.
5. Create a New Drive Volume
If your device showed up in Disk Management in #2 earlier, or one of the above troubleshooting steps made Windows detect it, you’re ready to initialize the drive so it’s usable. Aside from showing you basic information, the Disk Management tool can also fix partition and file system issues with your drive.
If your removable drive shows only Unallocated space, you’ll need to create a new partition on it. This allows Windows and other operating systems to use the device. To make a new partition, right-click anywhere on the Unallocated space, select New Simple Volume, and go through the wizard to create a new partition.
Once the drive has a partition on it, you should be able to see it in This PC and use it as normal.
If your drive is partitioned (meaning it contains something other than just Unallocated space) and you still can’t see it elsewhere in Windows, ensure it has a drive letter set. This should happen automatically, but if you’ve manually removed the drive letter for some reason, the volume may not be accessible in Windows.
To change the drive letter, right-click the removable drive’s partition and select Change Drive Letter and Paths. In case the device doesn’t already have a letter, click Add and choose one. If it does, click Change and try another one.
Something later in the alphabet, like G or J, is standard for removable drives and will work fine. Avoid earlier letters like A and C, which are reserved by Windows for other purposes.
After changing the drive letter, you might want to display all drives in This PC to make sure it shows up.
6. Format the External Drive
If the drive appears to be partitioned, but Windows still can’t access it, it’s probably partitioned with a different file system.
For instance, you may have formatted the drive with the ext4 file system from Linux, or APFS on a Mac. Windows can’t read these file systems. You’ll thus need to reformat the drive with a file system Windows can access, such as NTFS, exFAT, or the older FAT32, so Windows will recognize it.
To reformat a partition in the Disk Management utility, right-click it and select Format.
Note that formatting will erase all files on your drive, so you should copy any important files on it to another device before continuing. If the drive is formatted for use on a Linux or Mac machine, take it to a computer running that OS to back up the files before you format it.
When you format, you can give the drive a new name if you like. Leave Allocation unit size as Default; leaving Perform a quick format checked is fine too. More importantly, you’ll need to select a file system. Which one you should choose depends on the type of drive and what you use it for.
Which File System Should I Choose?
If you have a small flash drive, it likely came formatted as FAT32. Despite its age, this file format is still used for small storage devices due to its wide compatibility. However, it’s not a perfect choice.
FAT32 can’t save files over 4GB, and only supports volumes up to 2TB. It’s unlikely that you’ll run into either of these issues using a flash drive, but they are still limitations. The main reason to use FAT32 is that it works with pretty much any device, such as cameras, media players, game consoles, and more.
exFAT, on the other hand, is a more modern successor to FAT32. It doesn’t enjoy the same level of ubiquity of FAT32, but it’s free from the file size restrictions of the older format. exFAT also performs faster in tests.
As a result, we recommend exFAT for small removable devices like flash drives, unless you have a specific compatibility reason to use FAT32. We’ve compared FAT32 and exFAT if you’re interested in a deeper look at the differences.
The other options is NTFS. This is the modern file system standard for Windows, but there’s nothing to gain by using it on a flash drive. Many older devices aren’t compatible with NTFS, and it has a lot of overhead that’s unnecessary on smaller drives.
It’s fine to use NTFS for large external hard drives that you will only use with Windows computers. But if you ever plan to use the disk with other machines, pick exFAT instead.
Now Your External Drive Is Recognized and Showing Up Again!
Following this process when external hard drives don’t show up should solve most of the disk recognition issues you’ll encounter. If you’ve tried the drive with multiple computers and it never shows up in the Disk Management window after these steps, the drive is probably dead.
Thankfully, there are lots of great choices for replacement external drives that don’t cost a lot of money.
For expandable storage while on the go, you’ll want one of these best portable hard drives.
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