How do I encrypt data on an external hard drive or USB?

If you want to encrypt data on an external hard drive, there are several options. You can choose to encrypt the data via BitLocker or a third-party app.

If you want to use BitLocker, you do not need a third-party tool. You just need a professional or higher version of Windows. By default, the Windows home edition does not support BitLocker encryption.

If you have Windows 10 or Windows 11 home edition, you can use a third-party tool to encrypt data on an external hard drive. There are several tools available, but I will focus on free software in this article.

How do I encrypt data on an external hard drive or USB?

To begin, download VeraCrypt to your computer. VeraCrypt is based on TrueCrypt 7.1a, only improved and available for multiple operating systems.

I recommend VeraCrypt because it is free, supports many different encryption techniques, is open-source, and is still supported to this day.

Keep in mind that if you are going to use VeraCrypt to encrypt data on the external hard drive or USB, you always use VeraCrypt from now on to be able to decrypt the data.

So you use VeraCrypt to decrypt the data before you can access and edit the data on the volume. Some technical knowledge is a nice touch, but I’ll try to explain it as clearly as possible so everyone can accomplish it.

To get started, open VeraCrypt. Then, first, click on Settings and then on Languages in the menu. Next, select the desired language and click on OK.

Change VeraCrypt language

In the menu, click on Volumes and then on Create new volume.

Create new volume

In this case, we will encrypt data on an external hard drive or USB flash drive. Therefore, choose “Encrypt a non-system partition/drive” and click next.

Encrypt a non-system partition-drive

User account control will now ask for permission. Please grant this permission. It will not work without it.

You can choose from two types of the volume type. The first is a standard veracrypt volume, and the second is a hidden veracrypt volume. A hidden volume has the advantage of being hidden, which means the volume is not visible in Windows by default.

In this case, we will go with a standard veracrypt volume. We only want to encrypt the data and not hide it. If you choose a hidden veracrypt volume, the next steps in the article will differ.

Click on next.

Standard VeraCrypt volume

You can now select the device you want to encrypt. This can be an external hard drive, a flash drive (USB stick), or other attached drives such as an HDD or an SSD. Click on Select device.

Then select the device recognizable by, for example, “removable disk 1”. Make sure you select the correct device! Finally, click on OK and then on next.

Select volume to encrypt

You can now create a new encrypted volume and format it by choosing the first option. If you want to directly encrypt the existing data on the external hard drive or USB, then choose “Encrypt partition in place”. This only works if the external hard drive or USB is already formatted as the file system NTFS.

Note: If you want to keep the data on the external hard drive or USB, please secure it first by copying it and removing it from the external hard drive or USB! If you do not secure the current data, everything on the external hard drive or USB will be lost.

We will go for “Create encrypted volume and format it” in this article. Click on next.

Create encrypted volume and format it

You can select and test the encryption algorithm here. I would leave “AES” as the default and continue by clicking next. Should you know what you are doing, you will make a possible different choice.

Encryption options

You previously selected a device to encrypt. Next, check that the total size of the volume you selected matches what VeraCrypt has detected.

Click next if it is correct.

Check volume size before encryption

You will now need to enter a password for encryption. You must remember this password carefully or make a note of it.

You will need this password to regain access to the encrypted volume containing your data (the encrypted external hard drive or USB).

Use a password of at least 20 characters, and follow the advice given in the text accompanying the window.

Click next when you have created a password. Save this password somewhere, preferably in a password manager. Without this password, you will not be able to access the encrypted volume.

Encrypt volume with a password

Do you plan to store files larger than 4GB on the encrypted volume? Make your choice and click next.

Do you want to store large files on the encrypted volume

Based on whether you want to store large files or not, VeraCrypt has selected a file system. You can see this under “Filesystem” under options. But, of course, you can still change it if you want.

You will format the external hard drive or the USB in this file system. Therefore, check it first.

Next, to make the encryption keys as strong as possible, you need to move your mouse randomly in the window. These random movements will encrypt the data. Make sure the bar at the bottom is green, and then click on format.

Format the volume and encrypt it

All data on the selected volume will be lost when you format and encrypt. If there is still data on the external hard drive or USB that you need, secure it by copying it to a secure location on your PC.

Click Yes if you are sure you want to continue.

Do you want to proceed with the format

The volume will be formatted and encrypted. This may take some time, usually an hour or more. You will see the remaining time under “Remaining” which depends on the total volume size.

Formatting and encrypting the external hard drive or usb

After the format is complete, you will see the following message. Please read this message carefully.

Please note that this volume can NOT be mounted/accessed with the drive letter currently assigned!

To mount this volume, click ‘auto-mount devices’ in the main VeraCrypt window (or, in the main VeraCrypt window, click ‘select device’, then select this partition/device and click ‘mount’. The volume will be mounted to another drive letter that you select from the list in VeraCrypt’s main window.

The original drive letter should only be used if you need to remove encryption from the partition/device. For example, if you no longer need encryption. In this case, right-click on the drive letter in the ‘This PC’ list and select Format. Others should never use this drive letter.

I will come back to this later in this article. Click on OK.

VeraCrypt message

The VeraCrypt volume has been successfully created.

The volume has been successfully created

VeraCrypt will close after clicking the Exit button. You should always open VeraCrypt first after connecting the external hard drive or USB device to access the encrypted volume. So make sure the encrypted volume is connected to the PC before opening VeraCrypt.

If VeraCrypt has been opened and you want to access the encrypted drive, then first select a drive from the list. Use a drive letter that you are sure is not already in use. Then click on the Auto-mount devices button.

Then enter the password for the encrypted external hard drive or USB and click OK.

Auto-mount password

The data will now be read and decrypted so you can access it. This may take a while, and it may seem like VeraCrypt is not responding, wait for it to finish.

Decrypting data on the external hard drive or usb

Once VeraCrypt has finished decrypting, you can access the selected drive letter on your PC.

To do this, open the File Explorer and click on “This PC”. You now see the previously selected drive letter. Open it, and you can now read, write, etc., data on the encrypted drive.

When you are finished, then click at all times on “Dismount all” in VeraCrypt.

Encrypted drive in File Explorer

Should you want to view or edit the data again, please follow the automatic mounting process again, enter the password, and only then can you access the encrypted data on the external drive. This is always done via VeraCrypt.

I hope this has helped you. Thank you for reading!

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