How to encrypt and protect your pendrive or external hard drive in Windows 10

If you want to encrypt an external hard drive, Windows 10 already offers BitLocker to Go, simple and practical encryption that can also be used under Windows 7 or Windows 8.x. This allows you to securely encrypt USB sticks and hard drives with a password and then unlock them again easily.

External hard drives and USB sticks are ideal for data backup. If you lose the data carrier, it is stolen or someone else accesses it without authorization, the files stored there such as documents, personal pictures, and other things can be viewed by everyone. You should therefore encrypt such data carriers with sensitive data. In the following tip, we explain how you can easily encrypt external hard drives or USB sticks under Windows 10 with BitLocker or other tools.

  • With BitLocker to Go, Windows 10 offers a very practical and easy-to-use encryption for external hard drives and sticks.
  • A hard drive or USB stick encrypted with BitLocker to Go can be unlocked and used with a password under Windows 10, but also under Windows 7 or Windows 8.x.
  • VeraCrypt is an alternative, also under Linux or macOS.

[1] Protect your data from loss or misuse

Modern smartphones are protected against unauthorized access with encryption, fingerprints, PINs, lock patterns, or even face recognition and data can even be deleted remotely. This means that the content on such smartphones is basically well-protected.

But what about your data that you save on external hard drives or USB sticks? If you forget or lose these data carriers somewhere, or if they are stolen from you, the new owner can rummage through the data at their leisure.

To prevent such scenarios, you should encrypt sensitive data. If only some data is concerned, you can encrypt individual folders or files as a ZIP file. Since Windows 8.1, BitLocker to Go has already integrated practical drive encryption with which you can create an encrypted hard drive or an encrypted USB stick and thus protect your data.

[2] With BitLocker to Go, you can encrypt external hard drives and sticks

BitLocker is the full disk encryption from Microsoft and has been part of Windows since Windows Vista, but not included in the Home editions. BitLocker is normally used together with Trusted Platform Module (TPM) and prevents access to a hard drive on a system, i.e. without the appropriate TPM chip.

BitLocker to Go makes the BitLocker encryption from Microsoft usable even without TPM and encrypts the data carrier with a password, which must be entered in each case to unlock the hard drive before use. Since Windows 8.1 and Windows 10, BitLocker to Go can easily be activated via the context menu for external hard drives and USB sticks. You do not need to install any additional software and can use encrypted data carriers under Windows 7 or Windows 8.x.

Good to know: BitLocker is not tied to a specific file system. You can therefore encrypt data carriers with all file systems that Windows can read without additional software, i.e. choose FAT32, exFAT or NTFS. You do not have to encrypt the data carrier first in order to be able to save data on it. You can therefore encrypt data carriers that are already filled with data, such as sticks or external hard drives, without the data on them being lost.

[2.1] Problem case Windows 10 Home

BitLocker to Go is only available from Windows 10 Professional. If you are using Windows 10 in the Home Edition, you cannot create encrypted data carriers with BitLocker, but you can access such data carriers with the correct password without any problems. If you also want to use BitLocker to Go under Windows 10 Home, simply create such a data carrier on another computer with a Professional Edition (or Enterprise). You can also use a trial version of Windows 10 in a virtual machine like VirtualBox or VMWare Workstation Player for this. Also, the pre-release versions of Windows-10 from Microsoft, which are actually supposed to test the compatibility of Edge for web developers, can be used for this, since the test Windows is an Enterprise Edition of Windows 10.

[3] How to encrypt an external hard drive or USB stick with BitLocker on Windows 10

[3.1] Activation of BitLocker via the context menu

For each data carrier, you will find the option to activate BitLocker in the context menu. To do this, click "Turn On BitLocker".

[3.2] Use a complex password to encrypt and unlock

As soon as you want to activate BitLocker, a complex password must be entered with which the data carrier can later be unlocked.

[3.3] Back up the recovery key

In the not too rare event that the user forgets his password, a 48-digit recovery key can be saved or printed out. In addition to saving it as a file, the key can also be stored in the Microsoft account. The key is then only available if you log in with the corresponding Microsoft account. We, therefore, recommend saving to a file in a safe place, such as a CD, or a safe printout. Above all you get the option to save the key into a USB flash drive too.

[3.4] Encrypt the entire drive if it is not a new disk

In the next step, the wizard asks whether only the used space or the entire storage space should be encrypted. If no data was previously saved on the data carrier, you can only select the encryption for the storage space used. On the other hand, if you select “Encrypt entire drive”, free storage areas will also be encrypted. The reason is that, in this case, forensic software cannot be used to restore unencrypted data fragments from the deleted area.

[3.5] The selection of the encryption method has an effect on the compatibility

In the next step, you can choose the encryption mode. We recommend the compatible mode (AES-CBC) so that these media can still be read under Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 as well as with older editions of Windows 10.

[3.6] Start encryption

Before the stick or the external hard drive is encrypted, you will be asked again whether you want to encrypt the drive now.

You can see the progress of the Encryption by clicking on the icon that appears on the "Show hidden icons" up arrow button on the taskbar.

You will receive a message as soon as the encryption is complete.

This way you can encrypt any internal or external drive by attaching it to Windows 10 PC and protect it from unauthorized access.

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