Windows to go : How to Run Windows From a USB Drive (Win 10 or 11)
Windows to go: How to Run Windows From a USB Drive (Win 10 or 11)
Windows to Go: If you’ve ever wanted to actually install Windows to go onto a USB drive, whether a thumb drive or an external SSD, that’s what this post is all about, you might not have known you could actually do that.
And all you’re gonna need are three different things. First is a free tool called Rufus, which is made for creating bootable USB drives. You’re also gonna need a Windows 10 or Windows 11 ISO, and also, of course, a USB drive, the faster the better.
Now while you can install this to a regular small USB thumb drive, it’s probably gonna be a lot slower. Though again, it will still work. The best option would be an external SSD, like one of those made by Samsung or Crucial. These are gonna be a lot faster, closer to internal SSD speeds. Either way though, you’re definitely gonna want to use something that’s USB 3.0 at least. So let’s get into these steps and it’s really not too hard to follow. So first of all, you’re gonna have to go and download Rufus.
So you can go to Rufus. and scroll down to the download section and just click and download the portable version. That way you won’t have to install it, you just run the .exe and it runs the program. Now we’re gonna need a Windows installation ISO. So you can Google Windows 11 ISO or Windows 10 ISO, depending on which one you want. And just go to whichever is the top result. Make sure it’s Microsoft.com, but I’ll also put the links in the description. That’s just in case they change it at some point.
Windows to go: How to Run Windows From a USB Drive (Win 10 or 11)
Obtaining Windows 11 ISO
For Windows 11, scroll down to the section that at the moment is called “Download Windows 11 Disc Image” and select the download. Though there is only one option here right now, and then click download, that doesn’t actually start the download. You then have to select your language and then hit confirm, and then you’ll see a button appear for 64bit download click that, and that will actually start the download, just let that finish. For Windows 10 the way to get the ISO is a bit different.
Obtaining Windows 10 ISO
There’s no direct ISO download on this page at least right now. You have to use the Windows installation media tool to download it instead. So under “Create Windows 10 Installation Media” click download now and it should start right away. So just run that, and when you get to this menu, select “create installation media for another PC” and click next. Here you can just keep the default options unless maybe you want to change your language. And then on this one, select “ISO File” and hit next.
And choose where to download it. After you hit save, it will download the ISO wherever you put it. So now here is how to actually create the USB. And this is gonna be the same process at this point, whether you downloaded Windows 11 or Windows 10. So run Rufus from wherever you downloaded it, and you’ll see this window. Now don’t get too overwhelmed, you don’t have to change too much. So for the boot selection, it should already be set to disc or ISO image, if it’s not just select that.
Burning the Bootable USB
And then click “Select” next to that and navigate to wherever you saved the ISO, and choose that. And after you do, you now show that in the box. Next at the top, you can select which USB drive you want to install it to. Though keep in mind, if you are using a bigger full-size external SSD, not just a little thumbs stick, you might notice it doesn’t actually show up as an option in the dropdown here. For that, you need to hit “Show advanced drive properties” for the dropdown and click “List USB hard drives”.
And then it should appear as it does here. Then just make absolutely sure that you are picking the correct one because it will wipe whatever drive you select. Under Image Option, change that dropdown to say “Windows To Go”. And the rest of the options you can keep the same unless maybe you want to change the name of the drive label, you can do that too here if you want. After all, that click Start and choose which version of Windows you want to install. If you’re using this like a rescue disc or something.
And you’re not gonna be activating it, you may as well choose Pro. This next window will ask you some configuration questions. For me by default, it only checked, “Prevent Windows To Go from accessing internal disks.” But if you are using this as a rescue disc, I would uncheck this, so you can actually work on the computer that it’s running on. And then I would check all the other boxes. Disabled data collection. Create a local account with the same name as the current one.
so you don’t have to create a login or log in with a Microsoft account. And also Set up regional options, the same as the current one, just to save you some steps. Then you click okay and wait for a second, and it will warn you one last time that the drive will be wiped, so be sure you picked the right one. And after you confirm, it will go and do its thing. How long this takes will heavily depend on the speed of your USB drive. On this one, the Crucial SSD which is really fast, it only took about five minutes.
Whereas on my other Samsung USB thumb drive, which is actually a pretty decent one, it took like over an hour if I remember, so definitely a huge difference. Either way, once it’s done, it’s not gonna show any kind of success message, it’ll just say ready. And then, you know it’s done and you can close Rufus. And now if we go into the drive, you can see that it has the same file structure as a typical Windows C drive. It’s got Program Files, Users, and Windows folder.
Booting Up the USB (Disabling Secure Boot)
And if you look at the partitions, there is actually another hidden partition for booting and stuff, but that’s not gonna show up in Explorer. Now let’s get to actually booting off this drive. Now, one thing to note is that to run off this USB drive Windows to go, you’re gonna have to disable something called Secure Boot, and that’s just a limitation of Windows To Go. Now you can re-enable secure boot after you’re done booting off the drive, but you will have to have it disabled for it to work.
Before you do though, be aware that if you have BitLocker on your computer or encryption for your device, then secure boot, disabling that, will likely trigger the BitLocker to require you to input your recovery key again, because it changes some of the encryption stuff. So just make sure you have that recovery key for BitLocker backed up, which you should do anyway. Like otherwise what are you doing? But just make sure triple check that you do. And I believe also if you have a Microsoft account.
you’re logging into, BitLocker might have given you the option to back up your key to your account, so maybe that’s an option to look into. Anyway, once you ensure that you have any encryption recovery keys backed up, you can actually go into the BIOS and look for where it asks you to disable secure boot. This is going to vary depending on your computer, so you’re just going to have to look up how you do it. After you’re done booting up into the drive you probably will want to re-enable secure boot.
it is a pretty good security feature. So once that is all set up, you can actually go and boot into the drive. Though again, you’re probably gonna have to know how to select an alternate boot device on your computer. That also is going to vary, and you’re gonna have to look it up. Although usually in the bios itself, that you were just in, there’s somewhere usually an option to boot from it, from there. Anyway, once you’re booting onto that drive, it should just take a while, it’ll say to get things ready.
Booting Into Windows
and depending again on how fast your drive is this is gonna take anywhere from just a few minutes to like 15+ minutes when I was doing it off the small thumb drive. And once you get in it’ll take you to the first-time setup, just as if you had done a fresh install of Windows because you basically did. And here you can just select that you don’t have an internet connection. So it doesn’t make you log into a Microsoft account. Because remember it should have automatically created a local account for you.
So once you select accept limited installation, you can see the account that Rufus created for you, and you can just log into that. Once you’re into Windows to go you’ll see that everything is pretty much standard. We can look at the C drive just as an example, and you can see that it is set to that SSD, with the same structure we saw before, and the internal drive is set to the D drive. So that’s obviously not booting off of that. So this should be a persistent installation of Windows.
Limitations of Windows To Go
so if you make any changes to it or anything, they’ll stay there, it’s not like a live CD that resets. Now there are some limitations to Windows To Go, probably the most notable one is that apparently, it doesn’t allow you to upgrade to new versions of Windows. I don’t know if this applies to security updates, but definitely for build updates, supposedly. It just won’t allow you to make any major upgrades. So if you did want to upgrade to like a new yearly update, you probably would need to do a fresh install again.
With Rufus using the latest ISO. And if you are gonna do that, just be sure that you take off any files or anything, because it’s gonna wipe it again. There are some other differences too, here’s a list in the Microsoft article about Windows To Go. Where you can just read off the screen here, what the differences are if you’re interested. So that’s how you do it, pretty straightforward. The only tricky part was maybe that secure boot part, but you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth the hassle for that.
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