Linux has long been synonymous with bootable flash drives, whether it’s to fix some sort of problem with your primary OS, or for trialling and installing distros like Elementary or Ubuntu.
There are a few ways to get a create live USB sticks that will boot on your Mac. You can go the freeware route for an easy option, or put a little bit of time into creating the drive yourself using Terminal.
Today we’ll cover both these methods!
First: Prepare Your USB Drive
Make sure you choose the right USB drive for the job, and that it’s formatted correctly to avoid any problems. Some Linux variants may require larger volumes, so pay attention to the requirements when downloading. Others don’t have any strict requirements, but formatting to FAT beforehand is a good idea:
Warning: Everything on your drive will be erased if you do this!
- Insert your USB drive into your Mac and launch Disk Utility (under Applications > Utilities, or Spotlight query it).
- Select your USB device in the menu on the left, then click Erase.
- Give it a name (or not) and choose MS-DOS (FAT) under “Format” and GUID Partition Map under “Scheme.”
- Hit Erase to apply the changes. If it fails, try again — sometimes the system doesn’t unmount the volume in time and the process will be unable to complete.
Generally speaking anything above 4GB will do the job (I used an 8GB Lexar for this tutorial). If you have persistent problems, try another USB drive.
Method 1: Create a Live USB Using Etcher (Easy)
Etcher is a free open source tool for burning disc images onto USB and SD drives. It’s a relatively recent addition to the open source Mac line-up, and it makes creating bootable devices completely foolproof:
- Grab your desired Linux image, then download Etcher and install it.
- Insert your USB stick, then launch Etcher.
- Click Select image and find the Linux image you downloaded — Etcher supports .IMG, .ISO and .ZIP among others.
- Ensure the correct USB device is selected — hit Change to see a list of connected devices.
- Finalize the process by clicking Flash! and wait for the process to complete.
You’ll likely see an error message warning you that your USB drive isn’t compatible with your Mac. That’s normal — simply eject and go. Your bootable Linux USB drive is now ready, you can now skip to the Booting Your USB Drive section below.
Method 2: Create a Live USB Using the Terminal (Moderate)
If for some reason you don’t want to use Etcher (maybe you’re on an incompatible version of macOS), you can accomplish this task using the command line. This is possible using Terminal, your Mac’s built-in command line interface.
While this method requires a little more thought and patience on your part, it’s actually pretty straightforward. You might even learn a thing or two, plus you’ll feel smart afterwards. Assuming you’ve formatted your drive as per the instructions at the start of this tutorial, here’s how it works:
1. Convert Your .ISO
Launch Terminal and take note of where your Linux disc image is stored in Finder. Convert your image (usually an .ISO) to an .IMG file using the
hdiutil convert command:
hdiutil convert /path/to/downloaded.iso -format UDRW -o /path/to/newimage
/path/to/downloaded.iso with the location of your own .ISO (you can drag and drop directly into the Terminal window if you want) and
/path/to/newimage to wherever you want the new image file to be created.
Note: Modern versions of macOS will automatically create a .DMG file. If your version doesn’t do this, try appending .IMG to the end of your new image file name, e.g.
2. Write the Image to USB
Next we’ll need to identify your drive’s mounted location so that we can tell the Mac which drive to use. With Terminal open, use the following command to list all connected drives:
You’ll likely be able to identify the drive by its name, it’s format, and its size using a process of elimination. Take a note of the listing under the IDENTIFIER column, then unmount the drive using the following command:
diskutil unmountDisk /dev/diskX
You’ll need to replace
diskX with the corresponding number, e.g.
disk3 — if successful Terminal will report that the disk was unmounted. If you’re having trouble unmounting a drive, you can launch Disk Utility, right click on a drive, then choose Unmount (don’t eject the drive, though).
The final step is to write the image to your USB stick, using the
sudo dd if=/path/to/newimage.dmg of=/dev/diskN bs=1m
/path/to/newimage.dmg with the path to the file we created in step 1 (again, drag and drop works best), and
diskN with the location we identified earlier. You’ll need to authorize with your administrator password immediately afterwards, since we used the
You’re done, and your drive is ready for booting.
Booting Your USB Drive
Assuming all went well, you’ll now have a USB drive that will let you boot Linux. You can plug it into the Mac you want to use it on, then shut down the computer.
In order to access your Mac’s boot menu, you’ll need to hold the option (alt) key while it boots. The best way to do this is to shut down, hold the option key, start your Mac, and wait. If you did it correctly you’ll see a few options including your built-in hard drive, and the USB device we created earlier titled “EFI Boot.”
To boot into Linux, select the USB device and click the arrow (or double click). Depending on what you’re using, you may get another menu which acts as a bootloader for your particular flavor of Linux.
If you have problems, or your USB drive won’t show up, try running the process again, try using an alternative method above, try a different USB stick or port, and consult your respective distro’s help documentation.
The Best Way to Try Linux on Your Mac
Assuming all went well, you now have Linux running on your Mac and you can test it out or install it outright if you’re tired of macOS. You still have an Apple recovery partition which can be accessed by holding command+r while your machine boots. This can help you reinstall macOS among other things if you decide to go back.
There are other tools that claim to help you do this, but not all of them work, and some cost money. Unetbootin is still a popular choice for Linux and Windows users, but it hasn’t been able to create Mac-bootable USB drives for years. I tested it again for this article, it failed miserably and was generally unpleasant to use.
There’s also our old favorite Mac Linux USB Loader, which is open source and actively maintained. It’ll cost you $5 for a pre-compiled binary, assuming you don’t want to download Xcode and compile it yourself. This low entry fee helps keep the project maintained, but it’s hard to justify paying for something Etcher or Terminal can do for free.
Which technique do you prefer for burning Linux USB drives? And which flavors of Linux work best on your Mac? Talk about it in the comments, below.