Updated by Tina Sieber on 31 January 2018.
32GB is the file size limit for partitions when formatting with the FAT or FAT32 file system on Windows.
Well, as some of you will know, FAT/FAT32 can actually handle up to 16TB hard drives and up to 2TB are supported in most operating systems. Microsoft has set a 32GB partition size limit for the FAT/FAT32 file system to promote NTFS, which is generally more efficient when working with large partitions.
In truth, this limitation only exists in recent versions of Windows. Moreover, Windows does recognize large hard drives formatted with FAT/FAT32. Finally, you can circumvent the 32GB limit.
In this article, I will show you how to format a large hard drive with FAT/FAT32 or create a 32+GB partition with that file system.
The Manual Way
Attention: Several readers have commented that this method failed with a “volume too big for FAT32” error after several hours. To avoid frustration, use a third-party tool or try the quick format option below.
Theoretically, you don’t need a tool to circumvent the 32GB partition limit when formatting with FAT32. You can manually format your drive with FAT or FAT32 and it’s fairly easy. While this method worked fine in Windows 7 when tested originally, it might not work for you. If you’re on Windows 10, try the FAT32 Format utility below.
Do you still want to try the manual approach? Rather than using the standard Windows formatting tool, switch to the command line. In Windows 10, right-click the Start button to launch the power user menu and select Command Prompt. Then enter the following command at the prompt:
format /FS:FAT32 X:
Replace the letter X with the drive letter for the external device you wish to format and hit Enter.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to wait for hours, ran into an error with the command above, or generally want to avoid third-party tools, you can also try the quick format command:
format /FS:FAT32 /Q X:
Note: Quick format will only delete the file table. It will not erase or overwrite the files currently written to the drive.
If you don’t want to mess with the command line, you can use tools that apply the same principle but provide a nice graphical user interface (GUI) for your convenience.
FAT32 Format is a basic portable GUI tool that doesn’t require installation. It just does one task, and it does it very efficiently: format drives with FAT32.
FAT32 Format works with Windows XP through 10 and supports up to 2 TB partition size. You can choose the allocation unit size and give the partition a new volume label. Unfortunately, it can not create new partitions.
Windows 7 users can also try Fat32Formatter. It’s a self-executable tool with a decent GUI that allows you to format large hard drives with FAT32. Balloon tips guide the user through its functions. No other documentation is available. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get this tool to work reliably in Windows 10.
This tool is almost too simplistic. While you can delete a partition and create new ones, you cannot choose the allocation unit size.
If you want to manage your partitions, i.e. create new ones or change their size, I recommend that you use dedicated software. First, create a partition that you want to format with FAT32. Then, in case your partition manager can’t do it, use one of the tools above to carry out the FAT32 formatting.
For a third-party alternative to Windows’ Disk Management partition manager, try GParted, The Ultimate In Partitioning Software, or EaseUS Partition Master (which can also format large drives with FAT/FAT32).
SwissKnife Premium is a simple partition manager that lets you do more than just format your hard drive with different file systems. You can also use it to delete, create, and resize partitions and it works faster than Windows.
This app worked fine when we first published this article in 2011 (for Windows XP), but we could not get it to run on Windows 10. SwissKnife Premium should support Windows 10, but you might be better off with one of the other tools.
Moreover, we could not confirm whether this version truly freeware. The previous version was only free for Windows 95 through XP, while you had to pay for the premium version.
FAT and FAT32 are great file formats because they are cross-platform file systems. If you’re moving drives between multiple operating systems, you’ll want a widely supported format. Depending on the platforms you’re using, however, you should also consider exFAT because it’s supported by Windows, Linux, and newer versions of macOS.
What is your favorite file system? Did you switch from NTFS to FAT32 before and what were the reasons?