Linux

Install Ubuntu on Your Computer Using a USB Flash Drive

James Frew Updated 22-04-2020

Ubuntu is the most popular Linux operating system available today. It’s relied on by businesses around the world and is most people’s first Linux experience.

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Whether you’re looking to switch from Windows to Ubuntu, setting up a new computer, or creating a virtual machine, you’ll need to install Ubuntu first.

The easiest way to get started is to install Ubuntu from a USB stick. Here’s how.

1. Download Ubuntu

Ubuntu Desktop Download page

Linux is part of the open-source community, meaning that anyone can help develop the software and contribute to the code. To complement this, Linux operating systems like Ubuntu are available for free.

This means you can get a copy of Ubuntu to use on any PC, laptop, or server, free of charge directly from the Ubuntu website. You are presented with several options, but for home use, you’ll want to download Ubuntu Desktop.

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There’s a choice to make here, too. There are two editions of Ubuntu Desktop; the latest release and a Long Term Support (LTS) version.

New editions of Ubuntu are released every six months and are supported for nine months. LTS editions of the operating system are released every two years and are supported for five years.

LTS releases are more suitable for professional or server environments, where the risk of change is higher. For home use, you can stick with the standard Ubuntu release.

Clicking on your chosen edition will download an ISO file containing the Ubuntu operating system.

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Download: Ubuntu (Free)

2. Install balenaEtcher

Screenshot of the balenaEtcher download site

There are many programs for Windows 10, macOS, and Ubuntu to create bootable USB drives. Ubuntu even has a built-in option, Startup Disk Creator. However, one of the easiest options is to use cross-platform software like balenaEtcher.

The program is available for macOS, Windows, and Linux and is open-source and free to download and use. The macOS edition requires installation. However, balena offers a portable version for Windows. The Linux program is available as an AppImage, which also doesn’t need installing.

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Unlike many of the third-party options available, balenaEtcher is easy to use and has a simple user interface. This is crucial, as some programs make it far too easy to accidentally erase your entire hard drive.

Download: balenaEtcher (Free)

3. Create Installation Media

balenaEtcher screenshotOnce you’ve installed balenaEtcher, you’ll need to create the installation USB stick. To do this, you’ll require a device with a minimum of 4GB of storage space to install Ubuntu.

Insert your chosen flash drive into your computer, and open balenaEtcher. The creation process will format your USB drive, so be sure to backup or copy any data on the disk before continuing.

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Launch balenaEtcher on your computer and a dialogue screen will open, showing a three-part process. The first step is to click on Select image and navigate to where you saved the Ubuntu ISO and select it. The next stage is to Select target. From the drop-down menu, select your chosen USB drive.

After making those two choices, the third stage will become available. Select Flash and follow the on-screen prompts to begin the operation.

Overall, the process is the same whether you use a Windows, macOS, or Linux PC. However, if you create the installation media on a macOS device, you’ll need to format the USB drive using Apple’s Disk Utility first.

Before opening Etcher, navigate to Applications > Utilities > Disk Utility. Insert your USB drive and select it in Disk Utility. From the toolbar, choose Erase.

This will open a dialogue where you need to set the format to MS-DOS (FAT) and the scheme to GUID Partition Map. Once selected, click Erase. You can then open Etcher and continue with the installation process detailed earlier.

4. Reboot to The Installation Media

Select a USB device to boot your PC
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once balenaEtcher has finished it’s flashing operation, it’s time to move on to installing Ubuntu from your USB drive. To do this, you’ll need to reboot your computer into your newly-created installation media.

Across all platforms, this means you’ll need to use your computer’s bootloader or BIOS to prioritize the Ubuntu USB drive during boot.

The simplest option for Windows users is to use your computer’s BIOS screen to boot from your USB drive. To do this, you’ll want to change the boot order on your PC How to Change the Boot Order on Your PC (So You Can Boot From USB) Learn how to change the boot order of your computer. It's important for troubleshooting issues and tweaking settings, and it's a lot easier than you think. Read More . If Ubuntu is your current operating system, you can use the GRUB Boot Loader to select the USB drive instead.

The process is slightly different if you use a macOS device. To get things running, restart your Mac with the USB drive inserted. As the computer powers on, hold the Option/Alt key to access Apple’s Startup Manager. From this screen, select your Ubuntu USB stick.

Once your computer knows to boot from the USB drive, you can begin the Ubuntu installation.

5. Follow the Ubuntu Setup

Install Ubuntu from USB

After the Ubuntu installer has loaded, you have a choice to make. Clicking Install Ubuntu will begin the installation. However, you can also select Try Ubuntu to boot into a live version of the operating system.

This lets you try out the popular Linux distro without installing it. However, if you shut down the computer, it will not save data in this mode, so it is only for testing out Ubuntu before installation.

Once you have selected Install Ubuntu, you should follow the on-screen prompts from the installer. This will guide you through the type of installation you want (Standard or Minimal), where to install the operating system, and whether to download updates.

Further into the installation, you’ll get a choice of whether to format your hard drive or install Ubuntu alongside another operating system. If you choose the latter, you’ll also need to select how much space you wish to give your new Linux installation, and whether to create a new partition.

After the files have finished copying from your USB drive, the installation will guide you through account creation, including naming your PC and setting a password. When the installation is complete, you’ll be asked to restart your computer.

From there, boot into your new Ubuntu installation and enjoy the Linux experience.

Installing Linux From a USB Stick

In years gone by, installing Ubuntu required technical experience and knowledge of the Linux Terminal. However, the installation process is now reasonably painless, so you can get your Linux machine up and running without delay.

It’s not always possible to install software on your machine, especially if you’re using company-owned hardware. In this case, you may want to consider using one of the best Linux distros to install on a USB stick The 5 Best Linux Distros to Install on a USB Stick USB are great for running portable versions of Linux. Here are the most useful Linux distributions to run from a live USB drive. Read More .

Related topics: Linux Tips, Ubuntu, USB Drive.

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  1. dragonmouth
    April 23, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    "Ubuntu is the most popular Linux operating system available today."
    Ubuntu may have been the most popular back when this article was written but has since faded to a distant fourth in DistroWatch rankings. The "updating" of the article should have taken that into consideration.

    The basic process of installing Ubuntu on a USB stick hasn't changed. Neither has the fact that ANY Linux distro can also be installed to a USB stick. In fact, one can install multiple distros to the same USB drive.

    • James Frew
      April 23, 2020 at 12:20 pm

      DistroWatch's ranking are based on how many people view the Ubuntu page on their own site, and don't reflect market share. Most usage stats group all Linux OSes together, so an accurate number is hard to come by. That said, Ubuntu is widely regarded to be the most well-known and common Linux distro.

      This article was first written many years ago, before cross-platform options like Etcher, and the Ubuntu installation was generally not as simple either. The original article was an answer to a question (how to install Ubuntu using a USB drive), so I updated it to still target that, even if the process is similar for most Linux operating systems.

      You also noted that you can install multiple distros to a single USB drive; that's right and we have guides to that:

      - //www.makeuseof.com/tag/how-to-install-multiple-bootable-operating-systems-on-one-usb-stick/
      - //www.makeuseof.com/tag/5-best-linux-distros-installation-usb-stick/

      However, this article looks at how to install Ubuntu on your computer using a USB stick as the installation source.

  2. Aronne
    January 4, 2018 at 2:44 pm

    Installed ubuntu 16.04 (from .iso file) on old laptop using "Universal USB installer". Working good !

    Note: only problem was the "ubiquity failure" during the installation (problem solved just unplugging the battery as described in the ubuntu-forum)

    thank you for the installatiuon advice

  3. Jesse
    November 26, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    Newb here...If I have Ubuntu on a thumbdrive, can I set Ubuntu up on a brand new mb and hdd? No other app or OS required?

  4. Tochukwu Okafor
    July 29, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Hello,

    I did try many times to install ubuntu on my pc (windows 8.1) but was unable to succeed. Please can someone help me in regards to this. I have windows 10 installed now my pc but I still want to run ubuntu linux so that I can dual boot or switch to any operating system that I want. Thank you

    • Jim
      April 23, 2020 at 10:36 am

      You don't give enough information for anyone to help you. I would suggest you join one of the many Ubuntu Forums, Ubuntu Kubuntu, Xbuntu or Ubuntu Mate. The Ubuntu Mate forum is very good and is usually willing to help anyone that used Ubuntu or another OS that uses Mate. Just be very polite and explain your problem in DETAIL and someone will help you.
      My guess is you are not using a program to extract the iso file. If you just copy the iso file to a usb drive it will not install.

  5. Michael
    December 29, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    Excellent tutorial, Danny. Worked like a charm for me. I installed Ubuntu on an 11-inch 2010 Macbook Air using a stick drive. Thanks for posting this!

    • Karla
      June 28, 2017 at 9:36 pm

      Can you please provide a more detailed expalnation for the installation of ubuntu once the usb has the program? I keep getting confused on the step where the disk is supposed to be partitioned :(

  6. hazel
    November 19, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    it seems to install on my hard drive just fine but when i boot without the flash drive it is unresponsive. i am quite happy to just keep the flash drive in there but as someone who isn't exactly a computer noob. i find it quite frustrating

  7. arjaybe
    May 18, 2015 at 3:58 pm

    Hey. Only one troll so far. Not bad.

    rjb

  8. Andrey
    May 18, 2015 at 1:23 am

    You can us Unetbootin on Win, Mac an Linux, do not need to use terminal.

    • muzikjock
      May 19, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      correct. i've never had a hard time using unetbootin. usb creator which comes with ubuntu has never worked for me. it works as far as installing an iso on the usb, but doesn't work when you try to boot to the live environment. unetbootin also includes a few other utilities that are useful like freedos, which is good to use when you want to flash your bios, and you don't have windows. i've also used unetbootin as a tool in windows one time when an upgrade from 10.04 to 12.04 borked . i had 4 hard drives on my box. i forgot to unplug all except the hard drive that i was upgrading to. one word of warning when installing most Linux distros that use grub; if your box has more than one hard drive, unplug all the drives except the one you want to install your Linux distro on...for some reason, grub gets confused which hard drive to install itself on. if your not paying attention, you boot to a screen that says "no bootable device" and a flashing cursor. for some reason, this box would not recognize a live boot to usb to install from or repair, which is why i chose to upgrade. so i used a old xp install i had on one of my 4 hard drives , installed unetbootin, and repaired my upgraded install on my target drive . also used the utility "boot repair". most of the time, installing a Linux distro is effortless. however, some times, there are problems. for those who are intimidated by ANY hiccup in their life, stay with windows. (i am being sarcastic) . "hiccups" in Linux are a feature , not a defect. i've learned more using Linux than i could ever have learned staying in bill gate's world. the community forums are more than helpful in correcting your problems . and there is no reward better than knowing you fixed your box. using Ubuntu since feisty fawn 7.04, i will never use windows again. like anything else, there is always a learning curve. don't let that stop you from trying something new. if you are ambivalent about installing a Linux distro, use the live environment for awhile with persistence for awhile until you decide to install it. no need to dual boot really (unless for a few of you, you find it more convenient to do so). Linux for me is about freedom and choice. if you like everything to be decided for you, and handed to you on a silver platter, stay with windows. this tutorial is not for you.

  9. paul gureghian
    May 15, 2015 at 8:55 pm

    Is the usb flash drive which is used in the top picture of the story available for purchase somewhere? or was it just created for the story ? its a darn cool looking piece of hardware.

  10. x64.bits
    May 15, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    I have installed Linux Mint about a year ago and haven't stopped to even looked back. No more internet explorer, no more restarting my Pc after installing updates. No more searching for drivers, no more annoying spinning symbol waiting,,Bye bye Windows

  11. pmshah
    May 15, 2015 at 1:25 am

    Just so you know YUMI the installer creator can also include 1 version of Windows on the USB pendrive apart from multiple versions of Linux and bootable other utilities. In fact I have also managed to include Boot It Bare Metal - a boot manager and Norton Ghost to create / restore partition images.

  12. Jay Barney
    May 14, 2015 at 11:07 pm

    The hard drive on my HP crashed. I bought a WD 2TB replacement but the Vista re-insall DVDs failed. "Windows Setup could not configure Windows to run on this computer's hardware." I don't want to pay for Windows 7 on a six year old back-up computer. Am I a candidate for this?

    • dragonmouth
      May 14, 2015 at 11:23 pm

      "Am I a candidate for this?"
      Are you a candidate for Linux? Certainly! Anybody who is sick of Microsoft's shenanigans and is ready to try something new, is ready for Linux. But be ready to give up your old habits and learn something new.

    • jimvandamme
      May 15, 2015 at 2:18 am

      Put the right Linux distro on it, and it will run like new again. And no Windows drama.

    • Jim
      April 23, 2020 at 10:40 am

      I switched to Ubuntu when Win 8 came out. I run it on a really old HP laptop, and an old HP laptop. It is much faster than my wife's brand new Win 10 computer.

  13. Jill
    May 14, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Danny, I have tried to install Ubuntu on my HP Envy(bought in July 2013), both with Windows and, eventually without; after last summer's "Security Update" borked Windows entirely, I got disgusted and wiped it off. However, even though I had a Ubuntu disk from the $40 book I bought, the install wouldn't stick. I used it for a day, then it wouldn't load. I replaced both the mSATA drive and put in an SSD instead of the HDD, loaded Ubuntu and, again, it worked for a day, then wouldn't load. Now my UEFI or BIOS says I need to update the BIOS, but how do I do that without an operating system? Why won't the Ubuntu "stick"? Should I try 15.04 because of its updated UEFI and boot stuff? I have put off taking it back to the place I bought it, because they'll probably charge me to fix it, and I've already paid for the drive upgrades, which I installed myself, in the hopes that the manufacturers would be more Linux-friendly.

    At any rate, do you have any advice for a clean install? I get confused about if I can just use an ISO or if I need Unetbootin or one of those other installers. Thanks for any advice you can give.

  14. jasray
    May 13, 2015 at 6:10 pm

    Yes, Rufus is much faster and more reliable; however, Rufus doesn't offer a "persistent" feature--which the user wouldn't need, obviously, if he/she were installing on a Windows machine.

    What the writer epically fails to tell his audience is the nightmare that awaits the user when he/she wants to uninstall Linux.

    Maybe he should leave his personal email address, home address, and prepaid postage labels for those who will find an ungodly mess of what was once a reliable computer when they choose to uninstall because Ubuntu, and Linux in general, is highly overrated unless one is running a server farm.

    • dragonmouth
      May 14, 2015 at 1:01 pm

      "What the writer epically fails to tell his audience is the nightmare that awaits the user when he/she wants to uninstall Linux. "
      What nightmare is that? "Nightmares" can usually be avoided by reading the manual/instructions before attempting an unfamiliar task. The different file systems and partitioning schemes of Windows and Linux can cause problems for those who have not read up on the differences.

      • Harry
        February 9, 2020 at 5:43 am

        If only the instructions were provided in a step by step format without the confusing crap in between !!! I have a Live Debian GNU/ Linux stretch/sid (Debian 9) and it will not let me change to Ubuntu nor Mint.

    • jimvandamme
      May 15, 2015 at 2:14 am

      Why would anybody want to uninstall Linux?

    • jimvandamme
      May 15, 2015 at 2:17 am

      I still like to put Linux on CDs I give away. I have a ton of CDs sitting around, and it's hard to find flash drives 2 GB and under.

  15. PinkUnicorn
    May 13, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Rufus is another great tool for writing the ISO on the flash drive.

  16. dragonmouth
    May 12, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    Any other Linux distro can be installed to a USB drive using these instructions, not just Ubuntu.

    • Chinmay S
      May 13, 2015 at 5:42 am

      He mentioned Ubuntu because it's the most popular linux distro and everybody knows that it is indeed a linux distro. If the article title read "Install Korora On Your Computer Using a USB Flash Drive", nobody would have understood that it's a linux distro.

    • dragonmouth
      May 13, 2015 at 12:14 pm

      This is the one article that could/should have been titled "Install LINUX on Your Computer Using a USB Flash Drive" and mean it. But once again, MUO is trying to convince readers that beyond Ubuntu there is no Linux. It seems like most of the Linux articles on MUO are paid for by Canonical.