Keep A Portable Ubuntu Installation With You Wherever You Go

Christian Cawley 31-05-2017

Having a PC in your pocket is a massive advantage. But how can it be done easily? The answer, of course, is via a USB stick (although there are three smartphone options offering their own take on the PC in a pocket dynamic).


With a version of Ubuntu (or most other Linux distros) installed on your USB stick Running Linux From a USB Drive: Are You Doing It Right? Did you know that can do a full install of Linux on a USB drive? Here's how to create a Linux USB PC in your pocket! Read More , you’ll have access to the web, to your favorite files and folders… all without the pain of lagging a laptop around.

Better still, there are several reasons why doing this will improve life so much you’ll never forget to take it with you!

USB vs Smartphones

Since mid-2015, several mobile operating systems have been offering desktop functionality when connected via wireless HDMI or Miracast. Windows 10 Mobile has Continuum Continuum: Switch Between Windows 10 Desktop & Tablet Mode Windows 10 recognizes your hardware and instantly chooses the best display mode. When you connect your Windows 10 Mobile to a larger screen, you'll get a PC-like experience. That's the smoothness of Continuum. Read More , while Android has a trio of options How to Use Your Android Phone to Replace Your Desktop PC Your phone is powerful, so why not use it is as your full desktop operating system? Read More offering similar experiences. Meanwhile, the short-lived Ubuntu  had Convergence How to Turn Ubuntu Phone Into a Desktop PC With Convergence Newcomer to the mobile space, Ubuntu Phone, has its own mobile-to-desktop software. If your device is compatible, and running the OTA-11 update (or later), you can turn your phone into a PC. Read More , another Continuum-esque reconfiguration.

Keep A Portable Ubuntu Installation With You Wherever You Go Ubuntu Convergence

Essentially, these pocket-based PCs offer a desktop experience, powered not by a PC or laptop, but by a smartphone. The results are mixed, but all are suitable for office tasks and browsing the web.


Installing a desktop operating system on a USB thumb drive, meanwhile, has some key advantages. For a start off, there is little chance of your chosen platform suddenly stopping. If it does, simply switch to a different Linux operating system. And then there’s the added portability factor. You can keep a USB thumb drive in your wallet, pocket… maybe even a shoe!

(SD cards are also an option for a portable operating system, but SD slots are less common than USB ports.)

Smartphones offer a good desktop experience, but with a USB thumb drive with Ubuntu installed, you’re getting the real thing. Just so long as you have a PC to plug it into, of course…

You and Your USB Thumb Drive

To keep a copy of Ubuntu with you everywhere you go, you’ll need to find a USB thumb drive that has enough capacity for your needs. While you might get away with 8 GB, we’d recommend 64 GB or higher for a good computing experience.


SanDisk Ultra Fit 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive - SDCZ43-128G-GAM46 SanDisk Ultra Fit 128GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive - SDCZ43-128G-GAM46 Buy Now On Amazon

You might also want to select your USB thumb drive based on how small it is. After all, if you’re planning to keep the drive on your person for security and privacy reasons, the smaller the better. Perhaps it might slip into a secret pocket, or the lining of an item of clothing? The SanDisk Fit series of thumb drives are particularly compact.

With your USB drive primed and ready, it’s time to make your decision. Which type of portable Ubuntu installation will you choose?

Live Ubuntu USB Media

The simplest option you have to install Ubuntu on your USB stick is to create a bootable Live disk Linux Live USB Creator: Easily Boot Linux From Your Flash Drive Read More . All Linux operating systems can be run in this way. The live option, intended initially for optical discs, lets you boot (and sample) the operating system with affecting that of the host computer.


When you write Ubuntu to USB with the aim of installing it on a computer, it has this Live disk functionality. So, all you need to do is insert the disk into your PC and restart; upon rebooting, the USB stick takes over, giving you instant access to your portable Ubuntu.

Note that any activity you engage in will not be stored on the USB stick; however, internet activity will be recorded by the ISP. If you’re using this in a library or cyber cafe, there will probably be logging in use there too.

Sadly, any data you create, or programs you install beyond the preinstalled choice, will also be deleted once your session ends.

Save Your Data with Persistent Storage

If you want to save any work between sessions (that is, each time you use your Ubuntu USB stick) then you’ll need persistent storage.


Keep A Portable Ubuntu Installation With You Wherever You Go muo linux live usb unetbootin

This is an option in tools like UNetbootin, which supports the provision of a persistent partition that can be used for installing your preferred apps, and saving your personal data to. As a result, the apps and data you need regular access to will be waiting for you each time you boot. Note that this is an option supported only by Ubuntu.

The shortcoming of this approach is that you’ll find that it is tougher to upgrade your version of Ubuntu. As a result, we recommend relying on a Long Term Support (LTS) distribution for your choice of Ubuntu operating system.

Full Installation on Your USB Stick

You can take the idea of a persistent Ubuntu installation further by installing the operating system not to a hard disk drive, but to the actual USB device.

Keep A Portable Ubuntu Installation With You Wherever You Go ubuntu install destination

This approach will enable you to use the USB device not as a Live Ubuntu experience, but as an actual portable hard disk drive. Ubuntu will be in its installed form, resulting in a completely persistent storage. Better for updating the operating system, it does have its shortcomings: Ubuntu may expect hardware from one PC to be there when the USB thumb drive boots up on another computer.

However, this is a minor consideration in most cases. As long as you don’t use it to install any proprietary graphics drivers How to Install Proprietary Graphics Drivers in Ubuntu, Fedora, and Mint Most of the time, you'll be fine with open-source software on Linux. But if you want real gaming and graphical power, you'll need proprietary drivers. Here's how to get them. Read More , you should be fine.

A Quick and Easy Setup!

Simple to set up and create, an Ubuntu-based portable USB PC makes sense to have with you at all times. Even if you don’t use it regularly, it could prove useful in a pinch.

Perhaps you visit libraries or cyber cafes often? You might be hot-desking at work, or need to access a PC at a location where you volunteer. Or you might simply need to get some processing power out of an old PC or laptop at home.

Whatever the case, a portable Ubuntu installation on your USB stick is the answer. We have rounded a few Linux distros that are perfect for installation 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 . If you’re not a Linux user, you could opt for a portable version of Windows instead.


Related topics: Live CD, Ubuntu, USB Drive.

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  1. Marco
    July 27, 2017 at 5:25 pm

    can I use a full linux USB installation from iPad?

  2. Rajeev
    June 27, 2017 at 7:59 am

    How about a step-by-step install guide or article on how to install a bootable version of portable Linux on a USB drive? This would be very helpful for us newbies-to-Linux!

  3. Rajeev
    June 27, 2017 at 7:54 am

    How about a step-by-step guide (or article) on how to do this? It would be very helpful for us newbies-to-Linux types

  4. JF Messier
    June 1, 2017 at 12:30 pm

    I had such installations for years now. I was using live distros to perform data recovery on not-working Windows laptops (too many times to count). I also have an actually installed XUbuntu named GalliumOS on a small USB drive (just as the one displayed in the article), and it remains in my Chromebook, making my Chromebook a full-fledged Linux computer. And the install keeps the built-in ChromeOS intact, so if someone else wants to use it, that's also easy. And with USB 3.0 ports and devices, the startup is as fast as from an internal SSD (or almost)...

    • Christian Cawley
      June 8, 2017 at 8:49 am

      Great to see it works for you, JF!

  5. InTheNameOf
    July 13, 2016 at 8:52 am

    For the paranoids among us:

    " traces of your activity are left behind on ... the computer that you’re using."

    I doubt that. If there is a swap partition available on the computers storage it might be used by a live OS and that will keep the swapped data of your live OS session until its overridden. So possibly even sensitive data like passwords may be affected.

    It might be the case that on shutdown of the live OS or on boot of the installed OS the swap space will be cleaned, but I am not sure about that. It might depend on the OS and it's configuration. If someone knows more details, please share.

    • Joshua
      September 23, 2016 at 4:02 pm

      If you have GParted on your live installation, you can go to it and find the swap partitions and swap them off and then on again. This should clear the swap space.

  6. sdk
    March 7, 2016 at 6:19 am

    how do i connect wired internet to portable Ubuntu os from base windows 7 system

  7. freedom
    February 17, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    Install Puppy Slacko on your USB device.
    I've been doing it for years, it really can't be beat.

  8. jpw1116
    February 17, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Portable VirtualBox and an LTS on an SD card seems to work nice and robustly for my needs, whenever I'm back in the Thinkpad world. Most often, though, it's a crouton instance right on the SSD of a Chromebook. Nice and fast.

  9. james
    February 14, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    Trying to run ubuntu long term on a usb drive will kill a usb drive. I have experimented with this and even the nicer usb 3.0 drives just can't take it stress.

    • Godel
      February 16, 2015 at 11:49 pm

      These days you can get some SSDs designed for use in a USB port, but with the aid of a small connecting cord. A quick search shows them to be about credit card size in area and about 8 mm thick, typically 120 or 240GB in size..

      No doubt you pay extra for the privilege.

  10. Karl the second
    February 14, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    A good use of a linux-on-a-stick is recovering data from a computer that has crashed in a manner where the original OS does not launch (Blue Screen of Death). Used it a few times for that.

  11. Karl
    February 13, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    Last year, I made a similar mistake. Somehow, GRUB installed in such a way that the USB had to be inserted to boot Windows. Taking it out showed I had no Windows MBR intact. Fortunately, my flash drive gave me full access to my Windows files on my hdd and I was able to copy to an external, reinstall Windows, and copy back over. At least my 16gb flash drive with Kubuntu 14.04 LTS still works great to this day!

    • Doc
      February 15, 2015 at 9:51 pm

      An easier way to fix your Windows installation would have been to boot from the Windows DVD and use that to repair your installation. Windows Vista and up have some very robust repair tools. (If you're still using XP, shame on you - without up-to-date patches, XP is quickly becoming a malware magnet).

    • Doc
      February 15, 2015 at 9:52 pm

      There are dozens of other things I'd rather put on a USB drive - Hiren's Boot CD, Techiez' Tookit, CloneZilla, or just about any other Linux distro, like Mint. (Can't stand Unity).

  12. Jean-Francois Messier
    February 13, 2015 at 5:12 pm

    I did a mistake in the past that was very much time-consuming for me, and that mistake should now be avoided automatically, but it's good to double-check. When writing the boot record (GRUB2) make sure that it writes the one on the USB device, not the main hard disk (/dev/sda) as it may cause problems, and although you will have a Ubuntu installed on your USB key, it will not boot, as the boot record is on the local hard disk, not the USB key.

    • Albin
      February 16, 2015 at 10:30 pm


      Not only will Ubuntu not boot from that USB key, but GRUB will replace the Windows boot loader and forever interfere with booting Windows. (Same applies to "dual boot" installation.) Linux install software ought to default to locating GRUB on the same drive as the operating system or at least warn users in big red print.

      • Robert te Kaat
        November 11, 2017 at 10:16 am

        Exactly! Happened to me as well. I got the advice to use a VM to create the USB installation, just to prevent this. However, on Windows there's no possibiity to do so, since HyperV cannot pass-through the USB stick to the VM (would only work for USB drives, not sticks).