Running Linux From a USB Drive: Are You Doing It Right?

Bertel King Updated 31-03-2020

You’ve probably heard about previewing and installing Linux from USB drives, but did you know that you can also save your data between uses or even run a full permanent Linux installation on a USB stick? This can have massive benefits for your productivity, especially if you’re a remote worker, or cannot afford your own PC.


In short, we’re talking about turning Linux into the ultimate ultra-portable platform: running Linux from a USB flash device. Here are your three options for carrying Linux in your pocket. Find out which method is best for you.

Choose the Right USB Stick

Before you get started, it’s worth considering buying a new USB stick. Older USB sticks have already had their lifespan reduced considerably, and as flash has a finite number of read/write cycles, a fresh stick of flash makes sense. Something affordable with a handy amount of storage space would be the best flash drive for a bootable version of Linux.

SanDisk Ultra 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive SanDisk Ultra 32GB USB 3.0 Flash Drive Buy Now On Amazon $6.61

Also, you should consider the hardware you’ll be connecting the USB flash drive to. Does it support USB 3.0? If so, you’ll enjoy considerable speed Why You Should Upgrade To USB 3.0 It’s been quite a while since USB 3.0 has been included in motherboards, but now we've come to the point where most devices and computers come with the new and improved ports. We all know... Read More (and other) advantages over old-fashioned USB 2.0.

To check if the destination computer has USB 3.0, look at its USB ports. If they have blue plastic in them rather than black, that’s a good visual clue. Not all USB 3.0 ports use this shorthand, however, so look up the specs of the PC. On Windows, you can check the Device Manager.


Write a Live ISO to USB

balenaEtcher tool for flashing ISO to a flash drive

It has become really easy to take an ISO image of your favorite Linux distribution and write it to any appropriately sized USB drive. From there, you can boot up a Linux system on any computer that supports booting from USB media. There are plenty of tools that can burn an ISO for you, and this method is compatible with virtually every Linux distribution out there.

One option is balenaEtcher, a free and open source tool available for Linux, macOS, and Windows. While burning an ISO isn’t as complicated as it sounds, Etcher is about as simple as it gets.

However, the downside to this approach is that you’ll lose all of your data as soon as you shut down or restart the computer you’re working on. As a Live environment, all data is kept in RAM and none of it is written to the USB drive; therefore, none of it is saved when the system turns off.


If you’d like to keep a customized Linux environment in your pocket, this isn’t what you want. However, if you’re wanting to use the drive as a way to perform secure communications (think banking, or any activities that require the use of TOR) and ensure that no sensitive information is stored anywhere, this is definitely the way to go.

Download: balenaEtcher

Enable Persistent Data

mkusb tool to create boot drives from ISO files

Depending on your distro, you may have the option to enable persistent data on your USB drive. This is great: it lets you write a relatively compact ISO file to boot from, and you can actually keep your extra installed applications and saved documents.


To make this work, you will need a compatible program to perform the installation. One option is Rufus, a Windows app that supports creating live Linux USB sticks with persistent storage. If you’re already on Linux, you might try mkusb instead. The tool will run on Ubuntu and Debian-based distros, plus some others.

Having persistent data is ideal if you use a large variety of systems with the USB drive, as the live environment will detect what hardware is available every time it boots. So the advantage in this scenario is that you can save your stuff, use up less drive space, and have maximum support for whatever hardware you plug into.

The downsides: you automatically boot into the live user account, which isn’t password protected. Also, you have to be careful with software updates, as newer kernels could break the bootloader.

Download: Rufus for Windows


Download: mkusb for Linux

Do A Full Install to USB

Ubuntu installer

Lastly, you can choose to do a full install onto the USB drive. You’ll have to use a disc or another USB drive for the installation media, but this method literally lets you have a full Linux system in your pocket—one that is as flexible as any other traditional installation.

The advantages are pretty obvious: you get your own system setup just the way you like it, right in your pocket. But there are still a few downsides.

First, you’ll need a larger USB drive for this type of installation. Granted, that’s not as much of an issue as it used to be. If your only option is an old drive lying around, 8GB is feasible. But with 128GB and 256GB drives having drastically dropped in price, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to run Linux on a flash drive comparable in size to an SSD.

Second, as the system thinks it’s installed normally, it will tend to make changes that are ideal for the hardware you’re currently working with, but not necessarily hardware you’ll encounter in the future.

This primarily concerns the use of proprietary 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 . For maximum compatibility, don’t use them. The open drivers are plenty good for most uses.

Linux Loves USB

Surprised? You shouldn’t be! Linux has always been very flexible, so that it can meet all sorts of needs. And the fact that there are no licenses involved means that running Linux on a USB stick is rather simple to do, unlike Windows and macOS.

Now that you know what your options are, it should be very easy to decide which solution is best for your needs. Or, now that you’re aware of your options, maybe it’s not so easy.

To help you with your choice of distro, we have rounded up 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 . By the way, you can also run Chrome OS from a USB drive How to Run Google Chrome OS From a USB Drive You don't need a Chromebook to enjoy the features of Google's Chrome OS. All you need is a working PC and a USB drive. Read More !

Related topics: Flash Memory, Linux Tips, Portable App, Ubuntu, USB, USB Drive.

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  1. They call me the dude or dudester
    August 8, 2018 at 6:09 am

    Its great that the article talks about the different ways one can run linux on a usb jump drive but perhaps it might be a good idea to also explain how to do these things. Just sayin'

    • rico
      April 11, 2020 at 2:41 am

      I use Unetbootin for a persistent USB (max 4 GB) , works with Ubuntu and flavours or derivate as Mint.
      The only issue is to activate the persistence :
      After exit to Unetbootin, go in the folder boot/grub/grub.cfg , open it and add the word "persistent" (without quotes) before the word "file"
      ex: Start Lubuntu" {set gfxpayload=keep linux/casper/vmlinuz$casper_flavour persistent file=/cdrom/preseed/lubuntu.seed quiet splash

  2. Paranoid
    June 12, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    I am interested on this really hard go:
    1.-PC without internal storage media (no HDD, no SSD, no Optical Drive, etc), all needed must be external.
    2.-No Byte on plain clear (all encrypted) for some non Dummy Linux
    3.-Boot to RAM (while booting copy all to RAM), so boot device can be unplugged
    4.-Run all in RAM (no need to save changes, better if get lost)
    5.-Only if i want, save the changes maded (decision taken after changes are maded, not before)
    6.-Have ZFS support for external media, as well as Ext4, NTFS, FAT, exFAT, etc... NFS, SAMBA, etc.
    7.-Have multi boot (more than one Linux)... read 8 to know why
    8.-Hide some Linux on the Free space
    9.-Plain dm-crypt? or LUKS without headers? Do not yet know what is best
    10.-Some Dummy Linux (without encryption) and some with encryption [PARANOID way]
    11.-What else? Is not yet too much complicated? Well, Scramble filesystem as a layer.
    12.-To not be killed i can not say the rest... paranoid ways of hiddin the real Linux i want to use.
    13.-But i can say this: Filesystem on RAM also encrypted!!! I have seen paranoid ways of externally read the ram (without having it electrically connected)... much tricker than a COLD-Boot with liquid nitrogen on the RAM chips... like airport scanners but much better... like take a photo of the ram chips, then data is copied.
    ... i am really paranoid ... i know ! But if all people would know what i had seen... they would be more paranoid than me... most with sensitive data (like own childs movies).
    Just as a note: I do not have childs, but i saw a man getting a judge with kill result just because was sawing to friend how his daugther takes a bath (less than one month and was swimming by her self, very proud child) and someone put a demand on him... end of story, man was in jail for one year and then electrocuted, judge sentence applied.

    Now, i want all my photos stay on 'private', encrypted and hidden, so on one could ever imagine they are where they are... never know if one f them will cause a judge say i must be killed... and i only do photos of old ancient builds (without people, just the old ruins of a building), or a lake, etc... never persons... and on home as soon as i see one photo has a human, i delete (wipe) it as soon as i see it.... Paranoid!! Maybe not, meybe just scared!

    Why on the hell a judge determinies a man must die because he was shawing how proud his daughter was, so proud she was swimming with less than a month? Just because that little baby was naked while taking a bath on its house. How mad are people that creates laws? and people that must apply/judge them?

    Well i preffer if it could be based on SolydXK distro (i really love their update method).

    P.D.: I know Tails, but it is a big hole in security when surfing the net... you can not know what other computers do, and your external (to Internet) request is really processed by another node (Tor is a big hole on our head).. never use it to access Bank accounts, etc... who is loging all the info? you can not know who will send to the bank your "password"... maybe someone that would log it?

    • wow
      July 19, 2018 at 9:55 am

      what the... FFFF?

    December 13, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    What I've done is to install an older HD that I use for Linux distro testing (the older Dells I use permit swapping HDs in and out in about 5 seconds). Then I install whatever programs I want and then use systemback ( to back a backup and then an iso from that backup. Then I install the iso on a USB and it will have the configuration and programs I want. Note that this works with most - but not all -- Ubuntu-based distros. I have not had such good luck with others like Fedora, Open SUSE, etc. It should be possible to add persistence but the limited read/write cycles of USB sticks have made me leery of doing that, not to mention the security issues.

    Note that having an older laptop hd around is really handy for testing linux distros. Using YUMI I have loaded close to a dozen in different partitions to fool around with. Not terrible useful but fun and a great way to compare.

  4. Don
    November 18, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    There's no any prodrive capable of using Linux from it. Believe me, I trued from cheap ones to Patriot SuperSonic 64-256 GB. Overheating, slowing down, problems with concurrent reads/writes. In general, not usable. If you want to know more, please email me at at

    • David Austin
      December 13, 2016 at 7:21 pm

      There is a way to do it. You have to have enough ram to do this ... but it involves using a portion of your ram like a disk, you basically install the OS into the ram this way. That way it reads and writes to the ram like a disk without any of the problems associated with doing that to a slow flash-based device. Ram has an infinite # of writes, and it's extremely fast. I used to do this with knoppix, running as a kiosk. It was great because everytime it rebooted it was like reinstalling the OS. Long bootup though ... but i used a cut-down verison ... did DSL (damn small linux) on some machines. That was 15 years ago. Some of those kiosks are still going strong, fast as they were on day 1. Same OS, though, never updated ... the content is for a museum ... never updated so that was never a concern.

  5. sanchezDust
    April 7, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    Could a live USB drive replace a hard drive ? Could I work on a persistant live USB all the time ?

    • Leonardo
      June 22, 2016 at 1:47 am

      Usb drive can replace the hard drive, installing the system on it (usb) (it is a little different from a live usb), the matter is that usb drive have a limited live (write times), there are work to do to achieve a longer live: don't use swap, mount /var/log, /tmp, cache directories using RAM among others, recently may drive died (i had two years using it with linux running from it). P D ¿live or live? i wonder you can understand the idea.

    • PyroBro
      July 11, 2017 at 9:24 pm

      I think that is a great question. I believe you can. Go to Bios change the order of the boot drive. Right now I am just playing around with usb 3.1 thumb drives and I have one with 8GB Fat and 50GB LUKS encrypted + ext4 with persistence. I love how fast it is. There are other site for more info on linux and usb. I am testing with Kali and I am loving it. Keep in mind literally the first day.

  6. Ben
    March 2, 2016 at 3:45 am

    Installed Ubuntu on a thumb drive if USB is not plugged in it does not boot directly to Windows. Looks like grub is on the USB and without thumb drive it does not boot. also put USB in laptop and nothing happens.

    • Leonardo
      June 22, 2016 at 1:33 am

      May be you put the /boot partition on the thumb drive but the MBR on the disk , recently my usb died (i/o errors in /boot folder) but grub can run yet (but do not find /boot/grub files), or the thumb drive is OK (with grub and MBR on it) but the laptop is not configurated to start from it

    • PyroBro
      July 11, 2017 at 9:31 pm

      You need to go into Bios and change the boot drive order. move "usb drive" (or whatever the bios reads) also during any boot you can change the boot order on demand, but I would change the boot order and save it. Though understand this can be a security risk as now anyone else could plug their usb drive and go to town on that computer and more.... Also add a bios password but do not forget it. Most have no password and is security risk. Peace.

  7. Anonymous
    August 8, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Puppy Linux every time. Couldn't agree more. As mentioned, it's designed from the word go for removable media installs; the squash file system folders that are used keep absolutely everything persistent.....and they also keep the size as small as possible. It IS fast, and it IS very secure. I always have a Puppy with me.

  8. Bennet van der Gryp
    July 31, 2014 at 7:21 am

    I hate the fact that everything I know about linux is null and void with Puppy. No apt-get or yum... Some new pip format or something. I don't even have rpmbuild as a standard command and the normal rpm function has a lot fewer parameters than the one I usually use. Installing packages like java has become an effort when you just download the normal tar ball.

    The look and feel reminds me of Windows 3.1 as well, which annoys the hell out of me. I've seen a lot better looking tiny distros out there (which unfortunately didn't support persistence which is why I tried puppy). Maybe it's just that I'm not all too familiar with Slax.

    Think I'm rather going to go for the CD version of CentOS.

  9. Leoner R
    April 21, 2014 at 9:40 am

    I use YUMI.. I have 4 linux distros in one USB drive..

  10. Alex V
    April 12, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    I used the first one until now, but I think I'll switch to the last one. It works great. Love flexibility!

  11. Pedja I
    March 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

    Just the thing i was looking for!!

  12. Wantoo Sevin
    March 20, 2014 at 6:40 pm

    Great article!

    I use Slax on a thumbdrive. Persistence works a charm. Changing too much of config files that come bundled as part of Slax (like KDE or files in /etc) does seem to cause a bit of an issue though, so I just run it as-is and then install add-ons, which are freely customizable.

  13. Mohammad Rafay
    February 16, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    Well I was instslling ubuntu on my computer with two hard disks and my external 2TB hard disk was attached to the same computer and without my knowledge I installed ubuntu on my hard disk. For long I never knew that I have full fledged OS my external hard disk. One Iwas working on my todiba Lap top and the external hard drive was connected to it. I had to restart the computer and to my surprise it started Ubuntu full version. Now that's something Next time my ubuntu on the computer crashed and I started computer with external hard drive retreated all the data and reinstalled ubuntu. This I did when Makruseof first released ubuntu manual why you restrict your self to USB 4 gb drive. You can keep options open for small size TB drive. But thanks to you guys at makeuseof I learned so many things. You are not just website but an institution to learn and keep abreast with new technologies just few hours a week Thanks to you all. Dr.Mohommad Abdul Rafay

  14. uchefe atuyota
    February 14, 2014 at 1:45 am

    Would like to know what the experience is like with unetbootin. It was mentioned to me by a friend.

    • Anomaly
      February 16, 2014 at 1:51 am

      Unetbootin works but last time I checked it does not do persistent installs. That means you lose all customizations on every reboot.

    • Dennis R
      February 18, 2014 at 6:09 pm

      Unetbootin does persistent with Ubuntu distro's. Use all the time!

  15. Fred M
    February 11, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Been doing it that way for a few years now! And by the way Puppy Linux would run on you'r wristwatch if ya can get on there. :)

  16. Anomaly
    February 11, 2014 at 1:58 am

    I use Universal USB Installer to make persistent installs on USB thumb drives.

    I have found that doing a full install of Linux on a USB thumb drive, as you suggest in option 3, causes many problems. They are slow and wear out the USB drive very quickly. I have also had issue with sleep/stand by mode with this method. The laptop would sleep alright but could not be brought back to working state. Ihave to hard restart.

    What program is pictured in the section on persistent installs?

    • jasray
      February 11, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      The top picture looks like LILA--Linux Live USB Installer--a popular tool that does well. PenDriveLinux offers the Universal USB Installer that also offers persistence for those distros that have persistence as an option. Most Ubuntu derivatives such as Mint will have the persistence option, but not all distros offer persistence.

      For simple use, SLAX may be the best distro (or Puppy) for USBs. Mint runs relatively well. Ubuntu versions vary in performance.

      Oh, the second picture, Make Startup Disk, looks like the tool offered in Ubuntu for making a USB stick--rather old looking distro interface.

    • Daniel E
      February 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm

      I did a full install of crunchbang on a 16GB USB drive. I do experience lags every now and then. But no trouble with sleep, it boots right back to where I left off. Running it on an aging ThinkPad SL400.

      As to the distro in the picture, that's Fedora 19 (see the top right corner of the image)

    • Daniel E
      February 11, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Forgot to add that it doesn't install the bootloader onto the USB drive, but instead installs GRUB on the hard drive. That does limit its portability. I suppose with some work I could install a bootloader on the USB drive but I'm content with what I have for now

  17. Josh G
    February 10, 2014 at 10:05 pm

    I have VirtualBox installed on multiple Windows [7, 8, 8.1] machines and have my [Linux Mint, Windows XP, other] guests installed on a USB3 flash drive.

    I had to copy over / edit the Vbox config files on each of the hosts, but it works.

  18. jasray
    February 10, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    Yes, Puppy provides a fast and reliable boot with USB. I typically use Slax because of the modular build properties and the unbelievable boot speed and persistence. The larger distros do work on a USB, but speed can be an issue. Ubuntu may be the worst experience for me after version 10 or so. Mint keeps the persistence feature and tends to operate faster than my experience with Ubuntu.

  19. Scott H
    February 10, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    i did the with back track 5 r3 when it come out very useful

  20. Jon
    February 10, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Two words: Puppy Linux

    It's made for running from removable media, and saves state, documents, everything. It's a fun, quirky distro, and worth learning. I think you ought to cover it here.

    • Frankie
      February 11, 2014 at 2:27 pm

      Two words: Puppy Linux

      The dogs have it when it comes to Linux Distros. And I've tried most of them on different systems. It's fast, secure as hell, stable, easy to use and good looking. Barry the developer should be the Billionaire and on the cover of Time. The World is truly upside down.