Setting Up A Recovery USB Stick

If your system gets a malware infection, booting can be next to impossible — and even if you've followed all the best security precautions, sometimes hardware or software failures can render your system inaccessible. Make sure you're prepared by setting up a recovery USB stick ahead of time.

Picture by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A bootable USB won't solve every problem on your system, but it's always useful to have, especially if you need to recover a file urgently from a damaged or compromised system. I keep one permanently on my desk in case a machine in the office suddenly goes bonkers. (It's one of those handy USB drives that also doubles as a bottle opener, so it's useful even in times of cyber-peace.)

Setting up a recovery USB is actually very straightforward. Simply follow the steps below:

  • Grab an empty USB stick. While you can create a simple boot environment on a small stick, 4GB is better, and 8GB is better yet. You don't have to pay much for a larger stick if you keep an eye out for specials.
  • Follow our step-by-step guide to saving your Windows system with a USB drive. This has plenty of detail on what you need to do. (That guide focuses on Ubuntu, but the process is equally easy with other flavours of Linux. If you want an even wider choice, check out UNetbootin or XBoot.
  • Make sure your system is set up to boot from USB before your hard drive. The exact process will vary depending on your system. Typically it involves hitting a specific key when the system first boots. This is often F2, F12 or Del; the key will be mentioned on your launch screen. That will launch you into a BIOS editor, where you can change the boot order for drives so that USB drives are checked first before your main hard drive. If you're unsure, Google your specific model number and the phrase "BIOS boot order" and you should be able to find more detailed instructions.
  • Plug your USB drive in and check that it works for booting.

That's it! With luck, you'll never need your recovery USB, but it's good to know it's around.


    I *still* use one of those pictured Victorinox USB pen knives. I splashed out and got the 128MB version... the 256MB version was just unreasonable priced! LMAO!
    I've flown with it on carry on heaps and only been pulled up once or twice.... over my dead body would I give it up. It has meant on odd occasions that I'm running around the airport attempting to post it home. Worth it, my precious!

    hirens boot cd/ubcd on a thumbdrive covers most of what you need. They come with dozens of tools + a bootable linux distro and will make your life much easier. I used to have 5 recovery thumbdrives, now I'm down to two.

    My second thumbdrive has ubcd4win. It can be useful if you really, really want to save a windows install. If you just want to save the data and reinstall, you don't have to worry.

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