How-To Geek

How to Put Ubuntu Linux on a USB Thumb Drive (Without the Mess)

We have discussed installing Ubuntu on a USB thumb before. This time, we’re doing it differently, to make it cleaner and easier to store your files.

In the past, we’ve showed you how to install Ubuntu on a USB thumb drive (here and here). We all know, Ubuntu LiveUSBs are really cool, and really helpful as well. Usually when you install Ubuntu on a USB thumb drive, the drive becomes pretty much unusable for data storage, because there’s a mess of Ubuntu files in it. You’d surely ask yourself, “Where on earth do I store my data now?”

The answer is simple. Install Ubuntu elsewhere. No, not on another dedicated thumb drive. We can install Ubuntu in a separate partition on the thumb drive, and it’s really simple, even inside Ubuntu. All you need is a USB thumb drive (preferably larger than 2GB), and a copy of Ubuntu. You can have Ubuntu running from a LiveCD, or from your hard drive. But the best way to do this is in a Virtual Machine. We have told you how to create an Ubuntu virtual machine, so be sure to have a look at that. The reason we’re doing this in a VM is that we’ll be playing with partitions on the drive, and IF you accidentally make a wrong move, it would cost you lots of deleted data. So proceed with caution if you’re not going to do this in a VM.

For our testing, the process was done in VMWare Player with Ubuntu 10.10. Let’s get started, shall we?

Attach the USB thumb drive, and if doing it in VMWare, enable the USB in VMWare as well by clicking on the USB icon, and clicking “Connect (disconnect from host)”

Once the thumb drive appears, navigate to System>Administration>GParted Partition Editor

Be sure to select YOUR USB THUMB DRIVE from the drop down list in the top right corner (this step may be crucial if you’re not in a VM, be sure to select the correct drive).

You can identify your USB Thumb Drive by its label, and its capacity.

Right click on the graphical area, and click “Unmount”

Now right click, and click “Delete”

Right click again, and click “New”

First, we are going to create the data storage partition. Since this partition will be visible in Windows, it would be cosmetically better to allot it a good size. We have a 4GB thumb drive here, so let’s give it 2GB of space. 2048MiB approximately equals 2GB, so enter this value in the “New Size (MiB)” field. Make sure the file system is set to NTFS. Give it a name, we’re naming it “Usable Partition” here. Press the “Add” button to add the partition.

Now lets add the partition for Ubuntu. Right click on the unallocated space in the graphical area, and click “New”.

This time, we’re allotting all the rest of the space to this partition, so no need to change the size values. Change the file system to “ext2” and name it “Ubuntu”.

Now we’re going to apply the partition changes, so click the green Tick button to carry out the changes.

Click Apply to confirm

Wait for it to do its work.

Once that’s done, exit GParted. Now let’s install Ubuntu on the USB thumb drive. Navigate to System>Administration>Startup Disk Creator

When it opens, scroll down the list to find the “Ubuntu” partition we created earlier. In the following screenshot, you can see the USB Drive selected. This is not what we want. Scroll down to find the “Ubuntu” Partition.

Also, set a persistence level. Anything above 500MB is fine. Basically, the persistence level will determine the amount of customized settings that will be saved in the Ubuntu partition (for instance, the system-wide changes that you’ll make to Ubuntu, desktop settings, all that stuff). Whenever you plug the Live USB into any other computer, all your settings will be retrieved regardless of where you use it.

These were all the settings you need to make. Click “Make Startup Disk” when you’re done. It will start copying the files to the USB drive.

How about a cup of coffee? This will take a while!

When it’s done, you’ll see this message. Congratulations, your Ubuntu Live USB is ready. You can plug it into any computer that supports booting from a USB (all computers do, and if yours doesn’t, learn how to make it do so, using PLoP boot manager)

There you have it, Ubuntu in a separate partition of a USB thumb drive, leaving room for data storage. You can now plug in your Ubuntu LiveUSB into any computer, boot into Ubuntu, and download any data on the usable/data storage partition. And yeah, here’s a snippet of how that partition looks from the inside. An empty, 2GB partition for your data storage.

Enjoy your Ubuntu LiveUSB. Use it to fix your or someone’s PC, use it a public computers, or to install Ubuntu on someone’s computer, whatever you want, all you need is a computer!

Here's our very own regular reader. He's an aspiring tech writer, and obsessed with all things tech!

  • Published 11/10/11

Comments (27)

  1. Artie Effim

    Nice Article – two things.

    1.You should tell people that the gparted task is destructive.
    2. You should tell people that a USB device has a finite number or RW operations before becoming unstable. Using USB storage for OS operations takes a lot of RW cycles. I wouldn’t recommend using this for anything important.

  2. Dick Quinn

    The above procedure is the most convoluted approach I have ever had the misfortune to witness. I have wanted to install Ubuntu for some time but never succeeded. Do the open source developers understand that may people like me are put off by the complex, convoluted requirements to install Ubuntu ?

    How about a novel approach ? Send potential Ubuntu users to a main download site and let do a simple download like Chrome does for example.

  3. Bryan

    Good Article. Dick, the simplicity of this article is below novice. It has pictures step by step. Stop complaining and give it a try as that is the only way to truly learn.

  4. CitrusRain

    I think I must have done this to my 16gb… The one side is full, and the other is… well… I don’t have root.

    I haven’t found the time to fix it. :/

  5. Usman

    Don’t be afraid to use your USB drive, you own it for a lifetime, and it ain’t waring that soon!

    P.S. More (easier) installation methods are linked in the article, at the very beginning.

  6. KISS

    How about KISS? (= keep it simple ans stupid)

    1) Download ISO
    2) Insert USB drive
    3) install
    4) run and play

    and it even works for multiple ISO on 1 thumb drive!

  7. rickm1945

    Can this same procedure be used for Linux Mint 11? This would be really great if you can. I hvae a few people I would like to introduce to Linux.

  8. Usman

    I haven’t tried it on Linux Mint, but if Linux Mint has GParted and Startup disk creator, then YES !

  9. calvin

    will this work for 11.10

  10. Shashi kumar Raja

    Nice article.I will definitely try it.

  11. Usman

    Calvin: I’m sure it will, since all versions of Ubuntu have GParted and Startup Disk Creator. Personally, I haven’t tried 11.10 yet. Let me know if it worked for you!

  12. Noes

    I tried it with 11.10 and hat to install GParted first.
    But I’ve got a problem with Startup Disk Creator: The part with GParted worked fine but when I start SDC it only shows me my whole flash drive at “Disk to use” and not the single partitions. Any idea?

  13. Usman

    You probably need to scroll down the list. Or you may try unplugging and plugging the USB drive back in.

  14. Noes

    Don’t you think scrolling down is the first thing to try especially when the article itself says “scroll down”?
    i also tried unplugging and restarting ubuntu. The partition is 2048MiB big but the one above is even smaller, so that shouldn’t be the problem.

  15. calvin

    could not fgind i am using virtualbox and tried usb internet but won’t connect or i am not using usb kind

  16. Knarkill

    I tried it with 11.10 and found the same issue as Noes. SDC doesn’t see the partitions, just the flash drive as a whole and the “make startup disk” button is grayed out. SO…..I’m going to go out on a limb and say this method doesn’t work with 11.10.

  17. Anonymous

    Why Ubuntu? Is there no love for any of the other “free” distros like Fedora or SuSE? And if you really want to get your geek on I find it amazing that there isn’t even mention of Slackware anywhere. So why all the love for a distro that has gone horribly wrong by abandoning a well established GUI? Why Ubuntu?


    Ever since Ubuntu switched to the horrible Unity GUI I droped it like a bad habit. And I suggest everyone else do the same at least until Canonical pulls their head out and once again makes GNOME or even KDE the default. Anything but Unity! But that’s not likely going to happen which means we can either go back to the mother ship Debian (which spawned Ubuntu) and which still uses GNOME, or find something else.

    As for me, I’m moving to SuSE. I’ve pretty much had it with these Debian distros that loose their direction. It’s too bad that too many talented geeks want to be the next Bill Gates / Steve Jobs rather than focus on making better software.

  18. xredz

    how to uninstall ubuntu 11.10 in vmware player pls help.

  19. montykupo

    Knarkill and Noes

    have you tried clicking on the ubuntu/linux partition right clicking and reformatting to fat 32 compatible with linux. afterwards it does show in SDC…

  20. Usman

    I agree. Filesystem could be an issue. I’ll update you guys shortly whether or not this works for 11.10.
    To remove ubuntu from the USB drive, simply open GParted, unmount USB drive, delete the ubuntu partition, and resize the Usable partition (or whatever you’ve named it)
    Make sure the contents of the usable partition are backed up beforehand.

  21. josh

    I agree KISS = YUMI. I give YUMI many Kisses :)

  22. TBerg

    Hey Artie (Effim),
    ANY disk partitioning software IS DESTRUCTIVE. (You mentioned that “YOU SHOULD” mention this process is destructive… -Did you look at the 13th screen shot? There is a very self explanatory message box that pops up when you go to write the partition info to the drive…) Then you come along with another YOU SHOULD (“You should tell people that a USB device has a finite number or RW operations…”) Maybe YOU SHOULD get some facts strait before before repeating things that are only partially true? -Of course, I have NO IDEA what you’ve been doing with YOUR flash drives, but I have seen maybe 1 or 2 fail a year, and I work in a college computer lab where students use flash drives CONSTANTLY. -The MAIN cause of flash drives failure / data loss is from removing the drive WHILE it is being written to. (They do not seem to like that!) Yes, a flash device has a certain number of WRITES in it’s life, (NOT R/W CYCLES as you stated). I’ve got a FEW of them, and I do use them a bit (daily)… Chances are you could take an average drive and write to it daily for YEARS before you are limited to reading only from it. It is still readable -and therefore copyable AFTER it is no longer able to write to it. The facts are that one could probably READ from it for a very LONG time before it would need to be refreshed. Yes, theoretically, it is an electrical charge that holds your data in place, so it’s possible to be in BIGGER trouble by storing data, and then not using a flash device. BTW, it IS recommended that one verifies important data written to a flash device -as there is a much higher possibility that the flash device ‘mis-writes’ than fails…

    USMAN -that is a cool article! 60 Billion writes and counting! -That’s way beyond my expectations! Believe it or not, I paid over $2,000 US for my first 1.2 Gig HD… So to hear people complain about a cheap $5 4gig flash drive die kinda irritates me;-)…

    KISS and Josh: YUMI = AWESOME -I have turned a BUNCH of techies on to this lately… I never tried to partition a flashdrive, but I have a nice little 16 MB “Swiss Army Tool” drive that has many distros and utilities on it… I am so amazed at being able to select which one I want to boot from… YUMI is a very useful tool for the technician.

  23. TBerg


    I run a couple different distros. Fedora is also quite good. Has SE built in… UBUNTU is just so quick and easy to install, and it seems to have plug and play down fairly well. Mint seems to be very nice also. It knocked Ubuntu off it’s #1 spot lately.. I hear a lot of people do not like their (Ubuntu) switch from gnome.. I haven’t had time to try out the new Ubuntu -too busy with work and getting term papers written.. With YUMI you can install as many distros as you want to boot from one flashdrive and spend time deciding which distro you like best. YUMI will even download certain ‘flavors’ (from links) to install for you.. and you can delete the iso’s you don’t want to make room for more you want to try out…

  24. Usman

    Thanks for the explanation, TBerg. Much appreciated :)

  25. garry

    one question, if I install ubuntu this way and then in windows i create a ghost bootable recovery iso and put its contents into the fat32 partition , would i be able to make a selection between linux and ghost while booting ???
    just curious .

  26. Usman

    Garry, actually I have no idea about his, but it think this will be a good idea for sure. You might need a different bootloader, Ubuntu’s bootloader (GRUB, right?) might not detect the other bootable partition. Although we have an article on this, but I can’t say if it will work for Windows ghost as well…

  27. EvilFlo

    Montykupo, Knarkill and Noes

    I run Ubuntu 11.10 in VMware player 4, and I formatted the Ubuntu partition on my USB stick as fat32 and it worked out for me.

    Tried it as ext2: Fail.
    Tried it as ext4: Fail.
    Tried it as fat32: Success!

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