How to Boot a Linux Live USB Drive on Your Mac

Think you can just plug a standard Linux live USB drive into your Mac and boot from it? Think again. You’ll need to go out of your way to create a live Linux USB drive that will boot on a Mac.

This can be quite a headache, but we’ve found a graphical utility that makes this easy. You’ll be able to quickly boot Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Kali Linux, and other mainstream Linux distributions on your Mac.

The Problem

Apple’s made it difficult to boot non-Mac OS X operating systems off of USB drives. While you can connect an external CD/DVD drive to your Mac and boot from standard Linux live CDs and USBs, simply connecting a Linux live USB drive created by standard tools like Universal USB Installer and uNetbootin to a Mac won’t work.

There are several ways around this. For example, Ubuntu offers some painstaking instructions that involve converting the USB drive’s file system and making its partitions bootable, but some people report these instructions won’t work for them. There’s a reason Ubuntu recommends just burning a disc.

rEFInd should allow you to boot those USB drives if you install it on your Mac. But you don’t have to install this alternative UEFI boot manager on your Mac. The solution below should allow you to create Linux live USB drives that will boot on modern Macs without any additional fiddling or anything extra — insert, reboot, and go.

Use Mac Linux USB Loader

A tool named “Mac Linux USB Loader” by SevenBits worked well for us. This Mac application will allow you to create USB drives with your preferred Linux distro on them from within Mac OS X in just a few clicks. You can then reboot and boot those USB drives to use the Linux distribution from the live system.

Note: Be sure to move the Mac Linux USB Loader application to your Applications folder before running it. This will avoid a missing “Enterprise Source” error later.

First, insert the USB drive into your Mac and open the Disk Utility application. Check that the USB drive is formatted with an MS-DOS (FAT) partition. If it isn’t, delete the partition and create a FAT partition — not an ExFAT partition.

Next, open the Mac Linux USB Loader application you downloaded. Select the “Create Live USB” option if you’ve already downloaded a Linux ISO file. If not, select the “Distribution Downloader” option to easily download Linux distribution ISOs for use with this tool.

Select the Linux distribution’s ISO file you downloaded and choose a connected USB drive to put the Linux system on.

Choose the appropriate options and click “Begin Installation” to continue. Mac Linux USB Loader will create a bootable USB drive that will work on your Mac and boot into that Linux distribution without any problems or hacks.

Before booting the drive, you may want to change some other options here. For example, you can set up “persistence” on the drive and part of the USB drive will be reserved for your files and settings. This only works for Ubuntu-based distributions.

Click “Persistence Manager” on the main screen, choose your drive, select how much of the drive should be reserved for persistent data, and click “Create Persistence” to enable this.

Booting the Drive

To actually boot the drive, reboot your Mac and hold down the Option key while it boots. You’ll see the boot options menu appear. Select the connected USB drive. The Mac will boot the Linux system from the connected USB drive.

If your Mac just boots to the login screen and you don’t see the boot options menu, reboot your Mac again and hold down the Option key earlier in the boot process.

This solution will allow you to boot common Linux USB drives on your Mac. You can just boot and use them normally without modifying your system.

Exercise caution before attempting to install a Linux system to your Mac’s internal drive. That’s a more involved process.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.