How to Install Ubuntu on a USB Drive

The name Ubuntu comes to mind when you think of Linux distributions. Over the years, Ubuntu has emerged as the next best operating system for many users looking for a reliable alternative to Windows. Ubuntu is lightweight compared to Windows and doesn’t require a jacked-up laptop or desktop to run smoothly.

But can you install and run Ubuntu from a USB drive? Yes, it is possible to install Ubuntu on a flash drive so you have a portable version of Ubuntu that you can plug into any system and use when needed.

Requirements for installing Ubuntu on a USB

To install Ubuntu on a USB drive, you need two USB drives that are 16GB or larger. You are using a USB drive as bootable media. The second USB drive contains the actual Ubuntu installation. For easier understanding, we name the bootable drive “USB drive 1” and the installation drive “USB drive 2“.

Remember that you must use USB 3.0 drives. When using a USB 2.0 drive, it has slow read and write speeds. It can take a while to install Ubuntu on a USB 2.0 drive. While the installation process takes a long time, it will complete faster with a USB 3.0 drive. Also, we use Windows 11 as the host operating system, but you can also create a bootable USB stick with Linux.

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First you need to create a bootable Ubuntu USB drive with Rufus. Then you need to install the operating system on USB Drive 2. After that, you need to copy the Ubuntu EFI files from the Windows ESP partition and paste them into the USB Drive 2 EFI folder.

You must first download both Rufus and the Ubuntu ISO image file onto your system.

Downloads: Rufus

Downloads: Ubuntu

Connect USB drive 1 to your system and follow these steps:

  1. Launch Rufus by double-clicking the downloaded executable. Under the device In the section, click the arrow button to select USB Drive 1.
  2. Then navigate down and click on the Choose Button. Locate the downloaded Ubuntu ISO file and click Open.
  3. Click on that beginning button is below. Rufus will tell you about the “ISOHybrid image detected“. Do not change anything and click OK Button.
  4. Rufus warns you about deleting all data on USB drive 1. Click OK to start creating the bootable USB device.
  5. Wait for the process to complete. Finally click on the Close key to exit Rufus.

You have successfully created a bootable Ubuntu USB drive.

Step 2: Install Ubuntu on the USB drive

In this part, you will use bootable USB drive 1 to install Ubuntu on USB drive 2.

First, restart your system. Press hastily F10 to bring up the boot device menu. The key to access the boot menu may be different on different systems (Esc, F2, F10 or F12). Check out our in-depth guide on how to enter BIOS in Windows 10/11 for more information.

Now choose USB drive 1 with the arrow keys and press Enter to boot. The Ubuntu GRUB menu will open. Choose Ubuntu and press Enter to get to the setup. Now click on the Try Ubuntu Tile. Once you enter the Ubuntu desktop, click on the Install Ubuntu quick access icon.

The Ubuntu installation window will launch. press the Continue Button. Keep the default keyboard layout and click Continue Button.

Select the Minimal installation option in the next window. Disable those Download updates while installing Ubuntu Possibility.

Now you need to choose the installation type. Since there are multiple storage drives, you cannot go with that one Erase hard drive and install Ubuntu Possibility. Otherwise your hard drive will be erased and your primary operating system removed.

Choose Something else option and then click the Continue Button. Now locate USB drive 2 in the list of available devices. Be sure to check the capacity and identify the correct drive. right click on existing partitions on the USB drive 2 and select it Extinguish Possibility.

Once you see all free space listed under USB drive 2, right click on it and select Add to Possibility. Leave the partition size at 500 MB and do not change the rest of the settings. Click on that Use as drop down menu and select EFI system partition. Then click the OK Create partition button.

Right click on the remaining free space and select the Add to Possibility. Do not change the size, type or position. Keep those too Use as option as the Ext4 journaling file system.

Now choose / as the mount point and click on it OK. At this point, USB drive 2 must have an EFI and an Ext4 partition in the list of available devices.

Go to Bootloader installation device option and select USB Drive 2 from the list. Then click the Install now Button.

Select your geographic location, enter your username and password and click Continue Button. Wait patiently for the installation to complete. Depending on the USB drive generation and the USB port you are using for this process, this may take an hour or more.

After the installation is complete, click Proceed to test because we still need to make changes to USB Drive 2.

Step 3: Copy Ubuntu EFI files from Windows drive to USB drive 2

Modern motherboards have UEFI. While the new firmware has its perks, there is a small issue with it. It can contain only one ESP partition on a system. So even if you select USB drive 2 for bootloader installation, the files will still be stored in the existing ESP partition and no new one will be created for USB drive 2.

Also, since the Ubuntu EFI files are currently on your system, you cannot boot to USB Drive 2 on another PC.

A simple change is to remove the hard drive from your system and then try to install Ubuntu on USB Drive 2. It will not be able to find the ESP partition and will put all EFI files for Ubuntu there. But if you don’t want to remove the hard drive from your system, there is still a workaround.

You can copy the newly created EFI files for Ubuntu stored in the default ESP partition to USB drive 2. After that, you can easily boot from Ubuntu USB on any system. You also need to copy some necessary boot files from the Ubuntu ISO file.

After clicking the Proceed to test button, press the great key and look for the hard drives utility.

Launch it and then locate the bootable USB drive. You don’t have to assemble it. Go to content area and click on the one after the mentioned path Mounted at Label. Copy the EFI folder.

Next, go to Disk Utility and select it USB drive 2. Mount its EFI partition by clicking To play Symbol. Open the folder location by clicking on the path as in the previous step.

You will find that the EFI partition is empty. Paste the EFI folder that you copied in the second step. Open Disk Utility again and select the system hard drive containing the Windows installation.

Click on that Windows EFI partition and then click the To play icon to mount it. Now go to the location of the EFI folder by clicking on the path that follows the Mounted at Label. Navigate to EFI > Ubuntu. copy that grub.cfg file and shimx64.efi files.

Go to the USB drive’s EFI folder window 2. Paste the copied files into the Boots folder.

Reopen the Windows EFI partition folder and delete the Ubuntu folder from there. Close all open windows and restart your system.

Now access the boot menu and select USB Drive 2 as the current boot drive. You will boot to the Ubuntu desktop in a few minutes. Finish the system setup and then use Ubuntu as you would with a desktop install.

Use your portable Ubuntu installation on any system

Installing Ubuntu on a USB drive is a slightly longer process compared to regular desktop installation. Be sure to use a USB 3.0 drive and port for this experiment. Also, be extremely careful when copying and making changes to the EFI partition folder. Do not delete any folder except Ubuntu from the system drive.

If you like the interface and experience of the Ubuntu desktop, you may consider dual booting your existing Windows installation with Ubuntu.

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