can you connect external hard drive to raspberry pi

Can You Connect an External Hard Drive to Raspberry Pi?

Unlike most computers, the Raspberry Pi doesn’t use an HDD or SSD natively, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to add one.

As a general rule, the Raspberry Pi is designed to work with only a micro SD card. However, most models have USB ports, allowing one to connect an external drive of any kind to the Raspberry Pi.

Let’s explore your options, and I’ll then briefly explain how to connect an additional drive to your system if you need it.

If you need help getting started on Raspberry Pi, I have an entire course to guide you through your first steps. I’ll help you use the perfect hardware, plug everything in and install your first system. You’ll also do your first projects with me, just to make sure you are ready for the next level. Get all the information on this page if you are interested.

Can you connect an external hard drive to a Raspberry Pi?

Most Raspberry Pi models have at least one USB port that can be used to connect an external USB drive to it. The operating system should then recognize the device and be able to read or write to it (if the file system is supported).

I’ll give more details later, but USB drives can be used for backups, extra storage or even as the main drive for devices supporting USB boot (all recent models).

Just keep in mind that some models (like the Raspberry Pi Zero and Zero 2) don’t have a traditional USB port (type A), but a micro USB port instead. It’s not impossible to plug a USB drive (you can use an adapter), but it might not work with all external drives.

The same kind of limitation with A models (like the Raspberry Pi 3A+) that have only one USB port. It isn’t a problem to plug in a flash drive, but you can’t use an external HDD requiring two cables.

Also, the Raspberry Pi Pico is in a different category (it’s a microcontroller), so even if it has a USB port on it, don’t expect to plug your hard drive into it.

Types of hard drives supported by the Raspberry Pi

The latest Raspberry Pi models have 4 USB ports and support external hard drives of all kinds: flash drives, USB drives, and even SSDs (of all shapes and sizes, as long as you can connect them to the Pi via USB or a HAT).

Let’s list your options.

Download the Pi Glossary!
If you are lost in all these new words and abbreviations, request my free Raspberry Pi glossary here (PDF format)!
Download now

USB flash drives

The most common use of external storage with a Raspberry Pi is to simply plug in a flash drive (thumb drive, pen drive, stick, whatever you call them!).

Flash drives can be used for external storage, but also for USB boot on models supporting it. It’s often more convenient to flash a new system on them instead of using the traditional SD card.

I even did a video a while ago, explaining why I’m no longer using SD cards:

If you use Raspberry Pi Imager on your computer to install new operating systems, it will recognize the flash drive like any SD card, and you can write your system files directly to it. And with a supported device, the system can boot directly on it (I have a tutorial here if you need more details).

Obviously, a thumb drive is an easy way to transfer files with a Raspberry Pi (when you can’t use the network at least).

My favorite brand for flash drives (and SD cards) is SanDisk, and here is the model I use all the time on Amazon. But unless you’ll use it as your main storage, it doesn’t matter that much, you can use any stick you have at hand (just remember that you’ll probably need to erase it).

Portable hard drives

Another option that can be convenient for additional storage and backups are portable hard drives. It’s the usual hard drive we have used in computers forever, and are really cheap for a large amount of storage.

Here is what I mean by portable hard drive:

can you connect external hard drive to raspberry pi

You can get 4TB of additional storage for less than $100 (here for example), and they generally take only one USB port (as for flash drives).

It’s a solid option if you want to schedule backups from your Raspberry Pi to an external drive (highly recommended), or simply have access to plenty of files (like with media center or retro gaming projects).

Just make sure you have a good power supply, or it might not work as well as it could. I generally add a powered USB hub for this. You can also use an external drive with its own power supply to avoid these issues (like this one).

Solid-state drives (SSD)

SSDs are fast, quiet, and affordable alternatives to traditional hard drives (HDDs). They are especially useful with a Raspberry Pi when used as the main storage to get an overall performance boost.

SSDs can be found in a similar format as portable hard drives (like this one from SanDisk I generally recommend), or in a more compact format, as the ones used in laptops. You can even get a case like the Argon One M2 or the Pironman that have slots for one:

Anyway, SSDs can be used for all kinds of applications (OS installation, added storage, backups, file transfer, etc.), are no longer that expensive, and are probably your best option if you don’t want to rely on SD cards too much.

That’s all great, but once you’ve chosen the right drive format for your needs, how do you use it with your Raspberry Pi? Good question, let’s talk about it.

How to connect an external hard drive to a Raspberry Pi

The desktop version of Raspberry Pi OS should detect any external hard drive connected to the USB ports automatically. With the Lite version or remote access, a few command lines are required to mount the drive.

Download the Pi Glossary!
If you are lost in all these new words and abbreviations, request my free Raspberry Pi glossary here (PDF format)!
Download now

Keep in mind that, in most cases, your Raspberry Pi will be running a Linux operating system, which while fully capable of using external drives, may have different requirements than your other computers.

insert usb drive raspberry pi

Each external drive is formatted with a specific file format and partition structure. I won’t get into all the details here, but in short, even if you can read and write files on the drive from your Mac or PC, it doesn’t mean it will work the same way on the Raspberry Pi.

I have a full step-by-step guide on how to format and mount USB drives on a Raspberry Pi that I highly recommend reading to know everything about it.

Note: If your Raspberry Pi model has blue USB ports (USB 3.0), try to use them as a priority for the external hard drive. Transfer speeds are higher with them, and your keyboard doesn’t need more speed :-).

Download Your Essential Linux Commands Guide!
It's a free PDF guide containing every Raspberry Pi Linux command you should know!
Download now

Common issues with external drives

If you are still having problems after following the previous link and properly preparing your external drive for the Raspberry Pi, here are two bonus tips to consider.

Hard drive not recognized

Whether you use the command line or the graphical interface, the Raspberry Pi should at least detect that a device is plugged into it.

However, if you can’t access the files or write new ones on it, it’s most likely a formatting issue.

I recommend using FAT32 for your file system, which should work natively on all computers (Raspberry Pi, Linux, Windows, Mac). If you try to use other formats, you may have an incompatibility that can explain the problem.

Also, make sure that your disk is not using some kind of proprietary drivers or encryption software. If Windows has encrypted it with BitLocker, for example, you won’t be able to read it on the Raspberry Pi.

Insufficient power supply

Another common problem that I already mentioned previously is a power supply issue.

It’s already hard to keep a Raspberry Pi working at optimal levels, even with the official power supply (as explained here). Once you add an external drive, it’s even more complicated, especially if you don’t use a powered USB hub or another kind of dedicated power supply for the USB device.

If your hard drive is often disconnected, this may be the cause. Try to identify power supply problems or use a different drive.

Download Your Essential Linux Commands Guide!
It's a free PDF guide containing every Raspberry Pi Linux command you should know!
Download now

🛠 This tutorial doesn't work anymore? Report the issue here, so that I can update it!

Want to chat with other Raspberry Pi enthusiasts? Join the community, share your current projects and ask for help directly in the forums.

Why should you use an external hard drive?

So, all is well. You now know that it’s possible to use an external hard drive with a Raspberry Pi, what kind of hardware you can use, and how to connect it to your Raspberry Pi.

But do you really need one? Here are a few reasons why you might want to add one to your setup.

Backups

Using an SD card for everything is not reliable. It can be easily corrupted, lost or destroyed while using the Raspberry Pi.

Having some kind of external storage is a good practice, whether it’s for the operating system directly, or as a backup device, it’s your choice. But just make sure you have regular backups of your installation.

Ideally, you want to send your backups to another computer (or a NAS), but having them on an external drive is already a good idea.

You might want to read this article for more details: The Ultimate Guide to Backup and Restore your Raspberry Pi.

Performance

You can get a significant performance boost by switching from an SD card to an SSD for your operating system. Even when connected via USB, a system installed on an SSD will boot much faster than an SD card, and be more responsive once started.

This is particularly useful if you use a Raspberry Pi as your main computer, or for projects where you work a lot with the graphical interface (like programming or things like that). But even for servers, adding an SSD is not that expensive and can speed up everything.

As mentioned earlier, you can simply get an SSD and plug it into your USB ports, or use a case like the Pironman (check my review here), that comes with a slot for it.

❤️ Love Raspberry Pi & writing?
Combine your passions and get paid. Write for RaspberryTips!

Space

While it’s now possible to get SD cards up to 1TB in space, it’s easier and cheaper to get an external drive with more storage.

If you need a lot of disk space for your projects, having a USB drive is generally a good idea, whether it’s the main drive or not.

Typically, for some of the projects on this website, like if you want to host your personal cloud or a more traditional file server, you won’t do it with only 16GB on an SD card. Same for virtual machines or to install Windows 11 on the Raspberry Pi.

Whenever you’re ready, here are other ways I can help you:

The RaspberryTips Community: If you want to hang out with me and other Raspberry Pi fans, you can join the community. I share exclusive tutorials and behind-the-scenes content there. Premium members can also visit the website without ads.

Master your Raspberry Pi in 30 days: If you are looking for the best tips to become an expert on Raspberry Pi, this book is for you. Learn useful Linux skills and practice multiple projects with step-by-step guides.

The Raspberry Pi Bootcamp: Understand everything about the Raspberry Pi, stop searching for help all the time, and finally enjoy completing your projects.

Master Python on Raspberry Pi: Create, understand, and improve any Python script for your Raspberry Pi. Learn the essentials step-by-step without losing time understanding useless concepts.

You can also find all my recommendations for tools and hardware on this page.

Sharing is caring!

Similar Posts