How to Make a Bootable Windows USB Install / Recovery Drive

Make a Bootable Windows USB Install
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Microsoft makes it easy to create a bootable USB Flash drive for Windows 10. This nifty little all-purpose tool works to install whichever Windows 10 version it contains. Because it’s bootable, it also serves quite nicely as a bootable recovery drive, should you be unable to start . 

That means you can instruct your PC to boot to the USB drive by interrupting the normal boot sequence. Then, by targeting this drive as your boot source, you can run the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) it contains to conduct repairs on any Windows 10 PC or do a fresh install (see how to get Windows 10 for free or cheap). This is extremely handy when a PC experiences a BSOD or won’t boot and you need to fix the problem or access files on the boot drive. 

Meet the Microsoft Media Creation Tool (aka MCT) 

In order to create a bootable Windows 10 USB drive, you need to get Microsoft’s Media Creation Tool (MCT). 

1. Insert a blank USB Flash drive into your PC. It needs to be at least 8GB. If it’s not blank, note that it will be overwritten.

2. Navigate to Microsoft’s Download Windows 10 page. 

3. Click Download tool now under under “Create Windows 10 installation media” 

Grab the Media Creation Tool from the Download Windows 10 page to build bootable recovery media. (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

This downloads a file named MediaCreationTool.exe to your Downloads folder. I usually rename this file to include the Windows Version at the end of the string, so it becomes MediaCreationTool21H1.exe. Insert a blank or reusable USB flash drive into an open USB port on your PC, and run this tool. First it tells you it’s “Getting a few things ready.” This can take a minute or two, so be patient.

4. Click Accept when prompted. The MCT will continue on “Getting a few things” ready.

Click Accept so you can put the MCT to work building bootable recovery media. (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

5. Select “Create installation media …” and click Next. 

Be sure to click “Creation installation media” or you’ll upgrade the PC you’re working on. (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

6. Choose the language, edition and architecture to match the target PC (the one you want to fix). Most of the time the defaults from your working PC will match those of your target PC, so you can stick with them unchanged as in Figure 4. 

For most users, the defaults shown will work. Change only if necessary.  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

7. Select USB Flash drive.  If you choose ISO, you will later need to write the ISO to a Flash drive so this saves a step. 

To create a bootable USB for recovery, choose the upper radio button (USB). (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

8. Select your USB Flash drive from the storage device menu.Warning! All contents will be overwritten. As you can see in Figure 6, I have numerous USB drives on my PC, and I’ll be recycling a drive which has bootable media for older Windows Version 1709. Once you’ve selected your destination drive, click Next. 

I pick Drive 0: which contains bootable Win10 version 1709.  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The MCT will download a fresh copy of the installation files for Windows 10 to your local C: drive. This usually involves 4-5 GB of material, so it can take a while to complete. On my system, it took about 2 minutes thanks to a gigabit Ethernet connection via Spectrum. A progress indicator counts you through the download process.

As the material for Windows 10 downloads, MCT reports progress in percentages.  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

Once the counter gets to 100%, it then verifies the download and counts through its check in percentages there as well. I’ll skip the screencap of this step. Once it hits 100% - this process can take a minute or two – then the MCT writes the contents of the USB drive. When that’s done you’ll see a “ready” report like the one shown in Figure 8. Click Finish to complete the process and close the MCT. 

When the MCT writes the bootable files to the drive, it tells you it’s ready.  (Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

The process concludes with a brief cleanup to get rid of temporary files and other detritus. Then the MCT exits. Now, you’ve got a brand-new, ready-to-use bootable USB flash drive with Windows 10 21H1 (or whatever version is current as you read this).

Booting Your Windows 10 Install USB

As a Windows PC is booting, you may be able to interrupt the boot sequence before the Windows loader gets going by striking a function or special key on that machine. On my newer Lenovo PCs, the BIOS tells me that striking the proverbial “any” key will interrupt initial boot-up. If I take that route, I must then strike the F12 function key to get to an alternate boot menu.  

If you can boot into Windows, you can force your PC to boot off the USB drive on restart. If you click through Start 🡪 Settings 🡪 Update & Security 🡪 Recovery 🡪 Advanced Startup 🡪 Restart Now, your PC will restart immediately and offer the Recovery environment as an option upon start-up. Either way, as long as you’ve got the USB drive plugged into a USB port as the system restarts, you will then be able to boot from that device into WinRE. If you boot to this drive, you can also use it to perform a clean install of Windows 10 on your PC by running setup.exe from the drive’s root folder. It will take over from there.

On the other hand, if you want to, you can upgrade your PC to whichever version of Windows 10 is present on your USB flash drive. Simply run setup.exe from the root folder to launch the upgrade process, and the software will take it from there.

Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a long-time IT writer, researcher and consultant, and occasional contributor to Tom’s Hardware. A Windows Insider MVP since 2018, he likes to cover OS-related driver, troubleshooting, and security topics.

  • Arbie
    Even better, use the free version of the superb image / backup app "Macrium Reflect". That too will make a bootable USB - and will quickly and easily make full images of any drive (I just use it to image C) which it can almost as quickly and easily restore, using that USB.

    Can't say enough good things about this app except that the interface can be a little confusing at first. But well worth learning. It's saved me many times.
  • DotNetMaster777
    Very good tutorial !!