How to Install Linux OS on USB Drive and Run it On Any PC

Ever thought of using any computer which is not yours, with all your personal stuff and configuration? It is possible with any Linux distribution. Yes! You can use your own, customized Linux OS on any machine with just a USB drive.

Read Also: How to Install CentOS 7 in a USB Drive

This tutorial is all about installing Latest Linux OS on your pen-drive ( fully reconfigurable personalized OS, NOT just a Live USB ), customize it, and use it on any PC you have access to. Here I am using Lubuntu 18.04 Bionic beaver for this tutorial (but, you can use any Linux distribution). So let’s gets started.

Requirements:

  1. One Pendrive 4GB or More (Let’s call it as Main USB drive/Pendrive).
  2. One more Pen drive or DVD disk to use as bootable Linux installation media.
  3. Linux OS ISO file, for example Lubuntu 18.04.
  4. One PC (Warning: Disconnect internal hard drives to prevent boot record alteration).

Important: While this procedure will not cause loss of data, some users have experienced changes to their internal drive’s bootup behavior depending on Linux distributions selected. To prevent any possibility of this occurrence, you may wish to disconnect your hard drive before continuing with the USB install portion of the tutorial.”

TIP: Use 32 bit Linux OS to make it compatible with any available PC.

That’s it! Go, and collect all of these. It’s time to do something new.

Step 1: Create Bootable Linux Installation Media

Use your Linux ISO image file to create a bootable USB installation media. You can use any software like Unetbootin, Gnome Disk Utility, Yumi Multi Boot, xboot, Live USB Creator, etc. to create bootable USB with the help of ISO image file.

Alternatively, you can use DVD disk by writing that ISO image to it (but that is the old school method).

Step 2: Create Partitions On Main USB Drive

You have to make two partitions on your Main USB drive using Gparted or Gnome Disk Utility, etc.

  • The root partition of format ext4 of size according to your use.
  • Optionally you can use the rest of the space as a FAT partition for using it as a normal USB drive.

I am having 16GB USB drive and I have created one root partition of 5GB and using rest 11GB as normal FAT partition. So my 16 GB USB drive is converted to 11GB drive for normal use on any PC. Sounds good!!!

This step you can do while installing Linux also, but it will be very complex while installing Operating Systems like Arch Linux.

Main USB Drive Partitions

Main USB Drive Partitions

Once you have created required partitions on the Main USB drive. Now take a deep breath because it’s time to go for Linux installation section.

Step 3: Install Linux on USB Drive

1. First, boot Linux OS (Lubuntu 18.04) from your bootable installation media and launch installation application from a live session. Live session of Lubuntu 18.04 will look like this.

Lubuntu Live Boot

Lubuntu Live Boot

2. Installer welcome screen will appear, select Language there and hit Continue.

Select Lubuntu Installation Language

Select Lubuntu Installation Language

3. Select Keyboard Layout and continue…

Select Lubuntu Keyboard Layout

Select Lubuntu Keyboard Layout

4. Select Wifi internet if you want to update Lubuntu while installation. I will skip it.

Select Wifi to Update Lubuntu

Select Wifi to Update Lubuntu

5. Select Installation Type and Third-party installation as per your choice and go to next..

Select Lubuntu Software Updates

Select Lubuntu Software Updates

6. Here select Something Else Option (It is Mandatory) and go to next…

Select Lubuntu Installation Type

Select Lubuntu Installation Type

7. This is an Important step, here you need to find out where your Main USB drive is mounted.

Find Main USB Drive

Find Main USB Drive

In my case /dev/sda are an internal hard disk of the PC and I am using /dev/sdb is USB Lubuntu Installation media from where this live session is booted.

And /dev/sdc is my Main USB drive where I want to install my Linux system and where I have made two partitions in step number 2. If you have skipped step 2, you can also make partitions in this window.

First, change the mount point of the first partition on this Main USB drive to ROOT (i.e. “ / ”). And as shown in the second red square select bootloader installation device as the Main USB drive.

In my case it is /dev/sdc. This is the most important step in this tutorial. If it is not done correctly your system will boot only on the current PC you are using, which is exactly opposite of your motivation to follow this tutorial.

Once it is completed, double-check it and hit continue. You will get a small window showing devices and drive which will be affected.

8. Make sure that the device and drives shown on this window are of your Main USB drive, which is in my case /dev/sdc. Hit continue

Write Partition Changes to Disk

Write Partition Changes to Disk

9. Now select your Region and hit Continue

Select Lubuntu Region

Select Lubuntu Region

10. Add username, password, and hostname, etc…

Create Lubuntu User

Create a Lubuntu User

11. Let the installation finish.

Lubuntu Installation

Lubuntu Installation

12. After completing installation hit restart and remove your installation media and press Enter.

Lubuntu Installation Completes

Lubuntu Installation Completes

13. Congratulations, you have successfully installed your own Linux OS on your pen drive to use it on any PC. Now you can connect a USB drive to any PC and start your system on that PC by simply selecting boot from USB option while booting.

Step 4: Customize the Lubuntu System

Now it’s time for fun. Just boot your system on any PC and start customizing. You can install any software you want. You can change Themes, Icon themes, install docker.

You can add and store your online accounts on it. Install/modify/customize whatever you want. All the changes will be permanent. They will not change or reset after rebooting or booting on other PCs.

The following figure shows my customized Lubuntu 18.04.

Lubuntu Running on USB Drive

Lubuntu Running on USB Drive

The main advantage of this method is you can use your personal stuff, your online accounts securely on any PC. You can even do secure online transactions as well on any available PC.

I hope it will be helpful for you, if you have questions regarding this article, please feel free to ask in the comment section below.

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123 Responses

  1. bobcov says:

    Unfortunately, this tutorial never worked for me. Some builds would not boot at all, some would boot on the UEFI machine, but not on the older PC, some the other way around and worst of all, it messed up my Win7 boot partition.

    But what is working is very simple, took about 10 minutes total and did not alter or touch my hard drive: Mint 19 and Universal-USB-Installer-1.9.8.8 (UUI). I set UUI to format to NTFS, persistence to 30 GB. Boots on both machines.

    I ordered a super-fast USB stick and will set that up with an additional partition for hibernation. Thanks, everyone who had suggestions and tips.

  2. bobcov says:

    Hi, Amit. Unless I did something wrong, I think there is a reason to change your tutorial. One of the emphasized points, “One PC (Don’t worry, there will not be any effect on that PC),” appears to be in error.

    I think you should advise people to disconnect their hard drive before following these steps so that Grub does not end up depriving them of the ability to boot Win7 unless the USB stick is in the drive. Not ideal. I”m repeating the steps again after recovering from this. And my hard drive is definitely disconnected this time.

  3. Bobcov says:

    Ah, that’s very interesting. So, after creating an EFI partition on the USB stick, I could copy the EFI/ubuntu directory to it? I’ve fallen down an extensive rabbit hole working on this, delving into GPT and boot processes and all manner of things unrelated to the task at hand. But this morning, with a cloned hard drive, I will attempt the instructions given earlier.

    • Mihvoi says:

      @Bob Most likely, your Win7 boot does not work without USB because Linux installed the Grub in your hard drive instead of USB.

      There should be no damage if your Win7 was installed in EFI mode; Linux puts its files in the EFI/ESP partition along with the Windows files (will not delete them). Normally you should be able to select Windows from the “Bios” (actually EFI), from a Boot menu, to boot Windows first and not “Ubuntu/Lubuntu/etc.

      A more permanent solution is to move the Linux directories (like EFI/ubuntu and EFI/Boot) from the EFI directory of the ESP/EFI partition of your hard drive. Better, copy them to the USB’s EFI partition, so the USB can boot on other systems too.

      If Win7 was installed in Bios mode it is different, like booting Win7 and running from an Administrator command prompt: “fixboot” and “fixmbr”

      • bobcov says:

        The problem was that the steps in the tutorial altered the behavior of the host machine, in direct contradiction to the promise in the requirements list at the top of the tutorial: “One PC (Don’t worry, there will not be any effect on that PC).” Had that been accurate, none of this conversation would exist.

        Your statement “Most likely, your Win7 boot does not work without USB because Linux installed the Grub in your hard drive instead of USB” reflects exactly what happened and undoing it was not easy, although I have since read that maybe an x86 tool called “Bootice” might have been able to handle the editing of the bios boot device list without requiring working Linux.

        • Mihvoi says:

          There is an old Ubuntu bug to install boot on your PC’s hard drive, even if you create EFI partition and select boot target on USB. I struggled a long time until I found that short fix – to move/copy EFI files from PC to USB.

          Normally nothing is deleted on PC if you don’t choose to format partitions on the hard drive. Just that you will have 2 additional directories on PC’s EFI partition that change the normal booting: Ubuntu boot will become first in the boot options list, and its Grub depends on files on USB.

          After the above installation, you should be able to also select the Windows EFI boot from your “Bios” in the Boot menu – without any USB. Moving the Ubuntu files from PC would fully eliminate the confusion. If this does not work, maybe you inadvertently formatted the EFI or system partition on your PC. It’s ideal to remove the hard drive first, however, it is tedious to remove the disk in a laptop.

          On another point, Ubuntu EFI install on USB will use EFI filesystem UUID, so it should not depend on the disk order (like sdb or sdc).

          • bobcov says:

            Yep. Bad tutorial instructions which do not reflect what actually happens when you follow the step by step.

          • Ravi Saive says:

            @Bobcov,

            Could you instruct where we need to make changes in the article, so that article should be 100% working correctly.

          • bobcov says:

            Sure, I would amend the last bullet point. It currently reads as “One PC (Don’t worry, there will not be any effect on that PC).” I would change it to read: “One PC (Warning: Disconnect internal hard drives to prevent boot record alteration.*).

            And the "*" could lead to the further explanatory text below: “*While this procedure will not cause loss of data, some users have experienced changes to their internal drive’s bootup behavior depending on Linux distributions selected. To prevent any possibility of this occurrence, you may wish to disconnect your hard drive before continuing with the USB install portion of the tutorial.”

          • Ravi Saive says:

            @Bobcov

            Thanks for the note, updated in the article. Please check and confirm.

          • bob says:

            The edit looks fine to me. Thanks for the hard work you do here. There was one other part where I had trouble, but I didn’t write down how I got around it. It’s the part where you are supposed to make "/" the mount point.

            After I figured it out, it was stupidly obvious, but now that I have forgotten, I’m the one who is obviously stupid. If you could add a step by step of how exactly to get that "/" to show up on the drive you want it to be on, that would be great.

  4. Bob says:

    Hi, thanks for the tutorial. Things got a bit mysterious in Step 7 as there was no instruction on exactly how to set the mountpoint and it wasn’t exactly clear sequentially if I should reformat my already formatted partitions, but I eventually stumbled into it.

    But my problem is that for reasons unknown, the install touched my Win7 hard drive, which was not supposed to be part of any process. Without the USB in, I get a Grub command prompt. With the USB in I get a text menu and can boot into Windows 7. Why did this happen and how can I undo it? This is what I get for not remembering until at an awkward point that maybe I should remove my internal drive to prevent exactly this scenario.

    • Cameron says:

      Hey, Bob, I had a similar issue. You can read my post about it in this thread. The reason it happened is that you didn’t partition an ESP boot partition on your USB for the GRUB bootloader. Windows uses the same type of ESP partitioning for its bootloader as Linux does.

      When you did the install the installer automatically looked for an ESP partition and it found the one on your main OS drive and automatically installed GRUB on it because there were no others. Honestly, the best way to get over this issue is to remove all drives but the USB you’re installing Linux on to.

      Alternatively, you can make sure that you make a 500MB ESP partition on the USB for the bootloader and it should ask you if you want to install the bootloader on the USB. As I said, the best way to do it is by removing the drives and you really can’t make any mistakes.

      Let me know if you want a link to fix and repair your windows bootloader. There is an awesome tutorial on youtube that shows how to completely remove the damaged windows boot partition and reinstall all of the original boot files like it was never touched.

      • bobcov says:

        Hi, thanks very much for that information. Yes, I would like to get your links on how to fix this. I’m scouring the house for a spare 1 TB drive so that I can make a mirror backup and then try the procedure first on the mirror to make sure it works.

        As for my USB drive, do I need to scrap it and start over and make the ESP partition, then the Linux, then the FAT? I had 10gb Ext4, 110gb fat32. Would the install have created an esp partition if it could not have found one on the USB if I had (intelligently) removed the hard drive?

        • Cameron says:

          Hey, again Bob! Here is the link to completely repair your windows bootloader partition youtu.be/F72D7uL6cZg.

          Also, to answer your question about unplugging all of your drives except for the USB, the answer is yes. If the USB is the only recognizable drive then it will automatically create an ESP partition and install the bootloader on your USB drive and installation is foolproof with absolutely no mistakes.

          I used two different USB drives for mine. the bootable live version of Linux mint on one of my USB drives and I formatted the other one to Fat32 so Linux would recognize it. Mind you before I even turned on my computer I disconnected all of my main drives but the USB sticks. I then booted into the Linux installation media and then mounted the other USB drive that I wanted the full install on.

          After that, you just follow the installation instructions and partition your root and free space as you want. After that as long as your main drives are disconnected everything will go smoothly and install onto your target USB drive. Some distros are different than others with the dialogue and way they install.

          Linux mint let me pick the drive I wanted to install on which was obviously the only USB stick beside the one I booted from. You will easily be able to tell them apart. Linux asked me how I wanted to partition the drive so I make all of it root. You don’t have to do this, but that is how I did mine.

          Lastly, there was a checkbox that asked if I wanted the bootloader on the selected drive that I was installing Linux too and I checked it yes. After that, it will install no problems and you can boot from it in your boot menu. Just make sure you have fast boot turned off in the bios of any computer you want to boot your portable Linux OS on or it won’t let you select it the USB at your boot menu.

          No matter what distro you use though, even if you don’t have the option like I had in mint to tell it which drive to put the bootloader on as long as you have all of your drives disconnected and make at least a root partition on your target USB stick in the installer it will automatically default to installing the boot partition and bootloader on said USB stick along with the entire OS.

          After that, you will have a portable OS that you can use on almost any modern computer that has fast boot turned off. Let me know how it goes! I have already tested my USB stick on 4 different computers and it boots up and runs awesome and it is my fully customized OS in my pocket.

          Lastly, if you want a suggestion on the perfect USB drive to use for your portable OS I would highly recommend the Samsung Fit. It is the size of the tip of my finger and has 128gb of space and you can get them up to 256gb.

          It is super fast and does 4K read-write which is perfect for an OS. Mine runs super smooth and flawlessly without any hiccups and it is the smallest drive I have ever seen. I’ll put the link for that drive below. They are only $20 on Amazon – www.amazon.com/dp/B07D7PDLXC/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apap_TUaViVnTXOmzM.

          • bobcov says:

            Well, after many days of diversion (getting seriously side-tracked), I finally have a backed-up drive, a Win7 boot repair disk and this lovely message from following the youtube tutorial: “This tool can only be run on systems booted using a PC/AT BIOS. This system was booted using EFI or some other firmware type.” So, now I will hunt down equivalent EFI compatible commands.

          • bobcov says:

            Well, that was truly as I would imagine a root canal would feel with no pain killer. Wow. If you followed the tutorial to install Linux to USB and now your Win7 hard drive will only boot when the USB stick is in, this is what I did to fix it. (Word to the wise: REMOVE your hard drive before following the tutorial, then you won’t have to go through this.)

            If you do NOT have “ubuntu” or similar Linux-related entries in your boot device list in BIOS, you can probably skip the steps involving efibootmgr. I am no expert. If these steps fail along the way I likely have no answers for you. Good luck.

            Set the boot order in BIOS to favor the boot DVD and then the Ubuntu boot device (most computers let you skip past the DVD).

            • Make a bootable Windows repair disk.
            • Clone (not backup, but that would be a good idea, too) your hard drive to another drive. I used Easus Todo Backup free ( While repairing my primary disk, I see Easus hid a eumonbmp.sys file inside the EFI partition. Not cool. It’s gone for now.)
            • Boot to the wonderful Linux distro that got you into this mess.
            • Open terminal. (Look in system tools if you don’t see it)
            • Enter “sudo efibootmgr” If not installed, then “sudo apt-get install efibootmgr” first.
            • Remove the “ubuntu” entry by referencing the last letter or numerical character in its “Bootxxxx” label. In my case, it is “Boot000B* ubuntu” So, my alph-numeric character is “B“.

            The command is “sudo efibootmgr -b x -B” where the “x” is replaced by the alpha-numeric for the entry you want to delete. In my case, the command would be “sudo efibootmgr -b B -B“.

            After the command is entered, the screen displays the updated boot device list. Your “ubuntu” entry should be gone.

            Now we will use Linux to remove the ubuntu sub-directory in the EFI partition. If you boot windows to do this in a Repair disc session, your work here will be undone by the system before you can even get to a command prompt. Don’t try to do this in Windows.

            The following steps come from https://askubuntu.com/questions/63610/how-do-i-remove-ubuntu-in-the-bios-boot-menu-uefi

            • Issue “sudo fdisk -l” (not the number 1, but the small letter l) Find the line that shows a disk of 100-500mb. It should be of type “EFI System.” Mine is” /dev/sda1“.

            Using mine as an example, here are the commands:

            $ sudo mkdir /mnt/efipart
            $ sudo mount /dev/sda1 /mnt/efipart  DO NOT use my "sda1" unless your 100-500mkb EFI is also sda1
            
            • Now move to that directory “cd /mnt/efipart” If you get permission denied, try “sudo umount /mnt/efipart” and then “sudo umount /dev/sda1” (or whatever sda is yours) Now go back to step 9 and 10. This happened on my second repaired drive. No idea why.
            • If you type “ls” you should see an EFI directory.
            $ cd EFI
            $ sudo rm -r ubuntu
            
            • Shutdown, remove the USB Linux boot stick.
            • Boot to Windows Repair disk, ignore offers to fix stuff, select “Next” and then “command prompt.” Verify “c:” brings you to a c: prompt. If not, fix that because you will need access to your installed windows drive. If it”s on another drive, then make sure you see it.
            • Diskpart” at the Diskpart prompt type “list volume
            • Identify the number of the volume which corresponds to the 100-500mb EFI partition.
            • Sel Vol x” where x is the above-mentioned number.
            • “detail partition” to be absolutely sure this is a System, Fat32 partition between 100-500mb. If you choose the wrong partition, the next step is why you are doing this on a clone and not your actual disk yet.
            • format fs=fat32 quick label=System” to format the selected partition, which should be the EFI partition. If it says it won”t then use “format fs=fat32 quick label=System OVERRIDE” (I used UPPERCASE because that”s what the program options indicated to use).
            • assign letter=T” Use another letter if “T” is in use on your system.
            • “exit” to exit Diskpart.
            • bcdboot c:\windows” This should complete with no errors. If it doesn’t I have no clue why.
            • “diskpart” and then “sel vol x” where “x” is the number for your EFI volume.
            • “remove letter=T” (or the letter you used earlier).
            • shut down, cross your fingers and power up.

            The first time I did this on the cloned drive, it was pretty much as listed above. The second time I did it, for the original drive, the first thing that happened before I could even get into bios, was the firmware “repaired” the boot device list!

            Yeah, it picked up from the EFI that there was an ubuntu entry in EFI, but not in the BIOS list, so it went ahead and added it before I could blink. So, if you do this with two drives (a safety copy and a primary) you will probably see similar behavior.

            Okay, now I can do the whole tutorial over again….with my main drive disconnected. At least I learned a lot from this and got a mirrored backup hard drive of my laptop out of it.

        • Cameron says:

          Hey Bob, you might need to install windows system repair tool onto a USB and boot into it from there. Or were you already in the repair tools command prompt and the commands didn’t work?

          • bobcov says:

            Win7 64bit Repair disc was created and burned to a DVD, which I used to boot to access the tools. The tutorial on Youtube was incompatible with UEFI architecture.

  5. Cameron says:

    Hey Amit or anyone else that can please help. I am pretty good with tech, but I have never done this before. I found this tutorial after I already installed Linux to my USB drive. Everything works fine, but as you said I can only use the pen drive on the current computer because grub installed itself on my main windows 10 OS.

    Now I know how to do it right this next time around and my windows still boots up like normal unless put the USB in and select Linux from the boot manager. My main question is where did Grub get installed to on my main NVME drive? I would like to remove it just to keep things clean. I have no idea where it went or how to get it off of my computer.

    • Amit Nandkumar Hambar says:

      Don’t worry, your computer is clean. there is only one entry added in grub. if you remove grub from your hard disk, you cannot use Linux installed on USB.

      If you still want to remove grub and restore windows bootloader. Got one youtube video for that- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOA6hEnOEjs

      • Cameron says:

        Hey Amit! Thanks again for your reply and the assurance that there isn’t anything wrong. I finally achieved what I wanted and got everything on the USB stick including the bootloader. I tested it on 3 different computers and it will now boot on any computer with fast boot disabled. I still would like to remove grub from my windows boot partition since the my USB stick now has it’s own ESP partition on it.

  6. Lester B says:

    Hi,

    I have done this and it’s working well. However, I cannot access the files on the 2nd partition on windows. Any idea how to make it so that I can still use the 2nd partition on other operating systems?

    Thanks.

    • Amit Hambar says:

      Formatting second drive with fat32 it will be accessible in windows. If doesn’t work, try assigning letter to that drive in windows disk management.

  7. Kaushik says:

    Can this USB be formatted to FAT32, after installing Linux?

  8. cdde says:

    Wouldn’t this work better using a Virtual Machine in VirtualBox and then just using the USB passthrough? You only need ONE USB to do this, and you don’t have to worry about files being lost. (If you do use a VM, don’t add a hard disk and it will be WAY easier because then it will just be a normal Linux install since your USB is /dev/sda.)

    There may be a slight speed benefit by doing it this way, but why when it could be much simpler? The main bottleneck will pretty much be the USB speed anyways.

    All you’d need in the VM method is:

    • 1 (and only one) USB Drive
    • VirtualBox, and user in vboxusers group
    • An ISO file
    • A VM with no Hard Disk
    • Amit Nandkumar Hambar says:

      Yes that is also a good option.

    • Bettadapura Sharma says:

      Not all applications can be run on a VM. I am planning to use this method to forward my USB port (over IP) using Virtual Here server. That won’t run on a virtual machine since it virtualizes a real device.

  9. John sedrick says:

    Hi thanks for your instruction..

    I installed two distros (Ubuntu 16.04 32bit & Kali 2019.2) with your method on my 32G flash drive & installed GRUB in the MBR of my USB pen drive (/dev/sdc) & everything worked like a charm but a day later when i inserted my USB it was recognized as /dev/sdd (because my external hard drive was inserted already) & GRUB goes to rescue mode & says:”there is no OS in /dev/sdc” which is true because now my USB flash is in /dev/sdd.

    I replaced my external HDD & flash drive to have my USB flash at sdc again & the problem is solved.

    The question is I need this USB flash to boot on my distros in any computer & there is no guarantee that i always have it at /dev/sdc in every computer so how do you propose to work around this problem & have USB OS that is fully installed(not just live OS) & boots in any computer

    • Amit Nandkumar Hambar says:

      I Think you have installed grub on your local hard disk. check step no 7, second red box.

      • John sedrick says:

        No I did install the GRUB on the MBR of my USB Drive (checked that in other Computers) when I plug my USB to the computer the grub comes up & I can see the OSes installed on the USB but when I hit Enter I face this error (but sometimes it runs completely OK if it is sdc!!!)

        “Missing modules (cat /proc/modules; ls /dev)
        ALERT! /dev/sdc2 does not exist. Dropping to a shel!
        Busybox V1.30.1
        (initramfs)

    • Stefan says:

      I got a similar problem. Even though my USB was /dev/sdc, and I selected that for the bootloader. Grub still got installed to /dev/sda. The USB only works in the computer where I created it. Not possible to boot on another computer.

      • Mihvoi says:

        Ubuntu will install the necessary EFI files on the PC’s EFI partition instead of the USB drive. You can make the USB portable by copying the EFI files to the USB drive.

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