What Is FAT32?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the FAT32 file system, how it compares to NTFS and exFAT, and when to use each file system.

[Featured image] An IT support specialist is on their laptop taking notes on FAT32.

FAT32 is the 32-bit version of the file allocation table (FAT) file system. A file system specifies the protocol for storing and organizing data on a hard drive with file names and certain permissions. Before the advent of the new technology file system (NTFS) in 1993, Windows operating systems like Windows 95 used FAT32 until NTFS took over when Windows NT was released. 

Memory cards, USB drives, and external hard drives that need wide compatibility use the FAT32 file system. It is compatible with all versions of Windows, Mac, Linux, gaming consoles, and other devices with a USB port. Individual files on a FAT32 system have a maximum size of 4 GB and a maximum partition of 2 TB. Any drive with a size greater than 2 TB will require multiple FAT32 partitions on the drive. FAT32 drives are best used when you need maximum compatibility and have file sizes smaller than 4 GB that are needed to play on various devices.

Let’s take a close look at how FAT32 compares to NTFS and the newer extended file allocation table (exFAT). 

Read more: Information Technology (IT) Terms: A to Z Glossary

FAT32 vs. NTFS vs. exFAT

Let’s compare key factors in different file systems.

File system typeMaximum file sizeMaximum partition sizeCompatibile withBest used with
FAT324 GB2 TBWindows, Mac, and Linux operating systems as well as other USB devicesRemovable drives that need maximum compatibility and have file sizes under 4 GB
NTFS128 petabyteof 128 petabyteWindows, read-only on Mac, and works with some Linux operating systemsWindows system drives and other internal hard drives running on Windows operating system
exFAT128 petabyte128 petabyteWindows, modern versions of MacOS, and requires software on older Linux systems, but works with Linux Kernel 5.7 or newer operating systemsRemovable drives that have file sizes larger than 4 GB but don’t need the compatibility of FAT32

While exFAT and NTFS have larger file and partition sizes, FAT32 is still a necessary file system for USB drives and computers with operating systems are not compatible with exFAT or NTFS. If you are using a Windows operating system, it is best to format your internal hard drives to NTFS. However, if you are using an external hard drive or flash drive and need storage capacities greater than 4 GB, use exFAT; if you need compatibility not found in exFAT, format external media to FAT32.

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