How to encrypt USB memory sticks in Windows, with BitLocker To Go

USB memory sticks, also known as flash drives, are very convenient when it comes to transporting data. Their tiny size allows you to carry them unnoticed in a pocket or on a key ring, while their storage capacity allows you to store anything including videos, documents, presentations, applications, system recovery tools and even operating systems. Unfortunately, the small size that makes them so useful also makes them easy to lose, which can put any sensitive information you have stored on them at risk. To protect your data, and yourself, you can use BitLocker To Go, a feature of Windows that encrypts your data to prevent unauthorized viewing. Without your password, smart card or recovery key, your data will be indecipherable to anyone who finds your flash drive. Here’s how to protect any USB memory stick by using encryption “to go:”

NOTE: BitLocker is available in the Enterprise and Ultimate editions of Windows 7, and also in the Pro and Enterprise editions of Windows 8.1 and Windows 10. This guide covers all modern version of Windows. All you have to do is scroll to the section that is appropriate to the Windows version that you are using.

How to encrypt your flash drive with Bitlocker To Go in Windows 10 and Windows 8.1

The procedure involved in Windows 10 and Windows 8.1 for encrypting a USB flash drive with BitLocker To Go is the same with very few and minor exceptions. Therefore, we use screenshots taken in Windows 10, describe everything in detail and share exactly where the differences lies. If you use any of these two operating systems, read on:

To start the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard, you can either open File Explorer or the Control Panel. If you choose to use File Explorer, go to This PC, right click on the flash drive that you want to encrypt and select “Turn on BitLocker.” The BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard is now started.

If you choose to open the Control Panel, go to System and Security and then to BitLocker Drive Encryption.

In the BitLocker Drive Encryption window, look for the removable data drive that you want to encrypt.

For the drive that you want to encrypt, click or tap “Turn on BitLocker.” BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard is now started.

You are presented with options for unlocking the drive once encrypted. You can use either a password or a smart card. Since most people don’t own a smart card for unlocking drives, you will choose to “Use a password to unlock the drive.” After you select this option, enter the password that you want to use and confirm it. Then, press Next.

BitLocker requires you to select where to store your recovery key. This key is used to recover your data, should you forget the password or lose the smart card you selected in the previous step. Without it, your data will be lost.You can opt to store the file on your hard drive, print it and keep it for your records or you can save the recovery key on your Microsoft account. Microsoft recommends exercising all options to ensure you don't lose the key. If you choose to save the recovery key to a file, BitLocker generates a text file and asks you to select where to save it.

If you choose to print the recovery key, it will print a page with a unique identifier for your encrypted device and the unique recovery key. Click or tap Next after making your selection(s).

Choose whether you want the entire flash drive encrypted or just the storage space used by the files on it, which is a better option if you're in a hurry. After you make your selection, press Next.

At this point, Windows 10 users see an option that is NOT available in Windows 8.1: they can choose the encryption mode to use. You can choose between a new and more secure encryption mode called XTS-AES which is compatible only with Windows 10 or the traditional encryption mode which is compatible with other Windows versions. If you want to use the flash drive on computers with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1, choose “Compatible mode,” and press Next.

At this point, all of your selections are made and all you have left to do is encrypt the drive. Click or tap Start encrypting. Windows 8.1 won’t see the previous screen only the screen below.

Encrypting a flash drive, especially a large one, can take some time. For example: to encrypt a whole 15GB flash drive that’s filled with data, you have to wait up to 30 minutes. If you need to remove your drive during the encryption process, press Pause on the BitLocker Drive Encryption window before proceeding, to avoid potentially corrupting your data. You are informed that the encryption process has been paused. Only after this happens, proceed to removing the memory stick.

When you are ready to resume the encryption process, insert your flash drive back into your computer's USB port. Immediately upon inserting the drive, a window pops up asking for your password to unlock the drive. Enter the password and BitLocker starts encrypting your drive where you left off. When your drive is fully encrypted, you are notified with a quick pop up.

Click Close to complete the process. Your USB memory stick is now encrypted and protected from unauthorized access.

How to encrypt your flash drive with Bitlocker To Go in Windows 7

To start the BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard, you can either open Windows Explorer or the Control Panel. If you choose to use Windows Explorer, go to Computer, right click on the flash drive that you want to encrypt and select “Turn on BitLocker.” The BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard is now started.

If you choose to open the Control Panel, go to System and Security and then to BitLocker Drive Encryption. Then, look for the removable drive that you want to encrypt and click “Turn On BitLocker.”

The BitLocker Drive Encryption wizard is started and you are presented with options for unlocking the drive once encrypted. You can use either a password or a smart card. Since most people don’t own a smart card for unlocking drives, you will choose to “Use a password to unlock the drive.” After you select this option, enter the password that you want to use and confirm it. Then, press Next.

BitLocker requires you to select where to store your recovery key. This key is used to recover your data, should you forget the password or lose the smart card you selected in the previous step. Without it, your data will be lost.You can opt to store the file on your hard drive or print it. Microsoft recommends exercising all options to ensure you don't lose the key. If you choose to save the recovery key to a file, BitLocker generates a text file and asks you to select where to save it.

If you choose to print the recovery key, it will print a page with a unique identifier for your encrypted device and the unique recovery key. Click or tap Next after making your selection(s).

You are asked whether you are ready to encrypt the drive. When you are, press “Start Encrypting” and wait for the process to end.

While the drive is encrypting, a status bar is displayed, like the one below. If there is an emergency and you need to eject the flash drive, you can Pause the process and continue it when you plug the drive in the Windows 7 computer again.You will need to type the password you have set, to unlock the drive and continue the encrypting process.

A notification is displayed when encryption is complete. Note that the drive icon changes to indicate that it is now encrypted with BitLocker.

Click Close and you are done.

Do you use BitLocker To Go to protect your USB memory sticks or flash drives?

People and companies that work with sensitive or private data, should consider using BitLocker to encrypt the USB memory sticks or flash drives that they use to transfer data between computers and devices. BitLocker makes it easy to encrypt any USB memory stick and the process can be performed by anyone. Before you close this article, let us know whether you use BitLocker To Go and what your experience is with encrypting mobile storage devices.