Creating a Bootable Linux USB Drive with UNetbootin

Flash drive

Flash driveTest driving and installing a Linux distribution has become a lot easier over the years. In the early days, you needed to install Linux on a dedicated computer. Or, you could set your computer up to dual boot. Of course that meant navigating the potential perils of partitioning your hard drive.

Later, a Live CD (which lets you run the distribution right from a CD) was the way to do it. The problem with a Live CD, though, is that running anything from a CD is slow. And having to burn a CD for each distribution that you want to try is wasteful.

A better option is a bootable USB flash drive. You can reuse it and any distribution you install on it has the potential to run very quickly.

Whether you’re using Linux, Windows, or Mac OS you can easily create a bootable USB drive using UNetbootin. Let’s take a look at how to do that on the Linux desktop.

Note: Some of the options covered in this post aren’t available in the Windows and Mac OS versions of UNetbootin.

Installing UNetbootin

Just go to the UNetbootin site and download the installer for your operating system. There are buttons at the top of the page.

Buttons for downloading UNetbootin

You can also get packages for the following Linux distributions: Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, SuSE, Arch, and Gentoo.

Once it’s installed, you can start UNetbootin from your applications menu. In Ubuntu, for example, select Applications > System Tools > UNetbootin.

Creating the Bootable Drive

First off, you’ll need a USB flash drive. At the very least, it should have a capacity of 1 GB. Just to be safe, use either a 2 GB or 4 GB drive.

UNetbootin has an interesting feature: it can automatically download and create a bootable flash drive for over 20 popular Linux distributions. That saves a lot of time and trouble!

The distribution that you want may also need an ISO image. An ISO image, which has the extension .iso, is a compressed version of an operating system. That includes everything — installer, file system, and all the collateral.

From there, fire up UNetbootin.

Main window

If you’re going to create a bootable drive from one of the supported distros, select it from the Select Distribution list. Then, choose the version that you want to use from the Select Version list.

If, on the other hand, you’re going to create a bootable drive from an ISO image, click the Diskimage option. Then, click the “…” button to find the ISO image that you downloaded.

From there, make sure that the Type list is set to USB Drive and the Drive option is set to /dev/sdb1. In Linux, /dev/sdb1 is the default mount point) for removable storage devices.

Note: In Windows, the option will be a drive letter like F:**. In Mac OS, it will be something like /Volumes/USBDRIVE/**.

Ready to create a bootable image

When you’re ready to go, click the OK button. It can take several minutes for the UNetbootin to write the files to the flash drive. When the process is finished, a message appears asking if you want to restart your computer. You can safely ignore the message.

Using the Bootable Flash Drive

Restart your computer with the flash drive plugged into a USB port. Chances are your computer’s boot sequence — which tells your computer which drive (hard drive, CD-ROM drive, or removable drive) to start from — will skip the flash drive the first time you try this. When your computer starts, you need to go into the BIOS to change the boot settings. Depending on your computer, this could mean pressing the F2 key or F10 key on your keyboard. You’ll have to do this quickly.

Once you’re in the BIOS, find the boot settings and make the removable drive (your flash drive) the one from which your computer boots first. You can find detailed instructions on how to do that here. Then, exit the BIOS. Your computer will restart and boot from the flash drive.

From there, a menu will appear. Just choose the option to run in live mode and then take the Linux distribution for a spin.

Photo credit: gytha_ogg

How to Install Linux from a USB Flash Drive

usb-flash-driveSince many ultra-portable laptops (commonly known as netbooks) do not come equipped with optical drives, users are typically forced to purchase an external optical drive to install an operating system such as Linux.  In this guide, I’ll show you how to easily install a Linux operating system with a USB flash drive and a piece of software called UNetbootin.

If you want to install Windows instead, check out our previous guide: How to Install Windows from a USB Flash Drive.

UNetbootin, which stands for Universal Netbook Installer, is a program for Windows and Linux that can create a bootable USB drive for many Linux distributions.  UNetbootin can not only use an existing disc image (.iso) to create a bootable USB drive, it can also download dozens of Linux distributions through a handy dropdown menu.

Step One – Installation

Download and install UNetbootin.  When you open the program, you will presented with the following window:


Step Two – Select a Linux Distribution

UNetbootin can automatically download dozens of Linux distributions.  With the Distribution button selected, use the dropdown menus to choose your favorite distribution and version of Linux.  Be sure to read the installation notes if they are available.

If you already have a Linux disc image (.iso) downloaded, click the Diskimage button and select the image file.

Step Three – Formatting the USB Drive

At the bottom of the main screen, verify that USB Drive is selected and then select the drive you would like to use (Note: All data will be lost on the selected drive).  When you are ready to create the bootable USB drive, click the OK button.  If you chose to download a Linux distribution in Step Two, the duration will vary based upon your internet connection speed.

Once the process has finished, you can now use your USB flash drive to install Linux.

Using the USB Boot Drive

Most modern computers support using USB drives as a boot device, but if yours does not you can check your manufacturer’s support site to see if a BIOS update is available.  To set your USB drive as a boot device, you can typically press the ESC key just as your computer turns on and select the drive from a list.

If pressing the ESC key doesn’t work, you may have to enter your computer’s BIOS to manually set the drive as a boot device. You can typically access your computer’s BIOS by pressing DEL, F2, F10, or F12 at system startup, but refer to your manufacturer’s support information for more details.

Installing an operating system from a USB flash drive is much faster than using an optical disc.  In our tests, we were able to install Ubuntu in less than six minutes which is much faster than performing an installation with a LiveCD.

Have a better method of installing Linux on your computer?  Let us know by commenting below.

How to Install Windows from a USB Flash Drive

usb-flash-driveNetbooks, which are ultra-portable laptops, have exploded in popularity due to their small size and ease of use.  Unfortunately, that tiny form factor comes with some drawbacks – most netbooks don’t come equipped with an optical drive.  This means that most users are stuck with the operating system that was installed by the manufacturer.

Luckily, Windows 7, XP, Vista, Server 2003 and Server 2008 can be installed from a USB flash drive with a few simple steps.  In this guide, I’ll be using a program called WinToFlash to create a bootable USB drive for Windows 7.


  • A Windows installation disc or disc image (.iso)
    • If you have downloaded a Windows installation disc (such as the Windows 7 Beta or RC), you should already have the .iso file.
    • If you have a physical installation disc, skip to Step 2.
  • A USB flash drive – minimum 3 GB.

Step 1:  Extract the Windows .iso

win7-thumbdrive-extract7zipIf you have an installation disc image (.iso), that file contains all of the files from the Windows installation disc.  To extract these files, download and install 7-Zip (free) and browse to the location of your Windows .iso in the file browser.  Click ‘Extract’ and wait while the files are expanded.

Step 2:  Processing Installation Files with WinToFlash

Download the latest version WinToFlash and extract the files.  Open WinToFlash.exe and click the ‘Windows setup transfer wizard’ button to get started.


After clicking Next, you need to select the path to your Windows installation files and your USB drive.  If you have a Windows installation disc, select your optical drive.  If you had an .iso image, choose the location where you extracted the files from Step 1.


WinToFlash will configure your USB drive and transfer all installation files.  This will take approximately 5-10 minutes.


Once the process has finished, you will receive an “All done” message.  Click Exit to close the application, and your USB drive will now contain a bootable version of your Windows installation files.

Step 3:  Install Windows

Now that you have your USB drive prepped and ready to go, you need to set your netbook to use your USB drive as the primary boot device.  This can be done by accessing your computer’s BIOS by tapping the key your manufacturer specifies (typically Delete or a function key like F2) just as your computer starts.

In my instance, I had to go to the Boot tab and select ‘Hard Disk Drives’ first to set my USB drive (listed as USB:SanDisk Cruzer) in the 1st Drive field.  I then had to go back to the Boot Settings menu and open ‘Boot Device Priority’ to set the USB:SanDisk Cruzer drive in the 1st Boot Device field.


Note: While most newer computers support USB drives as a boot device, some older models may not.  Refer to your manufacturer’s support information or check if an update to your BIOS is available.

After setting the USB drive as your primary boot device, save your changes (typically with F10) and restart your computer.  While booting up you may see a message to “Press any key to continue…”.  You can now proceed through the Windows installation like usual, and once the installation is finished be sure to go back into your BIOS and change your settings back to the way they were originally.

Have another method to install Windows on a netbook?  Share it with us in the comments!