USB thumb drives are small, portable, and universally readable. These features make them perfect vehicles for transporting data between computers. Due to their portability, however, they are also easily lost. Hence, you should always protect sensitive files carried on a USB stick.
Unfortunately, you cannot simply password protect your entire USB stick, like you can password protect your PC or phone. Tools that will seriously protect your data all work with encryption. Unless you want to invest in a secure flash drive with hardware encryption, you can use freeware applications to achieve a similar level of protection.
This article summarizes some of the easiest ways to password protect files and folders on your USB flash drive.
1. Save Individual Files With a Password
As mentioned above, you can’t safely password protect your entire USB stick without using encryption. However, if you shy away from the time-consuming encryption process of entire folders and need a really quick way to only protect a few selected files, you can simply save those with a USB password.
Many programs, including Word and Excel, allow you to save files with a password.
For example, in Word, while the document is open, go to File > Info, expand the Protect Document menu, and select Encrypt with Password.
Now enter your password and confirm it to protect your document.
Finally, save your document and don’t forget the password.
To password protect PDF files on your USB flash drive, you can use PDFTK Builder, which also comes as a portable app.
2. Create an Encrypted & Password Protected Partition
Many tools can encrypt and password protect your data. Most, however, require Administrator rights to run on any given computer. Tools like these are not a viable solution if you need to securely transfer data to a computer where you do not have Administrator rights.
Rohos Mini Drive, on the other hand, is a tool that will work whether or not you possess Administrator rights. The free edition can create a hidden, encrypted, and password-protected partition of up to 2 GB on your USB flash drive. The tool uses automatic on-the-fly encryption with AES 256 bit key length. Thanks to the portable Rohos Disk Browser, which you install directly to your flash drive, you won’t need encryption drivers on the local system. Subsequently, you can access the protected data anywhere.
Click Encrypt USB drive from the Rohos Mini Drive start screen, select the drive, specify a new password, and click Create disk. This will create a password-protected and encrypted container on your external drive.
You can open the protected container by clicking the Rohos Mini.exe icon from the root folder of your USB thumb drive. After entering the password, the Rohos disk will mount as a separate drive and you can access it via File Explorer. To close your Rohos partition, right-click the Rohos icon in the Windows Taskbar notification area and select Disconnect.
Find a more detailed description of Rohos Mini Drive in my PDF guide The Office Worker’s 101 Guide to a USB Thumb Drive.
3. Encrypt Your Entire Flash Drive
VeraCrypt is the successor of TrueCrypt. It comes as a portable app that runs directly from your flash drive. Unfotunately, it still requires Administrator rights to operate.It uses on-the-fly AES 256 bit encryption. The free version is limited to drive size of 2GB.
VeraCrypt features on-the-fly encryption using multiple different algorithms, including 256-bit AES, Serpent, and TwoFish, as well as combinations of these. Like Rohos Mini Drive, it can create a virtual encrypted disk that mounts like a real disk, but you can also encrypt entire partitions or storage devices.
Download VeryCrypt Portable and install it on your USB drive. When you launch the portable app, it will show you all available drive letters. Choose one and click Create Volume. This will launch the VeraCrypt Volume Creation Wizard.
To encrypt your entire USB flash drive, select Encrypt a non-system partition/drive and click Next.
In the next step, you can choose from a Standard or a Hidden VeraCrypt volume. Using a hidden volume reduces the risk that someone forces you to reveal your password. Note that you’ll have to format the entire USB drive if you want to create a Hidden VeraCrypt volume.
We’ll proceed with the Standard VeraCrypt volume. In the next window, click Select Device…, choose your removable disk, confirm with OK, and click Next.
To encrypt the entire USB drive, select Encrypt partition in place and click Next. VeryCrypt will warn you that you should have a backup of the data, in case something goes wrong during encryption. Now select the Encryption and Hash Algorithm; you can go with the default settings. Now you get to set your Volume Password. In the next step, your random mouse movements will determine the cryptographic strength of the encryption.
Now choose your Wipe Mode, the more wipes, the safer. In the final window, click Encrypt to start the encryption.
Download: VeraCrypt Portable
An alternative to VeraCrypt Portable is Toucan, a portable app that lets you sync, backup, and secure your files.
Bonus: Create a Password-Protected Archive
Archive tools like 7-Zip can also encrypt and password protect your files with AES-256.
Install and run 7-Zip, right-click the file or folder on your USB drive, and select 7-Zip > Add to Archive. In the Add to Archive window, choose the Archive format and add a password. Click OK to start the archiving and encryption process.
Your Files Protected
Now you know how to password protect and encrypt your USB drive.