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How to Format an SD card for the Raspberry Pi (Under 10 Minutes)

Get ready for a sigh of relief.

Formatting an SD card for the Raspberry Pi used to be somewhat of a struggle, but not too long ago, the Pi team put out a new Raspberry Pi Imager that’s made things much simpler.

Raspberry Pi Imager

You no longer have to format a card as FAT or install NOOBS yourself.

The process is quite simple, and I’ll cover every step in this brief tutorial.

But first, let’s clarify why this step is even necessary to use your Raspberry Pi.

Why do you even need to do this?

Your Raspberry Pi is a complete micro-computer with Bluetooth, Wifi, GPIO pins, and ports galore, but it doesn’t have any data storage.

And since there is no data storage, there is no pre-installed OS. That’s where the SD card comes in.

You’re going to install the Raspberry Pi OS on the SD card using the Imager. Then once you insert the SD card into your Pi and boot it up, you’ll see the OS starting screen so you can configure your Pi.

Here’s what you need first

Since you need to install a program on the SD card, you need a way to connect it to your computer. I purchased this SD adapter for my Mac. It was less than half the price of the official Apple one and includes both a micro-SD and standard SD card slot, which is pretty sweet.

Mac SD card reader

Amazon has lots of options available for around $10 for PC too, like this USB-C SD card reader.

Alternatively, if you haven’t purchased your Pi yet, you could get a starter kit which will come with a pre-formatted SD card, and then you can close this browser tab and skip all of this 🙂

Assuming you’ve got an SD card adapter ready-to-go, let’s press forward with the imager installation.

How to Format an SD Card for the Raspberry Pi

Start by downloading the Raspberry Pi Imager from the official site.

Once downloaded, run the program and you’ll see a simple start screen, like this:

Raspberry Pi Imager start screen

The first step is to choose the OS you’d like to install. There are actually quite a few to choose from, including some fun options like RetroPie for turning your Pi into a gaming system.

Available OSes
The OS selection screen

Most likely though, you’ll want to install the official Raspberry Pi OS, which appears at the top of the list.

Once you’ve selected the OS, click on the “Choose SD Card” button and you should see the SD card you’ve inserted into your computer/adapter.

Available SD card
All connected SD cards will appear here

With the OS and SD card selected, click the “Write” button. You’ll see a warning that this will overwrite the contents of the card. Click “Yes” and the writing process will begin.

Data overwrite prompt

The writing process for the Raspberry Pi OS takes about five minutes to complete. Once finished, the imager will then verify the installation, which takes about another 30 seconds.

Verifying installation
The installation being verified

And once that’s done, you’re finished!

Final prompt

You now have an SD card fully formatted with the Raspberry Pi OS (or whichever OS you selected) installed on it.

Finish setting up your Pi

Now that you have an SD card prepared, you can continue the setup process for your Pi.

The next step is to connect a keyboard, mouse, and power source to your Pi. Then you can insert the SD card and run through the initial setup process for the Raspberry Pi OS.

Your Pi can download OS updates without any re-formatting, but you can always reuse the imager to overwrite the OS on the SD card at any time.

If you’ve got any questions about formatting an SD card for your Raspberry Pi 4 (or older), please post in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading!

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