I am a basic Linux user and would like to backup my data (my home directory to be precise) in an external hard drive (EHD), but would like to be able to retrieve this data in other operating systems (Linux, because I will want to retrieve my data in the future if something bad happens to my system, or Windows, if my girlfriend wants some pictures I own, or OS X, if a friend of mine wants some books I have, or *BSD, since I will have it running in another machine soon). However I am having a really hard time figuring out how to do it. What I thought would be copy/paste process is turning into a nightmare.

I've done a fair amount of research and the only thing I have understood (or think I have!) is that depending on the operating system I will be retrieving my data from, I will need to format my EHD with a different file system. In other words, if I got it right, that it is not possible to make a backup in the way I describe above. Nonetheless this is, surprisingly, a pretty undocumented process in the web. So I would like to ask: Is there a way to make a "universal backup" of my data as I described it in the first paragraph?

  • 4
    You just need to write your data to a filesystem that all the well known operating systems (i.e. Linux, BSDs, OS X, WIndows ) will be able to read. A lowest common denominator is something like FAT32, but it's possible something fancier will work. You should probably amend your question to clarify whether you want those OSs to be able to read off the drives in default/standard configuration. For example, Windows can probably be persuaded to read more filesystems with some suitable add-ons. And the Linux kernel can read most things if suitable support is included. Oct 18, 2015 at 3:30
  • I wonder about an ISO CD-ROM type file as a backup. Usually mountable as a file.
    – Jeff Schaller
    Oct 18, 2015 at 4:39
  • Writing the files to NTFS/FAT will lose filesystem permission, but if it's really "data" (pictures, video, audio, docs, whatever) it's all right but if you want to backup configuration files it's not. Better use tar to create a archive, the only problem is Windows, you'll need 7zip, all other can perfectly read the tar file. Another solution is to transfer files with ssh (use filezilla on the client machine for instance).
    – cylgalad
    Oct 18, 2015 at 8:45

2 Answers 2


I would suggest using FAT32. The reason is its usage on USB flash drives.

Everybody uses USB flash drives, so every OS will support this file system.

Of course many OS claim to support so many file systems, but this is the one foreign file system, which used all the time, so if there are problems they will soon be known and fixed.

The one disadvantage of FAT32 is it's lack of permissions. If you want to preserve the permissions on your files, you use an archiver like tar which can preserve the permissions on your files and then store the .tar-file on your backup drive.


I just did some quick googling, and it looks like NTFS is supported on OSX(ro), FreeBSD(rw), Linux(rw) and Windows(rw). FAT32 is probably even better supported, but it's more limited. Both file systems are generally supported by lots of appliances/devices as well.

If you don't want to use a file system, you can use tar and treat your drive as a tape. I would imagine this will work on any OS (Windows with Cygwin). Tar is specifically designed to read/write raw devices.

cd files2backup
tar cfvz /dev/sdz .

To extract

tar xfvz /dev/sdz

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