How to backup Windows 11 to external USB drive

A full backup should always be part of your recovery plan — here's how to create one on Windows 11.

Windows 11 backup to external drive
Windows 11 backup to external drive
  • To create a full backup of Windows 11, open the “System Image Backup” settings in the Control Panel, click “Create a system image,” select the backup external storage destination, and start the backup process.
  • You can also use the “wbAdmin” command to create a Windows 11 backup with Command Prompt.

UPDATED 4/10/2024: On Windows 11, a full backup to an external USB drive creates a security copy of the entire system, including from secondary hard drives (if specified), which allows you to restore your computer in case of critical system problems, malware attacks like ransomware, hardware failure, or when you are upgrading the primary drive.

In addition, a backup can help you roll back to a previous installation after upgrading to a new feature update or an entirely new version, for example, after upgrading from Windows 10 to Windows 11.

Although Windows 11 has the “Windows Backup” app, it only protects your files and settings using the cloud. However, you can still use the legacy “System Image Backup” tool to save a backup to an external USB drive with everything from the Windows installation files, device drivers, applications, settings, and your files.

It’s worth noting that “Backup and Restore” is a deprecated feature on Windows 11, which means it’s no longer maintained. Microsoft can choose to remove it in future releases. However, you can still use it to create temporary full backups to upgrade the system drive, protect your previous installation before updating to a new release of Windows, and more.

In this guide, you will learn the steps to create a backup of Windows 11 to an external drive.

Important: You must connect a “USB hard drive” (big drive with the cable) or use a secondary internal hard drive. You cannot use a “USB flash drive” (also called a thumb drive) since they’re slow and incompatible with the feature.

Create full Windows 11 backup to external drive from System Image Backup

To create a full backup of Windows 11 to an external USB drive, use these steps:

  1. Open Start on Windows 11.

  2. Search for Control Panel and click the top result to open the app.

  3. Click on System and Security.

  4. Click on File History.

    Control Panel File History option

  5. Click the “System Image Backup” option from the left pane.

    Windows 11 System Image Backup option

  6. Click the “Create a system image” option from the left pane.

    Create a system image option

  7. Select the external drive to save the Windows 11 backup.

    Windows 11 backup external drive

  8. Click the Next button.

  9. Click the Start backup button.

    Windows 11 Start backup

  10. Click the No button.

  11. Click the Close button.

Once you complete the steps, a full backup of the Windows 11 device will be created to the external storage with the installation files, settings, applications, and personal files.

You will also be prompted to create a repair disk, but you can ignore this option since you can use the Windows 11 bootable media to access the recovery settings to restore the backup.

Create full Windows 11 backup to external drive from wbAdmin command

To create a backup on Windows 11 with the Command Prompt wbAdmin utility, use these steps:

  1. Open Start.

  2. Search for Command Prompt, right-click the top result, and select the Run as administrator option.

  3. Type the following command to create a full backup with wbAdmin on Windows 11 and press Enter:

    wbAdmin start backup -backupTarget:E: -include:C: -allCritical -quiet

    Windows 11 wbAdmin command

    In the command, change “E” in the “-backupTarget” option with the drive letter for the external drive to use for the backup.

  4. (Optional) Type the following command to create a full backup that includes all the drives connected to the device, and press Enter:

    wbAdmin start backup -backupTarget:E: -include:C:,D:,F: -allCritical -quiet

    In the command, replace the drive letters on the option “-include:C:,E:,F:” with letters reflecting the device’s drives.

After you complete the steps, the backup will be saved to the external drive you specified in the command.

Restore backup to computer from WinRE on Windows 11

Since both methods process the backup identically, you can use the same instructions to recover a device using a previous backup. If you don’t have access to the desktop, use these steps to boot the computer in the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE) to use the System Image Recovery tool.

To restore Windows 11 from backup, use these steps:

  1. Open Settings.

  2. Click on System.

  3. Click the Recovery page on the left side.

  4. Under the “Recovery options” section, click the Restart now button for the Advanced startup setting.

    Settings Advanced startup option

  5. Click the Restart now button again.

  6. Click on Troubleshoot.

    Troubleshoot

  7. Click on Advanced options.

    Advanced options

  8. Click on See more recovery options.

    Recovery options

  9. Click the “System Image Recovery” option.

    System Image Recovery

  10. Select the “Use the latest available system image” option to restore the Windows 11 backup.

    Windows 11 restore backup options

  11. Click the Next button.

  12. Click the Next button again.

    Restore backup additional settings

  13. Click the Finish button.

    Complete backup restore

After you complete the steps, the wizard will restore the computer’s full backup, restoring the operating system installation, settings, apps, and files since the last backup was created.

While a full backup is essential to any recovery plan, remember to be proactive because a backup can only restore data from the last time you created it. Also, you should use File History or a cloud storage service like OneDrive to keep an up-to-date file backup.

Alternatively, you can use third-party tools to back up Windows 11, including Macrium Reflect and Veeam. Macrium Reflect is a popular paid software for creating and restoring backups. This option used to be free, but a trial option has replaced it. Veeam is also a paid backup software, but there’s a free option with basic features that anyone can use.

Update April 10, 2024: This guide has been updated to ensure accuracy and reflect the drive requirements.

About the author

Mauro Huculak is a Windows How-To Expert who started Pureinfotech in 2010 as an independent online publication. He has also been a Windows Central contributor for nearly a decade. Mauro has over 14 years of experience writing comprehensive guides and creating professional videos about Windows and software, including Android and Linux. Before becoming a technology writer, he was an IT administrator for seven years. In total, Mauro has over 20 years of combined experience in technology. Throughout his career, he achieved different professional certifications from Microsoft (MSCA), Cisco (CCNP), VMware (VCP), and CompTIA (A+ and Network+), and he has been recognized as a Microsoft MVP for many years. You can follow him on X (Twitter), YouTube, LinkedIn and About.me. Email him at [email protected].