Using USB drives on Arch

(This is part of a larger series on finding your footing on Arch Linux.)

Last modified: 13 July 2024

Goal: Explain how to read from, write to, and safely eject external USB drives.


Contents of this article

Drives must be mounted: to interact with the files on a USB drive from your computer, you have to mount the file system stored on the USB drive’s data partition onto a dedicated mount point on your computer’s file system (Windows/macOS and most desktop environments usually do this for you, but the same mechanism is used under the hood).

You can either mount drives manually or automate the process with an auxiliary program. In practice most people will automount (I show how to do this with udiskie at the end of the article), but you’ll probably learn something if you go through the manual process at least a few times first.

Mounting a USB drive

Here’s how to mount a USB drive manually:

Detect the USB drive’s block device name

TLDR: plug in the USB drive and use lsblk to identify (1) the USB drive and (2) its data partition, which might look something like (1) sdb and (2) sdb1, respectively. You can now jump to mounting the USB drive. End TLDR

First some terminology: the Linux kernel classifies a USB drive as a block device (because data is written to and read from the drive in fixed-sized blocks). In general a USB drive is divided into multiple partitions; the USB drive partition holding useful files and data is called the data partition.

Here’s how to identify a USB drive’s device name and data partition name:

  1. Before plugging your USB drive into your computer, run the lsblk (“list block devices”) command from a shell to list the names of currently available block devices. The idea is to get a picture of available block devices before inserting your USB drive to make it easy to see the changes that occur after plugging the USB drive in.

  2. Plug in your USB drive and wait a moment or so for your OS to detect it.

  3. Run lsblk again. You should see a new entry (often sdb), which identifies your USB drive, and some numbered entries (e.g. sdb1, sdb2) below it—the numbered entries identify partitions on the USB drive. (It might help to orient yourself using the size of each block device and partition, since you presumably know beforehand how large your USB drive is.)

    $ lsblk 
    # Before             # After
    NAME                 NAME
    sda                  sda
    ├─sda1               ├─sda1
    ├─sda2     ---->     ├─sda2
    ├─sda3               ├─sda3
    └─sda4               └─sda4
                         sdb       <-- USB drive
                         └─sdb1    <-- USB drive data partition

    Troubleshooting: if the drive does not appear in lsblk try rebooting your computer—I’ve sometimes had this problem when I forgot to reboot after updating the operating system kernel.

You’ll want to identify two things:

  1. The USB drive’s identifier (e.g. sdb or nvme0n1). I’ll use sdx to avoid the risk of you blindly copying sdb, which could be something different on your computer—replace the x with the appropriate letter on your system (which might still be b).

  2. The identifier of the drive’s data partition, which will be the drive identifier followed by an integer number (e.g. sdb1 or nvme0n1p1). The data partition should be the partition whose size roughly matches your USB drive’s memory capacity. I’ll use sdxN—replace the N with the number on your computer.

Remember these two identifiers for later.

Mount the USB drive

TLDR: create a mount directory and then mount the drive to the mount directory with mount:

# TLDR: create a mount point and mount the drive
sudo mkdir /mnt/usbdrive            # create a mount point (if needed)
sudo mount /dev/sdxN /mnt/usbdrive  # mount the drive's data partition

You can now jump to ejecting the USB drive.

In more detail: a mount point is a location on one file system from which you interact with a second file system; in our context, a mount point is the directory on your computer’s file system from which you can interact with the files on the USB drive’s file system. (Note that the USB drive’s files are not copied to the mount directory—the directory only serves as an access point.)

Mount points are conventionally located inside the /mnt directory—you should first create a directory inside /mnt to use as a USB mount point. You can name it whatever you want; I’ll use the generic name /mnt/usbdrive

# Create a mount point for the USB drive.
# You'll need sudo privileges because /mnt is on the root partition.
sudo mkdir /mnt/usbdrive  # replace 'usbdrive' with whatever you like

You only need to create the mount directory once—it will stay on your file system and you can reuse it later as a mount point whenever you use a USB drive.

You can then mount the drive’s data partition to the mount directory using the mount command:

# Mount the USB drive by specifying its entry in the `/dev` directory.
# Replace `sdxN` with the data partition identifier shown by `lsblk`, e.g. `sdb1`
sudo mount /dev/sdxN /mnt/usbdrive

Note that you mount the drive’s data partition (e.g. sdb1) and not the root drive device (e.g. sdb). Check that the drive is properly mounted using lsblk—the MOUNTPOINTS column for the drive’s data partition entry should now show /mnt/usbdrive, and the USB drive’s files should appear in /mnt/usbdrive (or whatever mountpoint you used).

At this point you can interact with the files on the USB drive from the mount directory on your computer’s file system, reading/writing/copying just like with any other directory (but note that you’ll need root privileges to write to the drive if it’s mounted in /mnt).

Troubleshooting: if reading or writing fails (even when using root privileges)…
Your USB drive may be using a file system that requires an additional package before you can read to/write from it. Check the USB drive’s file system (use e.g. lsblk -f and check the FSTYPE column), and then install the corresponding package listed in the ‘Userspace utilities’ of the ArchWiki file system table. Most commonly you’ll run into problems with drives using Microsoft’s NTFS file system and will need to install the ntfs-3g package.

Ejecting a USB drive

Safely ejecting a USB drive requires two steps: (1) unmounting the drive’s data partition and (2) powering off the drive. First unmount the drive’s data partition with the umount command:

# Unmount the drive's partitions---choose one option.

# Option 1 (yup, "umount" and not "unmount")
umount /mnt/usbdrive  # by specifying mount point (preferred)

# Option 2
umount /dev/sdxN      # by specifying the device partition (not preferred)

You can check the drive is unmounted using lsblk—the MOUNTPOINTS column for the drive’s data partition entry should now be blank.

At this point it’s probably safe to remove the drive, but it’s best practice to first power off the drive. This is probably easier with udisksctl’s power-off command, described in the next section. But without third-party tools, you can power off a drive by writing directly to the USB drive’s device files (more info on Linux device files) using root privileges:

# Option 1: works from a normal user shell using sudo
echo 1 | sudo tee /sys/block/sdx/device/delete

# Option 2: works only from a root shell
echo 1 > /sys/block/sdx/device/delete

Note that you target the root drive device (e.g. sdb) and not the data partition (e.g. sdb1).

Note that you can’t just sudo echo 1 > as a regular user because the sudo privileges aren’t transfered through the > redirection operation, but you can get around this with tee. For more discussion of the power-off line see this StackExchange answer and/or ArchWiki: USB storage/Device not shutting down after unmounting all partitions.

Modern alternative: udisks2

At this point the article has covered everything you need to know to interact with USB drives. You can safely stop reading.

Or, if you’re interested, here is a more modern way to mount, unmount, and eject drives using the udisks2 package; it is similar, but perhaps a bit cleaner, than the traditional mount and umount workflow described above.

I’ll assume you’re familiar with the mount/unmount/eject material earlier in the article and continue using /dev/sdx to identify a USB drive and /dev/sdxN to identify the drive’s data partition.

Here is the basic operation mount/unmount/power-off workflow with udisks2. You perform all commands with the CLI tool udisksctl:

  1. If needed, install udisks2 with sudo pacman -S udisks2

  2. Plug in a USB drive and use udisksctl to mount the drive’s data partition:

    # Mount a drive's data partition
    udisksctl mount -b /dev/sdxN

    You’ll find the drive’s files in the directory /run/media/$USER/$DEVICE_UUID.

  3. To eject a drive, unmount its data partition and power off the drive:

    # Unmount a drive's data partition
    udisksctl unmount -b /dev/sdxN
    # Power off a drive
    udisksctl power-off -b /dev/sdx

A few comments:

  • You don’t need sudo privileges to use USB drives with udisks2, which is nice. (udisks2 gets around sudo privileges using access control lists, but I don’t know the details.)
  • The -b flag is used to specify a block device.
  • By default udisks2 mounts removable drives at /run/media/$USER/$DEVICE_UUID and creates a mount point with the drive’s alphanumeric UUID (which you can see with e.g. lsblk -f). This behavior can be customized as described in ArchWiki: Udisks/Mount to /media.
  • udisksctl uses unmount instead of umount to unmount drives.
  • Powering off a drive is much cleaner with udisks2 than writing to a drive’s device/delete file.

Automounting with udiskie

If you don’t mind manually issuing mount commands to mount USB drives, this article has nothing more for you—feel free to stop reading.

And for those that find manually calling mount to be tedious, you can combine udisks2 with a program that detects when you physically plug in a USB drive and then mounts the drive for you—this is called automounting, and basically saves you a manually-typed mount command. (You should be familiar with the udisks2 section first.)

If you want to try automounting, I suggest using udiskie (but see the ArchWiki for a full list of mount helpers). Here’s how to automount USB drives with udiskie:

  • Install the udiskie package with pacman -S udiskie. See the udiskie wiki for documentation.

  • Run the udiskie program and forget about it—it’s probably easiest to autostart udiskie as a background process from your ~/.xinitrc, ~/.xprofile, window manager, or desktop environment, whichever is appropriate for your setup. If you’re new to autostarting programs, I suggest taking a detour and looking through these three ArchWiki sections, then checking the udiskie wiki.

  • As long as udiskie is running, it will detect plugged-in drives and automount them using using udisksctl (i.e. udiskie mounts to /run/media/$USER/$DEVICE_UUID just like udisksctl). You’ll probably also get some desktop notifications if you have a notification server running.

  • Interact with and eject the drive as described earlier in the udisks2 section, i.e. you still manually eject the drive with umount and power-off.

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