Data encryption makes it nearly impossible for someone to access a protected file without the proper decryption key or password. Many apps use encryption to keep your data safe, including password managers, VPNs, and even some messaging apps—but you should be encrypting more than just the data you share online.
We all store important files and information on our computers and USB hard drives, and unless that data is properly secured, it’s an easy target for snoopers, thieves, and even hackers.
Luckily, there are multiple ways to quickly encrypt your Mac or Windows devices, so we’ll go over each option available for both platforms—that way you can add an extra layer of security to every file, folder, and app stored on your computers and hard drives.
Mac computers include a built-in encryption tool called FileVault, and it’s available for all Mac users. You can use it to encrypt the Mac itself or add password protection to external USB drives.
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How to encrypt a Mac computer
- Click the Apple icon, then go to System Preferences > Security & Privacy > FileVault.
- Click the padlock button.
- Select “Turn On FileVault.”
- Set up a secondary recovery method when prompted. This will help you get into your encrypted files if you forget the password.
- Click “Continue.” The encryption process will take place in the background.
How to encrypt external USB drives on Mac
- Connect the USB drive to your Mac.
- Open Finder and right-click the USB drive’s name from the left-hand menu.
- Select an encryption method.
- Enter the password you want to use to protect the drive then start the encryption process.
Windows PCs are a bit harder to encrypt. While Microsoft does offer encryption tools like Device encryption and BitLocker in most versions of Windows, they’re only available to enterprise users. Neither option is available to Windows Home users, who likely make up the majority of general Windows users out there.
We’ll go over how to use Device encryption and BitLocker for Windows enterprise users, but Windows Home users will want to skip down to learn about third-party options.
How to encrypt a Windows PC with device encryption or BitLocker
- Make sure you’re signed into the computer’s admin account
- Open the start menu, then click the Settings icon.
- In the settings menu, go to Update & Security > Device encryption.
- Select “Turn on.”
Not all PCs are equipped with the right hardware to enable Device encryption. However, Windows Enterprise users can also encrypt drives using Windows BitLocker.
- From the task bar’s search bar, find and open “Control Panel.”
- In Control Panel, go to System and Security > BitLocker Drive Encryption > Manage BitLocker.
- Select “Turn on BitLocker.”
- Follow the on-screen instructions to set everything up.
- To encrypt a drive on your PC, select it from the list of devices in the “Manage BitLocker” window, then click “Turn on” and complete the on-screen instructions.
BitLocker can also encrypt external USB drives:
- Connect the USB drive to your PC.
- Open the Control Panel and go to System and Security > BitLocker Drive Encryption > Manage BitLocker.
- Select the USB drive from the list of devices.
- Select “Turn on BitLocker.”
- Follow the on-screen instructions.
How to encrypt PCs and USB drives in Windows Home edition
Since device encryption and BitLocker are not available on Windows Home editions, most Windows users will need a third-party encryption app to protect their PCs and local hard drives. There are many solid choices out there, such as AxCrypt, Folder Lock, and NordCrypt, but most will cost you money—usually around $30-$50 per year, depending on the product’s features.
Paying for that encryption is worth it, though, and most programs include bonuses like password ratings, two-factor authentication, and more.
Many of these programs also let you encrypt external USB storage devices. Some hard drive manufacturers, such as Seagate, also include proprietary encryption methods for their storage devices. The exact steps will differ between apps, but the general flow will be the same:
- Back up the drive’s files (since you will have to wipe and reformat the drive).
- Use the encryption software to format and encrypt the drive.
- Transfer the files back on the encrypted drive.
Regardless of which method you use, don’t forget to securely store passwords (or other decryption methods) so you can always get back into your locked files, folders, and drives.