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How To Wipe a Hard Drive

Wipe a Computer Hard Drive Clean with These Steps

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Image of the inside of a hard disk drive
© Dieter Spears / Photodisc / Getty Images

To wipe a hard drive means to completely erase the drive of all information. Deleting everything does not wipe a hard drive and formatting does not [always] wipe a hard drive. You'll need to take an extra step to wipe the hard drive completely.

When you format a hard drive or delete a partition, you're usually only deleting the file system, making the data invisible but not gone. A file recovery program or special hardware can easily recover the information.

If you want to make sure that your private information is gone forever, you'll need to wipe the hard drive using special software.

Important: See Tip #2 at the bottom of the page for information on a "simple" wipe using the format command in Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows Vista.

Follow these steps to completely wipe a hard drive:

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: It could take several minutes to several hours to wipe a hard drive

How to Wipe a Hard Drive

  1. Backup anything you want to keep. When the hard drive wipe is complete, there will be no way to get anything on the drive back.

    Important: Sometimes multiple drives exist on a single hard drive. You can view the drives (volumes) that sit on a hard drive from the Disk Management tool in Windows.
     
  2. Download a free data destruction program. Any of the first eight programs I recommend in that list will work great because they can be used to wipe a hard drive from outside of Windows, a necessary feature if you want to wipe the hard drive that Windows is installed on.

    I'm a big fan of DBAN, my first pick in that list, but if another program in the list suites you better, by all means use it instead.

    Note: There are actually several ways to completely erase a hard drive but using data destruction software is the easiest and still allows the hard drive to be used again.
     
  3. Next, complete whatever steps are necessary to install the software or, in the case of bootable program like DBAN, get the ISO image on a CD or DVD disc or a USB device like a flash drive:

    If you're using a CD or DVD, this usually involves burning the ISO image to a disc and then booting from the disc to run the program.

    If you're using a flash drive or other USB drive, this usually involves burning the ISO image to the USB device and then booting from that USB drive to get started.
     
  4. Wipe the hard drive according to the program's instructions.

    Note: Most data destruction program utilize several different methods to wipe a hard drive. If you're curious about the effectiveness or methods used to complete the hard drive wipe, see Data Sanitization Methods.
     
  5. After properly wiping a hard drive, you can be confident that whatever information was on the drive is now gone for good.

    You can now install Windows on the drive, create a new partition, sell or give away the hard drive or computer, recycle or dispose of it, or whatever else you need to do.

Tips & More Information

  1. Wiping a hard drive is operating system independent, so long as you use one of the bootable tools from my list. That means that you can use this same general process to wipe a hard drive if you have Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, or any other PC operating system.
     
  2. Beginning in Windows Vista, the format process changed and a single write zero pass is applied to each standard (non-quick) format. In other words, a very basic hard drive wipe is performed during a format.

    If a single write zero pass is good enough for you, consider your drive wiped after a regular format in Windows 8, Windows 7, and Windows Vista. If you want something even more secure, go ahead and follow the hard drive wipe instructions above.

    Keep in mind, too, that this is a wipe of just the partition you're formatting. If you have more than one partition on a physical hard drive, you'll need to format those additional drives as well if you want to consider the entire physical disk as "wiped".
     
  3. If what you really want to do is just make sure that files you delete are really gone, a data wiping tool is more than you need. See my Free File Shredder Software Programs list for programs that "destroy" individual files on an as-needed basis.

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