How to Troubleshoot External Hard Drive Read Only on Mac

By | January 15, 2022

Sometimes when you connect an external hard drive to your Mac, you will find that it is set to read-only. This happens because the drive is formatted with the Microsoft NTFS file system, which macOS doesn’t support by default. Fortunately, this is easy to fix.

There are several ways to unlock an external hard drive on a Mac, from reformatting the drive to installing software that will allow you to write to NTFS volumes. For more advanced users, there are also experimental solutions that are riskier. Let’s get started.

If Your Drive Is Empty

If your drive is empty, you’re in luck. You can easily format it to whatever you need and move on.

To get started, mount the disc in your Mac, then open Disk Utility. Now select the drive in the sidebar and click Erase.

The format options you should choose depend on how you want to use the drive:

  • Time Machine Backup: If you plan to use the drive to back up your Mac with Time Machine, you’ll want to format the drive to HFS+. In Disk Utility, it shows up as Mac OS Extended.
  • Portable drives: If you want to create a portable drive for use with Macs and other operating systems such as Windows, choose exFAT. If you’re only working with Macs, you can format your drive to HFS with the Mac OS Extended option or with the newer APFS file system.
  • Working with older devices: This is rare, but if you’re going to be using a disk with an older device that doesn’t support exFAT, you should probably choose the older FAT option. In most cases you shouldn’t use this as it limits the drive size to less than 32GB.

If You Need More Repair

Warning! The following describes the method of enabling experimental NTFS support on macOS. There is a very real possibility that something went wrong, resulting in data loss on the target drive. We recommend that you do not rely on this method for writing to critical volumes or as a long-term solution.

Sometimes you may need to write some files to a locked drive only once, and you can do this with the built-in Mac tools. But while macOS can read NTFS drives by default, its write capabilities hide behind Terminal hacks. You must follow these instructions for each drive you wish to write to.

Open Terminal and type:

nano dll / fstab

Then copy this line into the file, replacing DRIVENAME with the actual name of the drive you want to access:

LABEL=DRIVENAME none ntfs rw,auto,nobrowse

Press Ctrl + O to save the file, then Ctrl + X to exit Nano. Now disconnect and reconnect your drive. After remount, it will be available in /Volume.

You can only get there in the Finder; click Open in the menu bar and select Open Folder. Enter /Volume and click Go. You will see your drive listed here, and you can now copy files to it.

Free Open Source Solution

Even if you’re fine using Terminal, no one wants to edit the preferences file every time they deal with a new drive. If you are in IT and deal with Windows drives regularly, you may need a better option. One of the most popular solutions is an open-source product: FUSE for macOS.

Download FUSE to get started. This program is a handler; does not contain anything to mount and read the file itself. You’ll need some extra tools to get the job done, available in a Homebrew package called NTFS-3G.
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First install Homebrew by pasting this line into Terminal:

-fsSL https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Homebrew/install/master/install)”

After you run the command to install Homebrew, and you get a confirmation in Terminal, you need to install the NTFS-3G package. That is one more command:

brew install ntfs-3g

Sometimes Terminal doesn’t realize that you have the FUSE package installed. If that happens, run this command as well:

brew cask install osxfusea

You will then be asked to reboot your Mac. Once you’ve done that, try running the NTFS-3G command again.

Writing to an NTFS Drive With NTFS-3G

NTFS-3G allows your Mac to write to NTFS drives, but not automatically. You need to run some additional commands to make it work.

First, find the address of the read-only drive you mounted. You can get this in Terminal using the command:

diskutil list

You need to run the following command every time you want to mount a drive with write permissions. Replace /dev/disk1s1 with the drive address you found above:

sudo mkdir /Volumes/NTFS

sudo /usr/local/bin/ntfs-3g /dev/disk1s1 /Volumes/NTFS -olocal -oallow_other

If you don’t want to run this command every time, there is a fix. You can boot your Mac into single user mode, and replace the Mac’s built-in NTFS tool with NTFS-3G. There are some security warnings on the project site; You can check the steps to enable it on the GitHub developer page.

The developers explain that this opens your Mac to potential exploits, so this step is not for the faint of heart.

Simple, Paid Option

The solution we described above is quite technical. If you prefer to click your mouse a few times to activate it, you can use a paid third-party app to simplify the whole process.

There are a few different options, but an old favorite is NTFS for Paragon Software. It’s $19.95 per Mac license, although you get a discount for buying three or five licenses at a time. You can test drive the software with a 10 day trial as well.

This is a simple installation, which then provides a menu bar item that shows your NTFS drive. Better yet, your NTFS drive now appears in the Finder normally, and you can treat it like any other drive.

Tuxera NTFS for Mac is another program. It builds on the open standard we used above, NTFS-3G. This license is a bit simpler, as you pay $25 to use it on all your Macs.

With a 15 day free trial, you can run the program with its steps before exiting. Instead of a menu bar item, Tuxera installs as a preference pane. You can format the drive from here, but not much else. Like Paragon, you can use Finder to work with drives.

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