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Creating a Windows 11 install drive takes some work. Here's what you need to know

Want a backup of the Windows 11 install file? Pour yourself a drink, then read this.

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Windows 11 update on a laptop

It's always a good idea to have a backup of your current operating system on a USB drive. Just in case. We show you how to make one for Windows 11. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Microsoft recently released Windows 11 as part of its Insider program, allowing anyone with a compatible PC to install and test one of the biggest Windows updates we've seen in years. If you're on the fence about testing it out, here's how you can check if your PC will run it, and then install it. However, part of testing an unfinished operating system is you're bound to run into issues and bugs. Sometimes, those issues may force you to reinstall Windows 11. 

An easy way of doing that is by using a USB installation drive, which has a copy of Windows 11 on it. Microsoft is expected to release Windows 11 later this year, possibly in October, but until then it should be considered a constant work in progress. With the update safely stored on a flash drive, you can reinstall it at any time, should any issues get bad enough that your only option is to reinstall the update. 

You can also use a USB drive to make it easier to install Windows 11 on multiple computers or use it to quickly set up a virtual machine to make testing possible without risking your personal data. 

Microsoft hasn't yet updated its Media Creation Tool, nor has it published the official ISO images required to create a bootable drive. I've reached out to the company about the timing of an official release and will update this post when I hear back. 

To create a Windows 11 installation drive, you'll need an empty 8GB USB drive, a Windows PC and up to a few hours of your time. You can download the system image using a Linux computer or Mac using the same website we outline below, but we're going to focus on using a PC for this guide. Below are the steps you'll need to follow. 

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Some words of advice before you begin

Microsoft hasn't officially published the Windows 11 ISO on the Insider's site, as it currently has for Windows 10. If you follow the steps below, we'll walk you through downloading Windows 11 using a third-party website. Before downloading any software from a third-party site, I recommend doing some research to see if it's trusted or if there are any red flags. 

If you don't feel comfortable downloading any software, especially a complete operating system, from a third party, I suggest waiting until Microsoft officially publishes the ISO images and/or tools. 

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Until Microsoft provides an official download link for the Windows 11 ISO, this is as good as it gets. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Where to download the Windows 11 ISO

To download all of the necessary files you'll need to create your flash drive, use your PC to visit UUP Dump. Under the section titled Quick Options look for the line that reads Latest Dev Channel Build. (Currently, Windows 11 is only available as an Insider Preview in the Dev Channel.)

If you have an Intel-based PC, click on the x64 button. If you have an Arm-based Windows computer, such as the Surface Pro X, you'll want to click the arm64 button. 

On the next screen, click Cumulative Update for Windows 11 (10.0.22000.65) (or whatever the current build number is at the time). Select your language, then click Next. Choose the Windows 11 edition you want to download -- I went with Home because that's what most of my PCs are running. Then click Next

Next, you'll see a long list of options. I left them alone, but make sure you have Download and convert to ISO selected along with a checkmark next to Include Updates. Finally, click Create download package.

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Make sure to click "More Info" before "Run anyway."

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

After the download finishes, look for the ZIP file in your Downloads folder. Right-click on it, select Extract All, and pick an easy-to-remember location for saving all the files. I created a folder on my Desktop named "Windows11ISO." The lack of spaces in the folder's name is important, as the download tool will not run if there are spaces in the name. 

Navigate to where you extracted the files and locate a file named uup_download_windows and double-click it. You might see a pop-up letting you know Windows has blocked the file from running, but in this case we want to run the file. To do that, click More Info > Run Anyway

A command prompt window will open, detailing the current step and progress of the download process. 

The download will take some time, especially if you have a slow internet connection. A bunch of random text will scroll across the window as the command does its job, sometimes with red text reading "error." Don't be alarmed, just let it finish. 

UUP Dump Success

Processing the download and turning it into an ISO is the longest part of this entire process. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

If an error prevents the command from doing its job, which happened to me, you'll see some text letting you know there was an error, along with telling you to press any key to continue. Once you press a key, the window will close. I ran the uup_download_windows file a second time and it successfully finished. 

All told, it took me over two hours to download the files and create the ISO image on a Surface Pro X, but on a Surface Laptop 4 the entire process took under an hour. You can either walk away from your computer until it's finished or get a head start on the next step by downloading and installing Rufus, the program we're going to use to flash the ISO to a USB drive. 

You'll know the download has finished and all of the files are processed when you see Press 0 to exit at the bottom of the command prompt window. 

With the ISO finished, this is how Rufus should look before you flash Windows 11 to your USB drive. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

How to flash Windows 11 to your USB drive

To turn a standard USB drive into an installation drive, you'll need to use a program called Rufus. It's the same app that Microsoft itself uses in its guide for creating a Windows 10 bootable drive. Visit the company's website to download and install Rufus, which should only take a few seconds. It's a small program. 

Once UUP Dump has finished downloading Windows 11 and you've pressed 0 to exit the command prompt, plug in your USB drive and open Rufus. Select your USB drive using the Device dropdown. Remember, anything on your thumb drive will be erased during this process -- so make sure it's empty and/or you have everything you need off of it. 

Under Boot Selection select Disk or ISO image and then click on the text that reads SELECT and pick the ISO file you created in the previous step. 

There's a section in Rufus labeled Image option with several different settings -- leave everything as the default. The same can be said for format options unless you want to change the name of the USB drive to something like "Windows 11 install" or along those lines. 

Click Start when you're all of the options are set. You'll, again, have to wait while the program does its job, but it should be a much quicker process than downloading and creating the ISO. It took just over 15 minutes on a Surface Pro X for me. 

Windows 11 update on a laptop

You can now install Windows 11 with ease. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

What do to with a Windows 11 installation drive

Once Rufus finishes, you can remove the USB drive from your PC and either keep it somewhere safe in case you need to reinstall Windows 11 on your PC, or you can plug it into another PC and use it to install Windows 11 by opening the drive and double-clicking the setup.exe file. A few seconds later, a Windows 11 installation screen will appear, walking you through the rest of the process. 

Alternatively, you can try and use the USB drive as a bootable installation drive. However, this is where things get even more complicated due to Windows 11 requiring Secure Boot, and the USB drive we just created not being compatible with that feature. I suggest waiting for Microsoft to release an official tool, but if you insist, I found a guide that walks you through the extra steps of making a bootable USB drive that's compatible with secure boot on Tom's Hardware starting at step 11. 

Curious what all the fuss is about Windows 11? We have your back. There's a big interface redesign making its debut that includes a centered Start menu, but don't worry, you can move it back to the left corner if you want. And, finally, if you've ever had the desire to use Android apps on your PC, well, Microsoft is making that possible.

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