How to create a 3-in-1 bootable usb drive on Linux

A usb drive with only 1 partition to load grub2 on usb-bootable machines with Legacy BIOS, 64bit UEFI or 32bit UEFI.

Note: due to the maximum size of a file inside an EFI system partition, files (such as ISO disk images) of 4 GiB or larger must be placed on another partition. That second partition can be of type ext4, for instance.

Partition the drive and install grub2

Warning: the usb drive will be formatted, save your data before proceeding!

First of all, on you current installation, check if the folder /usr/lib/grub/ exists and is not empty. If it is empty or does not exist, make sure the package grub-common (or equivalent for your distribution) version 2 or higher is installed. Depending on the system, /usr/lib/grub/ will contain one or more of the following folders: x86_64-efi, x86_64-efi-signed, i386-pc, i386-efi, …

The x86_64-efi, i386-pc and i386-efi folders need to be present in order to install the corresponding bootloader on the usb drive.

Install them using the package manager, for instance on Ubuntu :

sudo apt install grub-pc-bin grub-efi-ia32-bin grub-efi-amd64-bin

Now, find the device file for your usb drive. Here, the file is /dev/sdX. Replace X with the appropriate lower case letter(s) in the commands.

Make sure it’s the right drive! (check the capacity and the partitions) :

sudo fdisk -l /dev/sdX

Open fdisk :

sudo fdisk /dev/sdX


o <enter> # Create a new empty DOS partition table

n <enter> # Create a new partition

p <enter> # Select primary partition type

1 <enter> # Set partition number to 1

<enter> # Start partition at the first possible sector (default)

<enter> # Set partition end to the last possible sector (default)

Note: if fdisk (newer versions only) asks whether the partition signature should be deleted, then answer yes.

t <enter> # Change partition type

e f <enter> # Set partition type to EFI (FAT-12/16/32)

a <enter> # Enable the bootable flag on partition 1

w <enter> # Write the partition table

Create a fresh filesystem in the newly created partition :

sudo mkfs.fat -F32 /dev/sdX1

Mount the filesystem :

sudo mount -o umask=000 /dev/sdX1 /mnt

Write the MBR and install the grub files required for legacy BIOS boot on the drive :

sudo grub-install --no-floppy --boot-directory=/mnt/boot --target=i386-pc /dev/sdX

Install /EFI/BOOT/BOOTX64.EFI and other grub files required to load grub from a 64-bit UEFI firmware :

sudo grub-install --removable --boot-directory=/mnt/boot --efi-directory=/mnt --target=x86_64-efi /dev/sdX

Install /EFI/BOOT/BOOTIA32.EFI and other grub files required for 32-bit UEFI :

sudo grub-install --removable --boot-directory=/mnt/boot --efi-directory=/mnt --target=i386-efi /dev/sdX

Create a grub.cfg file :

touch /mnt/boot/grub/grub.cfg

Example grub.cfg with Xubuntu 22.04 Live

Notes :

  • Skip this part if you already have a working grub.cfg for the usb drive.
  • Other examples can be found in this repository’s grub.cfg file.
Create a folder for cd images :

mkdir /mnt/isos

Download an Ubuntu CD image (for example: Xubuntu 22.04 64-bit) :

Note: make sure there is enough space on the usb drive.

wget --directory-prefix=/mnt/isos

Edit grub.cfg :

nano /mnt/boot/grub/grub.cfg

Write or paste something like this :
menuentry 'Xubuntu 22.04 amd64' {
	#rmmod tpm #uncomment if grub version is >=2.04 in UEFI mode (see
	set isofile="/isos/xubuntu-22.04.3-desktop-amd64.iso"
	#search --set=root --file $isofile #uncomment if the bootloader and OS files are on different partitions
	loopback isoloop $isofile
	linux (isoloop)/casper/vmlinuz locale=fr_FR console-setup/layoutcode=fr boot=casper iso-scan/filename=$isofile quiet --
	initrd (isoloop)/casper/initrd
Or something like this :
menuentry 'LMDE 6 Cinnamon 64bit (Live)' {
	set isofile="/isos/lmde-6-cinnamon-64bit.iso"
	loopback loop (hd0,1)$isofile
	linux (loop)/casper/vmlinuz boot=casper iso-scan/filename=$isofile noprompt noeject
	initrd (loop)/casper/initrd.lz

Notes :

  • Remove or change the value of the locale parameter to set the language of the live system.
  • Remove or change the value of the console-setup/layoutcode parameter to change the keyboard layout.
Save grub.cfg (in nano) and exit :





Unmount the filesystem :

sudo umount /mnt