OneNote Notebooks on USB drives and SD cards

Do you want a OneNote notebook synced between two computers but don't have a network connection between them, or don't want to create a file share? A simple solution is to store a notebook on a USB drive, an SD card or other removable media. We specifically designed for this scenario with OneNote 2007.

A quick recap of OneNote syncing is in order (the paragraph version not the hundreds of pages of specs version). OneNote always works from a cache file. This is stored in the Local Settings folder, similar to an Outlook cache. OneNote syncs between the cache and your notebook files. The notebooks could be on your local hard disk in My Documents (yes we still cache notebooks that are on local disk for many good architectural reasons), they could be on a network file share, or they could even be on removable media like USB drives. When the location of the notebook files is not available (e.g. network disconnected, or you removed the USB drive) then the notebook is still available in OneNote and you can continue to edit it. When the location of the notebook files is available again (e.g. network reconnects, or you plug the USB drive back in), OneNote will sync to it, and merge in any changes you had.

The consequence of this is you can use a USB drive just as you would a network file share as a sharing location for a OneNote notebook between two machines. You can even view and edit the notebook when the USB drive is not available. If you went home but forgot to take the USB drive or SD card home with you, no problem, just edit the notebook at home and bring home the USB drive the next day and OneNote will sync and merge in the changes.

There's one catch here that we had to address. USB drives can get different drive letters assigned each time you plug them in. The first time you plug it in it may show up as the E: drive, but the next time you plug it in it shows up as F: drive. Or you could plug in some other USB drive that shows up as the E: drive. Our solution to this as that we use a unique ID on the removable drive to identify it and map that to the right notebook. So even if it changes drive letter everytime it gets connected we'll sync the right notebook to it.

Step by Step Instructions:

  1. Plug in the removable drive (USB drive, or SD card ). Note the drive letter.
  2. In OneNote 2007, create a new notebook on the drive.

    • File - New - Notebook
    • Give it a name and click next.
    • Choose "I will use it on this computer" and click next.
    • Click the browse button and browse to the USB drive and optionally a folder where you want the notebook stored. Click create.

  3. Add any content you want to the notebook (section, pages etc.)
  4. Remove the USB drive at anytime

    • Don't close the notebook in OneNote. There's no need. And by leaving it available in OneNote you'll be able to continue to edit it even when the USB drive is out and attached to the second computer. You can close the OneNote application, and next time you open it OneNote will still have the notebook available from its cache.
    • You might want to give it 10 seconds or so after your last edit, or wait for the drive to stop flashing before removing it. OneNote will sync quickly.
    • Depending on the type of drive you might want to use the Windows "Safely Remove Hardware" tool to shut it down and flush the drive first. This is not required by OneNote and if you don't normally need to do it for your drive (depends on its settings) then there's no need.

  5. Connect the USB drive to the second computer
  6. Open the notebook in OneNote on the second computer

    • File - Open - Notebook
    • Choose the folder with the notebook name that OneNote created on the USB drive above.
    • You should now have all the notebook contents available on the second machine.

  7. Again, you can remove the drive at anytime, without closing the notebook in OneNote. You can close the OneNote app at anytime and when you start OneNote again the notebook will be available from the cache.

In this way you can move the USB drive back and forth among multiple machines (2 or more). You can have the notebooks always available on any machine even if you don't have the USB drive with you. And you can even make edits on multiple machines at the same time, OneNote will handle syncing and merging the edits to the USB drive when it's available.

There's one privacy caveat you should know about if you're using removable media to store notebooks. If you plug it into a public computer and then you open the notebook, the notebook will be stored in OneNote's cache on that machine. So if someone using that public machine after you were to look for it, they could potentially see that data. You could minimize likelihood of this by closing the notebook on that machine before leaving the machine. There could still be residue of that notebook data on that public machine, just as with any other document you may have looked at (e.g. in the Windows paging file) but it certainly reduces the likelihood.

Comments (20)

  1. Kdbertel says:

    On the privacy issue, it would be cool if there were a command in OneNote, or a separate litle tool you can put on the USB drive, that would be like "close this notebook and wipe data because this is a public computer". Essentially, some way of maintaining privacy.

    It would be cool; as I use public computers from time to time (being a schoolperson), it would make me feel a lot better. Especially if I happen to be dealing with sensitive information.

  2. DavidRas says:

    The "wipe data because this is a public computer" is a good suggestion we could consider for the future. You can achieve something like this by going to Tools-Options-Save and clicking "Optimize all Files Now". Among other things, "optimize" cleans out any unused data in the cache file.

    If you’re really worried about security you could use our "Password Protection" feature to encrypt sections. If you do that the data for the section is encrypted not only in the notebook files, but in the cache. We don’t write any copies anywhere that aren’t encrypted. So it would not be accessible to anyone without the password. The one catch to that is embedded or "attached files" like word docs that you may have copied into OneNote We don’t encrypt those separate files because they are stored outside our .one files. We warn you of this with a prompt if you insert files into password protected sections.

  3. Looks like David, another program manager on the team, wrote about how to get OneNote Notebooks on USB…

  4. OneNote 2007 is out, and of course I rushed out to get a copy. It was the main reason that I had participated in the Office 2007 beta, and there were a number of great new feature. One particularly…

  5. kwteel says:

    Thank you for this information. My husband and I both teach and write research  books; OneNote became a way of life almost over night.  If I’m using a Firelight portable hard drive as a shared notebooks place between my laptop and desktop, do I have to configure it for a specific drive as for a UBS key?

    K Teel

  6. paulenorrisii says:

    One thing that would be very helpful is to expand these instructions to deal with an already existing notebook on a thumb drive.  This may be as simple as just starting with step 5, but it would be nice to make that explicit.  A couple of other wrinkles to consider:

    How about the unfiled section?  How should that be handled?

    What should be done with the Tools -> Options -> Save options?  Should these be mapped to the USB drive?

    Thanks for a very helpful post!

    P. Norris

  7. Daniel says:

    Nice post, but it would REALLY be helpful to do this with existing notebooks.  

    I have about 1000 pages in an old notebook….it would take sooooo long to transfer all of that into a new notebook.

    If you have a solution to this could you please email me at  Thank you so much.


  8. Dennis Barker says:


    I’ve set up an USB drive fine, however when I try to use the link outlook meeting and contact notes to One Note feature I get an error message telling me I cannot use the feature because the section I am trying to send to is not in an open notebook.

    In fact the notebook is open and the send email feature works fine to the same notebook, only the two note linking options seem to have this problem. Sorry if this is not clear, but would like to know if you have seen this before or if anyone may have a solution

    Thanks for your time.

  9. DavidRas says:

    Couple of responses:

    – Daniel: you can indeed do this with an existing notebook. You can move a notebook to a USB drive (or anywhere else). By going to the File menu and Notebook Properties, then choose "Change Location" and move the notebook onto the USB drive. Or you can just close the notebook in OneNote. Then copy the folder that contains the notebook (the folder has the same name as the notebook). Copy it onto the USB drive and then reopen that folder as a notebook from OneNote (right click the folder will give a "Open as Notebook" option.

    – P. Norris. You can do this with an existing notebook on a USB drive. Just start at step 5 as suggested.

    – Dennis: I’ll get one of our testers to look into this issue and see if we can reproduce it. You can Mail me (via the form) with more details if you have them.

  10. Charles says:

    Is it possible to put the cache file on an SD card if it never leaves the machine?

    I have an 32gig SSD for my main disc and use EWF to keep the writes down on it (also makes it much faster) and the cache just ends up in the memory anyways never touching the main disk. Now Onenote complains about the sd card (pcmcia adapter with 4gig SD card that never leaves the machine) being removable and does not let me change the cache to there. Even though the options menu says it does not recommend placing it on a removable disk, Onenote outright bans it.

    Anyways, is there any way to put the cache on the SD card, or is it forever going to be hittin the EWF layer?

  11. Pattarin says:

    Thank you.. you save my life! 🙂

  12. Crystal says:

    You have no idea how much I need to thank you! You have saved me so much stress and frustration!!!

  13. Eric says:

    Had as freak occurance with OneNote 2007 yesterday.  I normally store my Notebooks on a USB flash drive. I forgot to have it plugged in to my laptop when I fired up OneNote.  When I went to the section and page that I had worked on the day before to pick up where I left off I noticed the USB not plugged in and then plugged it in.  I closed OneNote and reopened it with the USB drive connected.  For about 3ms the last page I was working on appeared and then it disappeared.  I cannot find it in any backup, temp file or anything.  This page is really critical to me…Is there any suggestion to find it or is it gone forever?

  14. Derek says:

    This is fantastic news with the Surface. I just got a Surface Pro and plan to use it at work for note-taking. However, while at work, I can't connect to the locked down wireless network, preventing cloud syncing. Now I will be able to sync between three computers no problem.

  15. Stephen says:

    David,  I've been using OneNote for years.  Now I need to use it on several computers in an environment with no internet access.  Your USB solution is the best I have seen.  I know you wrote this around 2007, but I just tested it with 2010 and it works fine

    Thanks a lot!

  16. dortha says:

    Really helpful resource, steps taken to explain the concepts are quite appreciable, such solutions are also used at :

  17. Hasrat123 says:

    Excellent stuff on this article , USB solution was amazing, i was looking same solution from

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