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How to set up a multi-boot USB drive on Linux

Live Linux USB sticks are incredibly useful. With them, it’s possible to take an entire live Linux operating system on the go to use for maintenance, or private, secure communication, and much more.

Linux USB sticks come in handy, for sure. However, they’re only limited to one operating system. If you’re interested in having multiple Linux distributions on one USB stick, you’ll need to use something like Netboot; a bootable ISO that lets Linux users load up multiple operating systems at boot time from a USB stick.

Get Etcher for Linux

Creating a multi-boot USB stick for Linux involves USB-burning software, as the Netboot software is distributed via a downloadable ISO file. So, in this section of the guide, we will briefly go over how to get and install the Etcher USB tool for Linux.

The main reason to go with Etcher is that out of all of the ISO burning applications for Linux, it does the best at setting up ISO files without any issues. To get it going on your Linux operating system, follow the step-by-step instructions below.

Step 1: Head over to the official Etcher website by following this link. Once it’s loaded, let the window automatically detect what operating system you are running.

Step 2: After the OS detection is done, click the button to start the download for Etcher on Linux.

Step 3: Open up the default file manager on your Linux desktop and click on the “Downloads” folder. Then, locate the Etcher ZIP archive file in the folder and right-click on it with the mouse.

Step 4: In the right-click menu that appears after selecting the Etcher ZIP archive, select the “Extract” option to decompress the AppImage file.

Step 5: Once the Etcher AppImage is done extracting, double-click on it to start up Etcher for the first time. Be sure to select the “Yes” option when prompted.

Download Netboot ISO

The software we’ll be using to set up a multi-booting USB drive is called Netboot. To get your hands on the latest release of this software, head over to the project’s official webpage and download the ISO image at the top of the list. Alternatively, launch a terminal window and use the wget command-line utility to grab it.

cd ~/Downloads
wget https://boot.netboot.xyz/ipxe/netboot.xyz.iso

With the Netboot ISO file done downloading to your Linux PC, close the terminal window and move on to the next step of the guide.

Set up a multi-boot USB drive

Making the multi-boot USB Linux drive is a simple process. To do it, open up the Etcher application you installed earlier in the guide. Once the program is open, you’ll be ready to make the ISO.

Click the “Select Image” button. Then, use the pop-up window that appears to browse for the Netboot ISO file you recently downloaded to your Linux PC.

After setting up the ISO file in Etcher, click on the “Select Drive” button, and use the UI to choose a suitable USB flash drive to flash Netboot to.

Lastly, select the “Flash!” button to start the burning process and allow it to write to the drive. When the burning process is done, close the Etcher application and move down to the next step in the guide.

Etcher alternative

In rare occasions, some computers may create an Etcher USB that isn’t bootable. If this happens to you, you can create the Netboot USB with the command-line instead by following the steps below.

Step 1: gain a root shell with sudo -s.

sudo -s

Step 2: Run lsblk and determine the label of your USB flash drive.


Step 3: Use dd to create a new Netboot USB. Be sure to change SDX with your USB’s label from the lsblk command output.

dd if=~/Downloads/netboot.xyz.iso of=/dev/sdx

Use multi-boot USB drive

To use the Netboot system on your Linux PC, plug the USB drive into the USB port and reboot the system. As it reboots, load into the BIOS and configure your PC to boot from the USB drive.

Once the Netboot tool is loaded up, use the arrow keys on your keyboard to select “Linux Installs”.

After selecting the “Linux Installs” option, use the menu to navigate the list of operating systems to boot from. Then, when you’ve settled on an operating system, press Enter on the keyboard to let Netboot download the OS and load it up for you.

Non-Linux operating systems on Netboot

The Netboot tool gives users access to more than just Linux operating systems. It also has other items, such as BSD, FreeDOS, and security utilities. To access any of these items, press Esc to exit the Linux Installs menu. Then use the arrow keys to make your selection.

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