How to get the most space in your cloud storage—without paying to upgrade

Times are tough—getting more cloud storage should be a breeze.
A person sitting at a wooden desk in front of a large window, bathed in sunlight, with the Google search engine open on a laptop and a small cup of coffee on a saucer next to them.
When you need more cloud storage, start by cleaning up the source. / Unsplash

This story has been updated. It was originally published on May 15, 2018.

Cloud storage services have given us an easy, hardware-free way to back up and transfer files. Some of them even give you a little space for free. However, the key word is “little.” Once you start uploading files and folders, that free storage fills up fast.

Before you go ahead and pay for extra room, try clearing out some of the junk in your cloud account. A full-service cleaning will make it easier for you to find the files you actually need, and save you from paying for an unnecessary upgrade. It shouldn’t take long, either—there are easy ways to keep a lid on your cloud storage in Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive, and Dropbox. But no matter which one you prefer, make sure you start by examining how you’ve been using the space so far.

How to clean up your Google cloud storage

In Google Drive, kick things off by visiting the web interface and looking for the Storage link on the left side of the page. It should say something along the lines of “7.59GB used” underneath it. Click this link and you’ll go to a page that shows how your storage is divided between Drive, Gmail, and Google Photos (you get 15GB total), and which files are taking up space, sorted from largest to smallest. You’ll have to clean up each of these services separately.

Organize Google Drive

Since you’re already there, let’s start with Drive. Because the biggest ones appear at the top, it’s easy to pinpoint the files hogging the most room. If you can live without some of these giants, right-click on them and choose Remove.

In addition to cleaning out existing files, you should tackle one practice that can cause them to pile up in the first place: automatic backups. If you’re using Drive for desktop (the more streamlined successor to Backup and Sync), this tool will sync your files by either mirroring or streaming them. Mirrored files exist on both your computer and the cloud, while streamed files live in the cloud until you need them. While you should definitely back up your files, you don’t need to store all of them online.

To check which folders Drive is backing up on your machine (Windows or Mac), open Drive for desktop, click the cog icon, and go to Preferences. A window will pop up, showing you which folders are syncing to Drive. Click Folders from your computer, and if you see some that don’t necessarily need cloud backups—particularly ones that take up a lot of room—take them off the list. While you’re at it, click Folders from Drive to ensure you’re not filling your hard drive with mirrored files from the cloud.

Straighten out Google Photos

If your computer backs up photos and videos, those files will automatically land in Google Photos. Unless you’ve activated the right settings, you may be storing massive original files. While you can always resize and compress them on your own, it’s easier to find the options that ensure your pics aren’t taking up too much space. To shrink those bulky files on Android, iOS, or iPadOS, open the Google Photos app, tap your profile picture, choose Photos settings, then Backup and sync, and Manage storage. Find the Recover storage heading and tap Convert existing photos & videos to Storage saver. On a computer, go to the Google Photos settings page, click Manage storage, find the Recover storage heading, and click Convert existing photos & videos to Storage saver.

This won’t, however, change the size of photos you upload in the future. To do that from inside the Google Photos app on a phone or tablet, tap your profile picture, then Photos settings, Backup and sync, and Upload size. Finally, decide whether you want to keep uploading photos in their original size, or select Storage saver to upload them at slightly lower quality and a smaller size. On a Windows or macOS computer, you can find these options by going to the Google Photos settings page.

Check Gmail for huge attachments

Now that you’ve tidied up Drive and Google Photos, don’t forget about Gmail. An email with a bulky attachment can use up space you’d prefer to save for other files. Head to your Gmail inbox and run a few searches to clean out bulky emails. For example, to view messages larger than 5MB, type “larger:5m” into the search box and hit Enter (or change the size in question by replacing “5” with any other number). If you’re worried about deleting a file you may want to access later, add a time-period parameter to your search, such as “older_than:1y,” which will bring up only email threads that are at least a year old (again, you can adapt the time period by replacing “1” with a different number and/or swapping years “y” for months “m”). Once you’ve found the space-wasters, you can delete the irrelevant ones. Finally, if Gmail is hogging way too much storage, you can go full scorched-earth and search for “has:attachment” to find—and potentially delete—all emails with attachments of any size.

[Related: Dig up any old email in your inbox. Even if it’s in the trash.]

At this point, you should have freed up plenty of space in Drive. To keep it that way, set a reminder to go through Drive, Google Photos, and Gmail periodically and manually delete unneeded files and emails. By setting aside 10 minutes once a month, you can easily stay on top of your cloud storage and prevent it from ballooning out of control.

How to organize your iCloud storage

If you’re an Apple devotee, you probably back up your files, photos, apps, and email with an iCloud account. Considering that you only get a paltry 5GB for free, you may have no choice but to pay for extra storage. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to keep your wallet closed. If your files only take up slightly more room than what you get for free, you may be able to reduce the stored folders and bring them below that 5GB limit. As a first step, check how much room you have left. Inside the iCloud web portal, for example, this information appears near the right-hand side of the status bar at the bottom of the screen. The amount you have in storage will determine the amount you have to trim.

Now, check on the folders that are syncing to iCloud by default. From a macOS computer, click the Apple menu, then System Preferences. Click your Apple ID at the top of this window (log in if you need to), then click iCloud. Because the cloud-storage service backs up many Apple apps, you’ll see categories for everything from Mail to Safari. But the biggest storage hogs are probably iCloud Drive and iCloud Photos. You don’t have to stop syncing them, but if you dig into your settings for those services, you can back up fewer files from them.

Delete files from iCloud Drive

To be more selective about your Drive folders, click Options next to that service, and uncheck any folders you don’t want backed up to iCloud. For example, if you keep a lot of junk in your Desktop and Documents folders, deselect the Desktop & Documents Folders option. Just make sure that you back up any important files from these folders elsewhere. If you do want to keep syncing those folders to Drive, manually clear out some room: Open Finder, click the Desktop or Documents folders, and drag outdated or unneeded files to the trash. You can also erase files from iCloud Drive on the web by selecting a file and clicking the trash icon at the top of the page.

Tidy up your iCloud Photos

When you’re done with Drive, go back a screen and click Options next to iCloud Photos. Although you can’t clean up images individually, you can turn off automatic photo uploading via iCloud Photo Library. As a final measure, you can manually go through Photos and delete images or videos you don’t really need to keep.

Another way to reduce photo clutter is to back up your images with Google Photos rather than iCloud Photo Library. Google offers backup tools for both iOS and macOS, and you get three times the storage for free (though the 15GB total is shared by Drive, Google Photos, and Gmail—more details above). Sending your pics there will leave more room on iCloud for backing up documents and apps.

In addition to computer files, iCloud keeps multiple backups of the information on your iOS device. You can delete the older versions to free up room, but it’s best to leave your current device backup in place, in case you need it. To manage your iOS backups from a computer, open Finder, click the device you want to see backups for, select the General tab, and click Manage Backups. Right-click on one you want to trash, and pick Delete. Repeat as necessary. You can also access the same list of backups on your iPhone or iPad by going to Settings, tapping your Apple ID at the top of the screen, and choosing iCloud. From there, tap Manage Storage, followed by Backups, to cull the herd. While you’re managing iCloud settings on your iOS device, the main iCloud screen also lets you turn off syncing for individual apps. Certain apps store data on their own servers, so you don’t need to back them up with iCloud. Disable their syncing, and you’ll free up a little more space.

Check on your Apple Mail inbox

Finally, if you sync Mail to your iCloud account, emails with attachments might be taking up unnecessary room. To find and delete them, open the Mail app in macOS. Then go to Mailbox > New Smart Mailbox. Pick Contains attachments as the criteria and click OK, and you’ll have a new folder that contains all emails with attachments. Go through it and trash the old emails that have large attachments you no longer need.

How to clear out OneDrive

For Windows 10 and 11 users, Microsoft’s online backup service OneDrive comes built into your machine. Even if you don’t use a Windows device, you can download versions of OneDrive for Android, iOS, and macOS. However, like iCloud, you only get 5GB for free, so you’ll quickly reach a point when you need to clean out your OneDrive account.

Before you decide which files to delete, check out how much room they’re taking up: Head to the OneDrive website, click the cog icon in the top right, and choose Options. You’ll go right to the Manage Storage heading, where you’ll see what’s taking up space. You can erase files directly from here: Move your cursor over something you want to trash, click the circle in the top right of its thumbnail, and hit Delete when you’ve selected all the ones you want to get rid of. They will disappear from both the OneDrive cloud account and from the OneDrive folder on your computer’s hard drive.

[Related: Secure your Microsoft account so it’s hard to get into]

Alternatively, you can delete the files directly from your computer. On Windows, OneDrive’s natural habitat, open File Explorer, right-click on the OneDrive entry in the pane on the left, and choose Settings. In the Auto-save tab, you’ll see which areas of your system—folders like Documents, Desktop, and Pictures—are automatically syncing with OneDrive cloud storage. If you can save copies of these files elsewhere, or they’re not important enough to warrant backups, go ahead and stop syncing them: Change the entry in the drop-down menu to This PC only. To really cut out big files, uncheck the box marked Automatically save photos and videos to OneDrive and back up these visual memories to Google Photos instead.

You can also sync specific items by dropping them into the OneDrive folder on your computer. When you want to delete one of these folders, you can uncheck it in the same File Explorer > OneDrive menu, but this won’t remove the folder from your cloud storage locker—it will just delete it from the OneDrive folder on that specific computer. To also remove these items from the web version of your OneDrive account, open the OneDrive folder in File Explorer (for Windows) or in Finder (for macOS). From here, either delete files or copy them to another location, and this will stop them from syncing to the cloud.

As a final space-saving measure, you can stop backing up your smartphone’s files to OneDrive. Open the app on Android or iOS and go to Me > Settings > Camera upload. Turn this off to stop sending your smartphone photos and videos to OneDrive. If you’d still like to back them up, you can consign them to Google Photos for free.

How to empty out your Dropbox

Dropbox is one of the leading cloud storage services, but it also has one of the lightest unpaid plans: You only get 2GB of space for free. That means to stay under the limit, you’ll have to be extremely careful about what you store in Dropbox.

Because it doesn’t offer automated clean-up tools, you’ll have to manually delete files and folders. You can do this on the Dropbox website or from the synced Dropbox folder on your computer or phone. Deleting files in any of these locations will remove them from your cloud account and from the local disks where Dropbox is installed. If you accidentally erase a file, you can still restore it by going to the deleted files page of the Dropbox website.

[Related: 6 essential Dropbox tools you might be missing]

Need some help prioritizing what to remove? On the Dropbox website, hover over one of the column headings, such as Modified or Who can access, and click the down arrow to bring up a little menu. Choose Size to sort the list by file size. This will show you which files or folders are taking up the most storage space, so you can delete the biggest ones first. You can arrange the list from largest to smallest or vice versa; just click the new Size heading to reverse the order. For folders, sizes won’t appear automatically, but you can get an estimate by clicking the three dots to the side of any folder and choosing Calculate size. You can also erase files in bulk: Use the checkboxes to the left of each item to select a group of files, then click the Delete button to remove them.

With its limited free storage, we don’t recommend that you back up your smartphone photos and videos to Dropbox. If you still want to download the app (for Android and iOS) onto your device, turn off camera upload: Open the app, tap Account, choose Camera Uploads, and hit Turn off camera uploads. That way, you’ll still be able to access Dropbox files from your phone, but you won’t need to worry about every image taking up room in your Dropbox folder.

Other users can also eat up your Dropbox storage space—by sharing their own files with you. If you no longer need access to certain items, you can remove them from your Dropbox. This won’t affect the original files, which will remain in the Dropbox of the person who originally shared them. Find these by clicking the Shared heading on the left. Ignore any files that say “Not added to Dropbox” under them, as these aren’t taking up space in your account. To get rid of the ones that are, click the three dots to the right of each one and select Remove from Dropbox.

As with the other services we’ve mentioned, spending a few minutes every month or so deleting Dropbox files can really help you stay on top of your online space. But if you reach the point when you need a more drastic measure, try moving everything out of your Dropbox and putting it in another folder on your computer. Then you can add files back to Dropbox one by one, leaving out the unnecessary items.