Simple tricks for freeing up storage space on your smartphone

Because behind every good selfie, there are 50 failed attempts.

You pull out your phone to snap a spontaneous photo… but then you get an error message because you have no space for the pic. Running out of room on your phone can be a disaster, but it’s totally avoidable.

Free up some space with these tips.

Move your photos and videos to the cloud

a screenshot of Google Photos asking to delete images
Google Photos can delete images once you’ve backed them up. David Nield

Photos and videos can take up a huge chunk of the space on your device, so it’s a good idea to get these files offloaded to the cloud at the earliest opportunity. The good news is that plenty of apps will do the job for you. The not-so-good news is that if you have too many images, you’ll probably have to pay a few dollars a month to store them.

One of the best options is Google Photos. Not only does it work across Android, iOS, Windows, macOS, and the web, it also lets you store an unlimited number of photos and videos for free—as long as you don’t mind your images being resized down to a maximum of 16 megapixels and your movies being shrunk to 1080p full HD (so no 4K).

This will not last, though. Google recently announced an update to its Google Photos storage policy, and starting June 1, 2021, any new photos or videos you upload to the platform will count toward the 15GB of free storage in every Google account. That means your photos, the files on your Google Drive, and everything you have in Gmail will use the same limited space.

If you want more space or to store your files in full resolution, you’ll have to pay for the service.

a screenshot of Apple iCloud
Use iCloud to sync your photos across Apple devices. David Nield

Other paid options include Apple’s iCloud (which will not work on an Android phone), Microsoft’s OneDrive, Amazon Photos, and Dropbox. They’ll all save your mobile pictures to the web for a few dollars a month. Check the individual sites for the latest prices, though the tiers are similar across all the competing products, and you’ll typically pay about $10 a month for 1TB of online space.

Whichever option you go for, your app of choice will automatically take care of uploading your photos and videos. You can then delete the local copies—some apps, like Google Photos and iCloud, will even take care of this for you—which will open up extra storage on your phone. For more details, check out our complete guide to cloud-based photo backups.

Cut down on apps and games

a screenshot of the app data in iOS
Both iOS and Android will tell you what’s taking up room on your phone. David Nield

The next-biggest space hog, after photos and videos, will likely be your apps and games. To avoid completely running out of room, regularly remove apps you’ve not using. You can always re-install them without paying a second time—Apple or Google will keep track of what you’ve already paid for.

But not all apps are equally greedy space-wise. To see which ones are taking up the most room, iOS users can go to Settings, then General, then iPhone Storage. On Android, open Settings, then Storage, then tap Manage Storage.

You can then delete the worst offenders. On iOS, press and hold on an app icon until a dialog box appears, then hit Remove App. On Android, press and hold on an icon in the app drawer, then drag it up to the Uninstall link at the top.

a screenshot of Netflix downloads
Music and movie apps may have downloads you can wipe. David Nield

On top of the room that apps themselves take up, many of them also store data, primarily content such as music, podcasts, movies, and TV shows that you might have saved locally for offline use. Whatever apps you use, they should include options for clearing out locally stored files so you can free up some space, though the process will vary from app to app. In Netflix, for example, tap Downloads from navigation bar at the bottom to see all the content you’ve saved.

Other apps—like Facebook, messaging apps, and browsers—will also store data, but not in significant amounts. So it’s not as important to keep tabs on how much space they’re using up. As we mentioned above, the apps list inside your phone’s settings is a good place to check, and you can always completely uninstall bulky apps.

Add extra storage

a photo of a phone with a memory card
Many Android phones let you expand your storage with a memory card. David Nield

The previous tips will help you clear out files on your phone. But if you want to keep those files for easy offline access, you’re going to need more storage capacity. Sure, we could tell you to buy a phone that has more than enough storage on board—the iPhone goes up to a whopping 512GB these days—but not everyone has that kind of money. Besides, if you’ve already bought the phone you plan to use for the next few years, you’re not going to run out now and buy a new one just because you’re running out of space.

For Android users, there’s another option. Many phones with this OS come with a microSD card slot, which is a quick and easy way of getting more elbow room for your files and apps. By inserting this card, you can add 400GB of extra space for less than $50. Before you purchase, however, double-check that the card will work with your phone.

How your Android phone “sees” the card will vary depending on which manufacturer made your phone and which version of Android you’re running. Some phones let you run apps on the card, while others will only allow you to store photos and videos on the extra storage. Even if it’s the latter, moving those files will automatically free up room in your phone’s internal memory.

SanDisk iXpand
You can add extra storage to an iPhone too, but the solution isn’t as neat. SanDisk

Apple’s iPhones don’t feature expandable internal memory, but you can buy extra peripherals, like the SanDisk iXpand, to boost the available storage. These dongles are effectively automatic backup solutions that pull photos and videos off your device so you can delete the originals. They can be useful, but you’re not actually expanding the available space on your phone like you are with an Android’s extra memory card.

Regularly reset your phone

a screenshot of the reset screen on Android
Android warns you about what you’ll lose during a reset. David Nield

No space-saving trick works better on your smartphone than running it through a factory reset every now and again. This effectively returns your handset to the state it was in when you first bought it—which means absolutely nothing will remain on there beyond what the manufacturer and Apple or Google have preinstalled.

What puts most people off running through this process is that it wipes your photos, videos, messages, apps, and everything else off your phone—so you’ll need to start from scratch. This means that, before you get started, you need to be absolutely sure that you backed up everything important.

That said, with today’s cloud-first apps and services, resetting a phone isn’t quite the scorched-earth approach it used to be. If all your emails are in Gmail, your songs are in Spotify, your pictures are in Google Photos, and you’ve backed up and downloaded all your messages, the process can be relatively painless. Count this as yet another reason to switch to these cloud-based services for the future.

If you’ve double-checked that you’ve got copies of everything you want to keep, you can find the reset options in your Settings app. It’s under General and Reset on iOS, and System, Advanced, Reset options on Android. Follow the instructions on screen and you’ll soon be back to the beginning as far as your phone and its operating system are concerned. And next time, you’ll know how to be more careful with your phone’s storage space.