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What to do when you run out of iCloud storage

iPhones are known for their cameras, but what happens when you run out of space for those photos?

(Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg News)

The holidays are creeping closer and this year, it’s going to be different. Thanks to vaccines, including boosters and newly available shots for kids ages 5 to 11, more people are able to gather with their extended families in person.

That likely means more photos and videos. Lots of them. Unfortunately those big beautiful files can quickly eat up all of your smartphone storage. As with Thanksgiving pie, it’s best to plan ahead so you don’t run out of room. To make sure there’s space for every candid of grandma playing with the adorable pandemic babies, do a little memory maintenance ahead of time.

We’ve already covered the best ways to manage your Google storage, so if you’re an Android user or an Apple person who relies on Google Photos you can learn more there. If you’re on an iPhone or iPad, start with these basics to avoid a full phone or iCloud account.

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See what you’re working with

Apple devices come with a free iCloud account for backing up and storing things in the cloud. Unfortunately it only includes 5 gigabytes of storage. Between images, text messages, third-party apps and full phone backups, it goes fast.

First, see what’s on your device. On an iOS device, go to Settings → General → iPhone Storage and give it a moment to calculate. This screen might show helpful suggestions like emptying your trash, but Apple also never misses an opportunity to promote its own cloud storage for a few dollars a month. Skip that for now and scroll down to the list of apps and how much storage they’re using.

If any of the top space-gobbling apps are ones you don’t use, you can delete them from your device. (There’s an option to “offload app” instead, but it often doesn’t solve the problem, since all of its data sticks around.) This is also a good place to find out which apps are storing big files you don’t need, like downloaded videos in Prime Video or a silly iMovie creation. Chances are the next biggest offenders are Messages and photos you’ve saved. You can manually clear out any pix or conversations you no longer need, but chances are you’ll want to back up some of them first, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Next, see what’s already taking up your free (or paid) iCloud space. Go to Settings → [Your Name] → iCloud and check out how much storage you have. Before leaving this screen, scroll down. You may be surprised what apps are using your iCloud for storage. If you’re comfortable with it, you can start turning off anything you don’t think should be tapping into this limited resource.

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Clean out your conversations

Now scroll back up and hit Manage Storage. This is where you see which apps use the most iCloud space. One surprise people often find here is Messages, Apple’s built-in texting app. That’s because our texts are now half words and half things like photos, videos, GIFs and emoji and they all count toward your storage.

Tap on Messages and you’ll see an option called Top Conversations. If there are some chats you see that you have no emotional attachment to, you can delete them and all the chunky files will go away as well. But be careful if it’s something you’ll want to look back on, like years of chats with your parents.

Another way to slim down Messages is to go back to Settings → General → iPhone Storage and select Messages. Here you can delete files by category instead of just entire conversations. For example, tap on images and you’ll see your largest attachments on top. If they’re saved elsewhere, you can hit Edit, select the files, and tap the trash can icon.

Options for backing up conversations outside of iCloud are limited, as they are encrypted, but you can connect your phone to your computer and make a backup using iTunes.

Save your stuff elsewhere

iCloud is not the only game in town. Google offers 15GB of free storage, a big jump from Apple’s starting amount. You can take advantage of it by installing Google Photos on your phone and setting it up to back up your photos automatically. You can also transfer past iCloud photo backups directly to Google Photos using tools at privacy.apple.com. Cobbling these together with other cloud storage options like Dropbox, which has 2GB of free storage, can also take some of the pressure off.

You can also skip the cloud and back up to your own devices. Connect your iPad or iPhone to your Mac and use the built in Photos or Image Capture apps to save all those files to your hard drive, then delete them from your phone. If you mix-and-match and use a PC with an iPhone, plug the iPhone or iPad in and open Photos, go to Import and select USB Drive.

iCloud will keep backing up new files, so once you’ve found alternative homes and systems that you’re confident in, be sure to go back into Settings and toggle off Photos for iCloud.

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Consider paying for storage

“Pay more money” is not a popular tip, we understand. However, if you’re both a fan of cloud-based backups and storage, and a regular iPhone user, it might be time to bite the bullet and pay for more than the basic amount of storage. Cloud-based storage options are great because they travel with you, are already backed up in multiple locations and don’t require maintaining your own system like external hard drives. Sprinkling your storage across different companies seems like a great way to save money, but it can be more work to maintain, track and even just browse.

Apple’s cloud storage starts at $0.99 a month for 50GB and goes to $2.99 a month for 200GB, $9.99 for 2TB. If your primary concern is keeping things as simple as possible, this is a fine option. Google Drive cloud storage prices are about the same, though with more free space to start. It might come down to what apps you enjoy more for looking through all those past holiday photos.

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