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Your Smartphone Just Ran Out of Storage. Now What?

The easiest solution is to up your storage by paying for a cloud service. But there are other options, too.

illustration of a phone with a storage full notification on the screen and clouds in the background
Alexa Edgerton

The price of your optimism has come due — your phone is cheerfully telling you that you’re all out of storage space. You knew the best bet was to put a little extra cash down for those extra gigabytes but you were hopeful you didn’t need them. It’s a gamble we’ve all lost at one time or another.

While it’s certainly not a pleasant surprise, it’s also no cause for panic. There are myriad ways to mitigate the problem on iPhones and Android phones alike. The easiest, your phone will gleefully explain, is to pay in perpetuity for some extra cloud storage. Take these other, cheaper steps first.

Deliberately Delete

Everyone's storage habits vary, so there's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to what to delete. But there are two types of data on your phone: the stuff you’ve made and the stuff you’ve downloaded. Prune the latter.

On the Storage page in your phone's settings, both iOS and Android will give you a breakdown of what's taking up all the room on the local storage. Your phone will also go as far as to give you personalized recommendations for what to get rid of on these storage screens, starting with the data it has the most direct access to: gigantic apps, ancient and bloated messaging threads and photos.

But the bulk of the data you absolutely won’t miss are inside the apps themselves. First, set your sights on multimedia monsters. Netflix, Spotify and other streaming apps will often cache content for use offline or when your network is spotty. This data should be the first to go, because you can easily get them back (should you suddenly start to miss those half-finished podcasts from last month). A quick dive into these apps will let you pick and choose, but the easiest solution is to uninstall them entirely and (maybe) redownload.

Other times, it'll be the apps or games you'll want to delete, but you don’t necessarily need to go all the way. Apple's iOS lets you offload apps, which is a sort of halfway house between keeping an app and deleting it. Google’s "Play Games" service and Apple Arcade will also let you save many games’ data in the cloud; just make sure you check before you get crazy.

Any large files, such as downloads or videos, can be found through your phone's default Files app. Screenshots and downloads are generally the biggest offenders. If you have an iPhone and can spare the laptop space, look into backing up to your computer in full through iTunes before you start really going to town, and then you don’t have to worry about accidentally wiping something important.

Head to the Clouds

There’s no simpler solution to a sudden storage shortage than to buy some space in the cloud. And that’s by design. The costs aren't prohibitive: iCloud storage for Apple devices starts at $1 per month for 50GB of room, while Google One storage for iPhones or Android devices starts at $2 per month for 100GB. The real expense comes if you become permanently reliant on them and require ever-larger solutions.

Once you pony up to the right corporation, it’s extremely easy to claw back space by offloading photos and videos en masse. The Optimize iPhone Storage setting on iOS devices will back up hi-res photos to iCloud, saving smaller lower-resolution versions locally to save space. The full-resolution versions can still be downloaded on demand, if you ever get around to it.

iphone with a screen on the photos page settings
It’s relatively easy to offload your storage worries to iCloud (for a small monthly fee, of course).

On Android (or if you use Google Photos on an iPhone), you can use the "Free up space" command to shunt your photos into cyberspace. The app will then delete the local copies of the photos and videos once they're backed up to the web, saving you some space — you'll still be able to see everything in Google Photos (as long as you have an internet connection). They’ll just be on the web, not your phone.

You can also offload data directly from your phone if you’ve got storage hanging around. Both iOS and Android support external storage devices — the same ones that you might plug into your laptop or desktop computer. From there, it’s just some fiddling with your phone’s Files app.

Not every cheapo USB stick will work if you hook it up with an adapter, but purpose-made devices definitely will. The $60 SanDisk 256GB iXpand Flash Drive Go is made specifically for the iPhone, for example. It's compact and easy to use, and it instantly gives you a lot more space for your files. Something like the $120 $90 Kingston DataTraveler Max 1TB will work with Android devices. It's not nearly as convenient as having the extra storage on your phone, but at least you can bring them along to ease the pain when you make the same mistake next upgrade.

Alexa Edgerton, Sandisk

SanDisk 256GB iXpand Flash Drive Go

Alexa Edgerton, Kingston

Kingston DataTraveler Max 1TB

$90.35 (25% off)

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A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Learn More.
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