A cell phone with floating keyboard pieces.

We’ve all been there. When you buy your phone you think it has plenty of storage space. Then one day you get that dreaded pop-up warning saying you’ve just about run out. When that happens, you may not be able to take even one more photo or download a single new app.

So what can you do about it? Many people cringe at the idea of deleting even backed-up photos of their kids or dumping a game or app they’ve rarely played in the past year.

But there are ways you can make room on your Apple or Android phone without having to sacrifice your favorite digital possessions. Here are some tips for doing just that. 

Get a Look at What You’re Storing

Both iOS and Android make it easy to see exactly what’s on your phone and how much space it takes up.

On an iPhone, go to Settings > General > iPhone Storage. This will bring up a small, color-coded dashboard showing how much of your available storage you’re currently using and giving you a rough idea of what’s hogging the most space.

If you’re like me, photos and videos take up the vast majority of the storage space. But apps, media, and messages can take a big bite, too. Below that bar graph you’ll see suggestions for clearing space, such as optimizing photos (more on that later) and reviewing the largest attachments in iMessages.

More on Smartphones

And below that you’ll see a more detailed list, showing everything that takes up space on your phone, from largest to smallest. It didn’t surprise me to see that photos took up about 30GB of my phone’s 64GB of storage. But I was surprised to learn that a few apps I rarely use were sucking up more than half a gigabyte. With a quick tap, I deleted them.

On an Android phone, you can get a lot of the same information by going to Settings > Storage. There, you'll see exactly how much space you’re using and how much is being used by various categories such as "Photos & Videos” or “Music & Audio.” Tapping on those categories will give you even more detail, such as which music apps are using the most space.

There’s also a button at the top that reads “Free Up Space.” Tap it, and you'll get a list of older files you might want to remove, as well as the option to review newer ones.  

Slimming Down

Once you’ve got a good idea of what’s taking up space on your phone, you can do something about it.

For a lot of people, the best plan is to start with photos and videos, and then move on to downloads and apps.

Back Up to the Cloud. This is a smart move with your laptop and other devices in addition to your phone. Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft One Drive, Dropbox, and Box are ways you can safely tuck away your photos and other precious documents for down the road.

Backing up to the cloud will free up space on your devices. But beyond that, it's a must for security. While mobile ransomware is rare, it does exist, and anybody can misplace or accidentally break a phone. In those cases, if you haven’t saved your photos to the cloud, you could lose them forever.

You can back up a lot of files free. But if you go past the free limit and don't want to pay for extra cloud storage, you can always back up your phone to your PC or Mac instead. Of course, if that computer gets destroyed or locked up by ransomware, you’ll be out of luck.

Move your files to an SD card. If you use an iPhone or certain Android phones, this isn’t an option. But if you do have a phone with an SD card slot, feel free to be a digital pack rat and expand your available storage.

Just remember to set your phone to store your photos, videos, and music on the card, otherwise they’ll end up on the phone’s internal storage, says Richard Fisco, Consumer Reports' head of smartphone testing.

Apps can be moved to SD cards, too, but be careful, he warns.

"Some apps you move will have their icon disappear from the home screen, though it will still appear in your app drawer," Fisco says. "And many app widgets won't work if you move the app to an SD card."

Optimize your photos. When my iPhone gets close to full, this is the first thing the phone asks me to do. What optimizing does is store full-resolution versions of your photos in the cloud while leaving smaller versions on your phone.

You might think that doing so would result in blurry or grainy images, but that’s not necessarily true, Fisco says.

He notes that high-end smartphones take pictures in much higher resolutions than their screens will support. For example, my iPhone X has a 12-megapixel camera but only what amounts to a 2.7MP screen. “So you don’t see all the details of the image anyway,” Fisco says. “Plus you’re looking at them on a 5.8-inch screen.”

Meanwhile, be at least a little picky about the photos you save. All of us take pictures that are out of focus or otherwise not good enough to use for anything. It’s a lot easier to delete these files as you go than comb through thousands of pictures later, when your phone gets full.

Clear your cache. On an Android phone, when you select particular apps in the “Storage” settings section, you'll often get the option of clearing the cache, or deleting all data. Either of these options will free up at least a little bit of space.

On an iPhone, your best bet is clearing history and website data in the Safari browser, Fisco says. You can do this in other iPhone browsers, such as Chrome, too.

Delete old files. Android makes this easy with a Smart Storage option. When this is enabled, which you can do with a toggle switch on the Storage settings screen, the phone automatically removes backed-up photos and videos that are more than 60 days old. And when a phone’s storage is almost full, it will automatically remove all backed-up photos and videos.

If you don’t want to do that, you can manually clear out your downloads by going through your download directory, Fisco says.

On an iPhone, it’s a little more work, he says. You have to open each individual app and delete the files it downloaded. For example, I freed up about a gigabyte of space on my iPhone by deleting the downloaded songs in my Google Play Music app.

On that note, make sure to weed through all of your music libraries. In the age of streaming, you really don’t need to store a lot on your phone. That goes for podcasts, too.

It also helps to clear out your old iMessages, or at least any big attachments tied to them. On the iPhone Storage screen you can click on “Review Large Attachments,” which will give you a list of the biggest attachments stored on your phone. Delete what you don’t need anymore.

You can also save space by changing your settings to save messages for a year, or just 30 days, instead of forever.

Pare down your apps. As mentioned before, your iPhone storage screen will show you exactly how much storage each of your apps is using, along with the last time you used the app.

Don’t think an app is worth the space anymore? Just tap on it to delete, or off-load it instead. Off-loading deletes the app but keeps the documents and data related to it, often freeing up more than half of the space that had been taken up by the app.

And if you later decide that you want to use all the data, you can just redownload the app, free, and pick up where you left off, Fisco says.