Feb 2, 2018 3:19 AM PT

How to avoid paying Apple for extra iCloud storage

Apple offers just 5GB of free storage to iCloud users, far less than many need. Here's a rundown on what you can do to put your iCloud storage needs on a diet and what other options are available.

Apple / IDG

No matter how many iOS or macOS devices you own, Apple offers just 5GB of free storage to iCloud users – a paltry amount given what rivals offer. But there are ways you can avoid paying for more storage space, or at least limit how much extra you pay.

Here are easy-to-follow tips on how to put some of the biggest iCloud data-consuming features on a diet and save money on iCloud storage.


No matter how many iPhones, iPads or Macs you buy, Apple only provides 5GB of free iCloud storage. 

Why do you need to manage iCloud storage?

Apple has made iCloud storage a seemingly essential element for all its products, from Macs to iPads, iPhones and even Apple TV. There are four principal elements to the service. These include:

  • iCloud Backup: It’s used for all the iPad, iPhone and iPod backups you’ve made without using iTunes.
  • iCloud Drive: This is for all your documents (including Mac Desktop and Downloads data) and data from third-party apps on Macs and iOS devices that store data in the cloud.
  • iCloud Mail: Naturally, this is storage for all the emails and attachments you’ve ever received through your iCloud account.
  • iCloud Photo Library: This is storage for all the pictures and videos you’ve ever taken.

That’s an extensive list of items to squeeze inside Apple’s ever-so-tiny 5GB free allocation. To get the most out of it, you may want to regularly check how much storage you’re already using and take steps to migrate some of those storage tasks to non-Apple products and services.

How much does iCloud storage cost?

Apple offers four storage options: 5GB (free); 50GB (99 cents/month); 200GB ($2.99/month); and 2TB ($9.99/month).

How much storage are you using?

It’s easy to figure out how much iCloud storage you are using.

In iOS: Tap the top (Apple ID) section in Settings. Then tap iCloud. You should see a chart detailing how you are using iCloud storage. Tap Manage Storage to reach a page listing every item storing data in your iCloud (it also tells you how much data each item uses there). You can also delete stored data for each app or service, but don’t do so until you have first backed up that information elsewhere.


In macOS: Access System Preferences>iCloudand choose the "Manage..." option at the bottom right of the window.


In both cases you’ll see how much storage you’re using, what items are using it (for example, Photos, Docs, Mail or Backup), and where to enable and disable online storage for various applications and Apple services.

How to manage iCloud Backup

If you back up iOS device(s) to iCloud, you'll soon hit problems if you try to stay under the 5GB storage limit. To reduce the amount of iCloud storage consumed by iCloud backups, you can back up your iOS device(s) to a Mac or PC and delete existing backups you may have created from iCloud.

You don’t actually have to back your devices up to iCloud, though it is convenient; you can use a Mac or PC running iTunes instead. Just connect your device to your computer, launch iTunes (if it doesn’t launch automatically) and click the Device icon that appears to the left of the iTunes window beside the category menu.


iCloud storage can easily be managed in iOS. Select "Backup" to review older backups and delete those no longer needed.

Once you’ve done that, select Summary and then choose This Computer where you see Automatically Backup. You’ll need to check the Encrypt (device name) backup item in order to keep Health and HomeKit data, and will need to create a password for this.

In the future, your iOS device(s) will automatically be backed up to your computer when it is connected, and you won’t need to store those backups on your frugal iCloud account. Once that’s set up, you can remove older device backups from iCloud.

On iOS: Tap Settings and navigate to iCloud>Manage Storage and choose Backup. Here you can review your backups and select those you wish to delete. When you tap the red Delete Backupoption, you’ll be asked if you are certain of the decision. Advice: Be sure to keep the most recent backup.

On a Mac: Open System Preferences>iCloud and choose the "Manage..." option. In the next pane, choose Backups and delete those you don’t need in the same way as on iOS.

How to put iCloud Drive on a diet

Both Macs and iOS devices use iCloud to store app data and important files.

Recent Macs can use iCloud to automatically sync and store contents of both the Desktop and the Downloads folder. Once these items are made available there, you can access them from any other Apple device, so long as you are logged in using the same Apple ID. You can also access those items online using a web browser.

This is a useful feature, but if you want to limit your iCloud data, you disable this on your Mac in System Preferences>iCloud>iCloud Drive. There, you click the Options button and then untick the Desktop & Documents folders. In the future, these items will not be stored in iCloud – though existing items will remain. To remove those older Desktop and Downloads items from iCloud drive, you must manually save them to your Mac:

  • In Finder, open iCloud Drive and locate the Documents or Downloads folder.
  • Open a new Finder window, choose Go>Home
  • Now drag and drop items from iCloud Drive to your Home directory. The files will be downloaded to and saved on your Mac. The process may take a while, depending on how much bandwidth and how much data you need to shift.
  • You can then delete the items from iCloud Drive.

Don’t forget, these items will no longer be available across your other devices unless you move them to another service that syncs across all your systems.

Save your Files elsewhere

macOS and iOS devices both support third-party online storage services such as Box, Dropbox or Microsoft One Drive (which offers 1TB of free storage with an Office 365 subscription). Apple’s Files app for iOS also supports third-party services including Box, Dropbox and OneDrive. The support makes it seamless: install the relevant storage app on your device, log-in, and you’ll be able to access any data you have stored in those non-iCloud services using the Files app. You no longer need to save those files in iCloud. You can also use Dropbox and OneDrive to automatically save your photos and other images, further reducing your reliance on iCloud.


The Files app in iOS 11 allows you to keep track of files no matter which Apple device they're on – and it works with third-party cloud storage providers.

What about app data?

Do you use every iCloud service? Think about only relying on essential services that you really need to sync between devices in real time, things like Contacts and Calendars, for example. These useful services don’t consume much storage but do provide a great deal of convenience. You can control which Apple services save to iCloud in settings, just untick those you don’t need to disable them.

You can also consider alternatives. For example, Apple’s Notes application is becoming an increasingly capable competitor to Evernote – but if you only keep a few notes, you can use the latter’s free service to replace Notes in iCloud.


There are also numerous apps that save data in iCloud. To find out which ones do so on a Mac, go to System Preferences>iCloud>iCloud Drive; on an iOS device, you control these in Settings>Apple ID>iCloud. Uncheck the apps you don’t want saving data in iCloud in the list you find. Since you may lose some functionality, do a little research on a per-app basis first.

How to manage iCloud Mail

Deleting unwanted emails is a good way to reduce iCloud Mail storage needs. An even better way is to delete unwanted attachments.

Managing Mail attachments

Mail usually takes up a sizeable chunk of iCloud space. To free up room, Apple suggests deleting what's inside the Junk and Trash folders. But you can regain even more space by deleting attachments from your received and sent mail.

To find Mail with attachments on a Mac

The easiest way to keep track of attachments on your Mac is to create a Smart Mailbox to automate the task. In Mail, open Mailbox>New Smart Mailbox.

Call the box "Attachments" and set the condition to "Contains Attachments.”

Also add the condition "Include Messages from Sent,” and deselect the "Include Messages from Trash" option.


If you don't see a Mailbox showing attachments, you'll  need to turn on that mailbox in Mail's preferences.

To find Mail with attachments on iOS

Launch Mail, then open the Mailboxes page. Scroll down the page – if you see a choice called Attachments, you can just tap this to go directly to all the emails you have received that contain attachments.

If you don’t see the Attachments option, here’s how you enable it:

  • Tap Edit in the top right corner of Mailboxes
  • A new page will appear listing all your available Mailboxes. The checked boxes are the ones you ordinarily see in Mail.
  • Move down the list and select the pre-made Smart Mailbox called "Attachments.”

Once you keep track of Mail messages containing attachments you can save space by deleting messages you no longer need, though be certain to save any attachments you might need.

Use an alternative email service

Another way to cut the amount of iCloud storage space used by Mail is to use another free email account. These non-Apple mail services don’t use iCloud storage, which means that what you lose in sync capabilities you get back in the form of reduced need for Apple storage space in future. There are a variety of free email services, including the obvious (near-unlimited) storage offered by Google Gmail, those offered by some ISPs and your own self-hosted email addresses.

How to manage iCloud Photos

Am I alone in finding Apple's separation between images held in Photostream (which do not count against iCloud storage limitations) and those held in Camera Roll (which are backed up to iCloud and do count) confusing? Perhaps, but that's the difference between the two.


This is how Apple illustrated iCloud Photos when it announced the service in June 2011.

When it comes to managing iCloud storage, it makes sense to import your personal photos and images from your iOS devices to your computer. You can then choose which images to make available via your Photostream. Be sure to delete photos from your device once you have imported the images to your computer. Clear instructions on how to do this (for both macOS and Windows) are available online.

Don’t use iCloud Photo Library

How to disable iCloud Photo Library:

On macOS: Open System Preferences>iCloud>Manage Storage. Then tap Photo Library and you will see how much storage space your images and videos require.  You will also see a button called Disable and Delete. Tap this to disable and delete iCloud Photo Library on that device.


In iOS, iCloud Photo Library can easily be toggled on and off.

On iOS: Choose Settings>your name>iCloud>Photos and toggle iCloud Photo Library to off.

When you disable iCloud Photo Library on all your devices, you then have 30 days to download all your photos and videos from iCloud to an alternative storage location before Apple deletes them all. Be warned, switching the feature off can apparently cause problems if you later change your mind.

Now you’ll need to put all your images and video elsewhere. You can store them on an external drive, but if you still want to be able to access them from your iOS device, you can use third party services like Google Photos, OneDrive or Dropbox. They provide more fee-free image storage space than iCloud.

Use your own private storage

If you create your very own private storage system, you don’t need to turn to third-party online storage services. One product that provides this is the PROMISE Apollo Personal Cloud Storage device. The system plugs into your home router and allows you and up to 10 trusted friends to save and access items saved to the system, which also supports Time Machine. If you need to support a larger group (such as if you are running a small business), the same company offers the Apollo Cloud 2 DUO solution, which is capable of supporting up to 40 users.

This is available at both Amazon and the Apple Store, and starts at $309 for 2TB of storage. Macworld has a review of it here.

How to increase or decrease iCloud storage

At this point, you may have decided to downgrade your existing iCloud account storage deal, or chosen to opt for convenience and subscribe to more storage instead. Here is how to do either one on Macs and iOS devices:

Increase iCloud storage on Mac

Open System Preferences>iCloud, Tap ‘Manage’in the bottom right of the pane and then in the new pane, tap  ‘Change Storage Plan’at top right.

In the next pane you’ll be offered upgrade options. Choose the appropriate item. You’ll be asked for your Apple ID and the bill will begin immediately.


In macOS, you can increase or decrease your paid storage allotment.

Increase iCloud storage on iOS:

Open Settings>iCloud, tap “Manage Storage”and in the new pane, tap  “Change Storage Plan.” In the next pane, you’ll be offered your upgrade options. Choose the one you want.

Decrease iCloud storage on Mac:

If you want to downgrade your service, tap through to the Change Storage Planpane, where you will find a Downgrade Optionsitem at the lower left. Tap Downgrade Optionsand you’ll be asked to login to your Apple ID.

In the next pane, you will be shown the downgrade options available for  your account. If you see yellow triangle warning boxesit means you already have more data stored in iCloud than will fit those new storage allocations. You’ll need to back that data up, or delete it, first.

Decrease iCloud storage on iOS:

Navigate through to the‘Change Storage Plan’item as described above. Scroll down in this pane and tap the Downgrade Options item. You will be asked for your Apple ID. In the next pane, you’ll be offered your downgrade options.

Final thoughts

Apple has worked to make iCloud an incredibly convenient companion for all its devices. The integration between Apple’s hardware and software platforms and the capacity to sync data quickly between all your logged-in devices will usually enhance the user experience. However, if you want to keep your data outside of Apple’s walled garden, or simply can’t afford to pay so much just to keep hold of the information that already belongs to you in the first place, you now know what to do.

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