How to Free Up Space on Your Phone

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"Storage almost full." Most of us have seen that dreaded message pop up on our phone when we try to install a new app or take a video. Phones have limited built-in storage — whether 16, 32, or 64 GB — and it never seems to be enough to hold all the photos, music, and apps we want at a tap. When space gets tight, here's what to do.

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1. Identify bloat. 
What's taking up all the space on your phone? Both iOS and Android make it easy to find which apps are hogs. On an iPhone, go to Settings > General > Usage > Manage Storage. On Android, you'll find it in Settings > Storage. You'll see which apps you have installed and how much storage they're using. The most common culprits are photos, movies, and music, because the files are large. But keep an eye out for apps you forgot you'd installed or hadn't used in months. Those are prime candidates for purging.

2. Purge.
To reclaim storage space, you have to get rid of things — there's no way around it. Start by deleting all the unnecessary files that waste space. Though tedious, cleaning out those blurry and duplicate photos will earn you a few hundred megabytes back. Expunge music that you haven't listened to in years. Delete that game you downloaded and played once. If you have an Android device, download Clean Master, a utility that, among many other useful functions, identifies cached and residual files that apps have created and left behind. For iOS devices, there aren't any great mobile apps that accomplish this, but you can install PhoneClean on your computer to help. These efforts will yield a gigabyte or so of space at best.

Now's the time for hard choices. You need to delete the apps that you keep because you might want to use them one day — though you haven't touched them in months. For example, if you have SoundCloud and TuneIn Radio, but you already use Apple Music, it's time to delete them. Each app takes up a few hundred megabytes, but after deleting five or six apps, you'll likely get another gigabyte of space. And remember that even if you delete an app, you can download it again from the iTunes or Google Play app stores. So you don't have to say goodbye forever.

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3. Move to the cloud.
A good purge will get you enough space to breathe and keep annoying warnings from popping up, but it doesn't solve the ongoing storage problem. The worst offenders are the things we keep because we use them so often: photo, movie, and music files. The solution is in the cloud. For photos and other files, Apple's iCloud offers 5GB for free, and Google Drive is free for up to 15GB. You can buy more for cheap, too — 100GB of space on Google Drive is only $2 a month. There's also Box and Dropbox if you prefer a different cloud storage provider. You can set up your phone to automatically store any photos on one of these cloud services, which will free up gigabytes of space on your phone.

The same cloud storage service also works for storing documents, and — added bonus — you can access the files from any device, not just your phone. You could also store music files through a cloud storage service, but it's more convenient to sign up for a streaming music service like Apple Music, Google Play Music, or Spotify — each cost $10 a month for commercial-free playback. These apps also let you store select files on the device so you can listen when you don't have a connection, like on a plane, or to save bandwidth on songs you listen to a lot. Movies are a real storage killer. Your best option here is to only keep the movie you plan to watch on the device for that trip. You can keep other movies on reserve in your cloud storage, and then download the next one just before you need it.

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In all these cases, make sure you have access to WiFi when you need to download big files; if not, you could use your entire monthly bandwidth on a couple of movies. And if you can't find enough to delete, and cloud storage isn't for you, you'll just have to make more room. You can opt for a phone like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, which includes a microSD card slot. But for phones that don't have an expansion slot — including all iPhones — you can make more room through external devices. The Mophie Space Pack ($150) adds 32GB of storage, and also extends the battery life of the phone. The Leef iBridge ($60) makes an additional 16GB available through an unobtrusive USB drive. While both add bulk to your mobile, you'll be able to keep more files easily accessible.