How to Reclaim iCloud Storage Space

When you established your free iCloud account, you received five GB (gigabytes) of Apple's Internet-based – "iCloud" – data storage. Your iCloud account and storage space are tied to your Apple ID. If you need more storage space, you can upgrade your iCloud account for a yearly fee to include a larger 15 GB, 25 GB, or 55 GB data storage plan.

iCloud data plan upgrades can be arranged directly from your device or Mac. Plan modifications, including downgrades, can be requested at any time. Later in this article, I will show you where this is done. However, for the time being anyway, it seems to me that five gigabytes should be plenty for the majority of iOS users.

Notwithstanding the notion that your iCloud storage quota might be more than sufficient for your needs, after a period of time you may find that you are running out of space. Just as on your personal computer, eventually you are likely to accumulate a good deal of "cruft" – useless files that do nothing but take up space.

The purpose of this article is to discuss various actions you can take to manage your iCloud storage, as well as strategies for reclaiming valuable space in your account.

I am frequently  asked questions concerning iCloud storage, so I thought I would approach this article as a FAQ (frequently asked questions). For the sake of consistency, let's assume you have one Apple ID that is tied to two devices: an iOS device and a Mac. Remember that an iCloud account is strictly associated with an Apple ID, not with separate devices or with distinct individuals. As a result, you can have many devices tied to one Apple ID and iCloud account.

What kinds of data can I store on iCloud?

You can store iOS backups, email (associated with Apple's iCloud Mail service), and document files from iCloud-enabled apps that support Documents-in-the-Cloud (such as the three iWork apps, plus many other Apple and third-party apps).

Data that is synchronized between your iOS device and your Mac, such as entries from the Contacts app, events from the Calendar app, pages of notes from the Notes app, and data syncs supported by third-party apps are also stored in your iCloud storage allowance.

Yes, but what about all my purchases from the iTunes and app stores?

I find that many iCloud users do not realize that any media purchased through iTunes does not count against your iCloud storage quota. Apple keeps track what you have purchased. It's all available to you anytime you need to restore or re-download, and of course, much of this can also be streamed. Additionally, your Photo Stream images do not count against your iCloud storage quota. I cover Photo Stream limitations in a previous article here on TMO: "How to Understand and Work With Your iCloud Photo Stream."

What about my other photos and videos that are on my iPhone and iPad? What about my media that I purchased elsewhere?

iCloud automatically backs up your iOS device to your iCloud storage over Wi-Fi every day while it’s turned on, locked, and connected to a power source. The photos and videos residing in your Camera Roll are backed up.

Incidentally, the other items that are backed up are: device settings, documents and other data from apps on the device, home screen wallpaper and app organization, ringtones, and visual voicemail. Non iTunes Store-purchased music and movies are not backed up. You can handle this task yourself via a wired or wireless connection to iTunes on your Mac.

I have a sneaky suspicion that I am nearing my iCloud data storage quota. Where can I go to verify this?

Each of your devices associated with your Apple ID is capable of looking this up for you. Here's how you can access this information:

Go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup. There, you will see how much total and available storage you have in your iCloud account. Remember though, your account may include more than one device, and the sum of all your devices' storage requirements will limit what is available to you on iCloud.

The iCloud Storage & Backup Settings panel.

You can check your storage quota and remaining storage space in the iCloud Storage & Backup Settings panel.

Click on Manage Storage to see how your total storage is spread out across all your devices. In the illustration, you can see that for my iCloud account, the Manage Storage panel includes data from all three iOS devices I own. All are associated with the one Apple ID.

The Manage Storage Settings panel.

You can manage storage for entire device backups as well as for individual app documents and data.

As highlighted in the illustration above, data storage consists of two components: Backups, and Documents & Data. In the Backups section at the top of the Manage Storage panel, each of my three devices is itemized, depicting how much of my 55 GB quota is being taken up by the individual device backups.

The bottom part of the Manage Storage screen – the Documents & Data section – itemizes for me the amount of data storage taken up by the individual installed apps that support iCloud services.

Similar views and controls are available to you on a Mac by going to System Preferences > iCloud. Of course, it looks a bit different on OS X, but it's all pretty much intuitive, particularly if you've been through the iOS counterpart panels.

The iCloud Preferences panel in OS X.

You have the same iCloud storage info and controls in the OS X iCloud Preferences panel.

These controls are not for managing specific data residing on your Mac. Rather, they perform the same iCloud storage management functions that you have available to you on your iOS devices.

As an aside, the same functionality is available on Windows through Apple's iCloud Control Panel which needs to be manually downloaded and installed from Apple's site.

OK, I've verified that I'm running out of iCloud storage space, how can I manage my quota without necessarily purchasing more storage from Apple?

If your iCloud storage starts to get full, you can make more space available by removing items you don’t need to store in iCloud. For example, you can free up iCloud storage space by not backing up data generated by specific iOS apps. Additionally, you have the option of removing the entire backup of a device you have replaced.  Finally, you can increase your storage by upgrading your iCloud storage plan, but with some care, you can avoid spending any more money for storage space.

Let's dive in and look at discrete actions you can take:

Disable backups for specific iOS apps: There may be apps, even though iCloud-enabled, that you determine don't store data that is critical enough to be backed up, particularly when running low on storage. You can disable backups for these on an app-by-app basis. You might also consider this plan of action if you have already established an alternative backup strategy for the apps' document files.

To disable backups for individual apps, pick-and-choose your app by going to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup > Manage Storage. (See the first illustration in previous section)You must then tap on your device's name in the Backups section at the top. This takes you to your device's Backup Info panel, as illustrated below. There's lots of good stuff here to look at, and to tweak.

The iCloud Storage Info Settings page for a specific iPhone.

This Info panel presents storage info and controls for a specific iOS device.

The iCloud backup "master switches" for your individual iCloud-enabled apps are located here. By disabling an app's iCloud backup, you do not lose any data on your device, but you will immediately delete that app's backup data from your iCloud storage – thereby releasing storage space. No further backups will be made for the app until you re-enable the backup. Naturally, you will be given a warning before committing to this action.

The iCloud backup of your device's Camera Roll deserves special mention. If you routinely backup your device's photos by syncing with iPhoto on your Mac, Dropbox, or other storage, and you have tested and verified your backups, you can save yourself a big chunk of iCloud storage by disabling iCloud backup for Camera Roll. Note that this action does not delete the photos from your device. Instead, it just deletes the iCloud backup of your photos, potentially freeing up many gigabytes of space.

Bear in mind however, that Photo Stream is a separate service that, as already mentioned, does not count toward your storage quota. Photo Stream is independent of your device's Camera Roll, but if you need to, it can be toggled on and off in Settings > iCloud > Photo Stream.

The main iCloud Settings panel with Photo Stream and Documents & Data items highlighted.

Specific controls for disabling Photo Stream and Documents & Data backups are located on the main iCloud Settings panel.

Incidentally, in this same iCloud panel, just beneath the Photo Stream switch, you will see a master switch for Documents & Data as well. It may be too much of a drastic measure to use this, but keep it in the back of your mind just in case, for whatever reason, you need to disable all app data backups to iCloud.

One last caveat before moving on. Be careful when disabling iCloud backups for individual apps. Don't just willy-nilly turn things off. Think about what doing so will actually do. Consider disabling iCloud backups only for those apps whose data is either not important to you, is backed up in alternate ways (via Dropbox, for example), or you specifically off-load the data by other means. These include such actions as sending data via email or PDF files shared out from within the app, or copied out to services such as Flickr, Facebook, Evernote, etc.

Delete iCloud device backups you no longer need. As you purchase replacement iOS devices, you will discover that iCloud keeps your old devices' last backups. Eventually, these can become just extra baggage. In due course, they can be safely deleted to reclaim storage space.

For example, when a new device is introduced, I usually sell or donate my previous one so I can get the shiny new bauble. (Hey! I can do this because… well, I teach this stuff!) I always make sure that one final iCloud backup of the ill-fated device is made. I do this by forcing a backup via Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup, and tap on Back Up Now. Then, when I have my replacement device firmly ensconced in my hands, part of the configuration process includes restoring from the iCloud backup – the final one I made of my old device.

The bottom portion of the iCloud Storage & Backup Preferences panel with the Back Up Now button highlighted.

You can force a backup at any time via the iCloud Storage & Backup Preferences panel.

Once I'm up and running with the new device, I verify that everything is where it belongs and that backups for the new device are running as expected. I am then free to release iCloud storage space by going to the Storage & Backup panel, tapping on Manage Storage, tapping on that old backup from the previous device, and selecting Delete Backup. In my case, I will recover 6.2 GB of iCloud storage by deleting the unneeded backup for my previous iPad (Sandro's iPad 3). By the way, you may have noticed that I like naming all my devices differently. I do this to help keep my sanity in check.

Evaluate and delete individual documents and other data that your apps store to your iCloud account. Again, this refers to iCloud-enabled apps that support Apple's Documents-in-the-Cloud feature, and that offer the capability of letting you store and access files on both your device and in your iCloud storage.

This is handled in the Documents & Data section of the Manage Storage panel. The apps that support this function are listed there. If the app allows it, individual files stored by the app can also be viewed and managed. Any files available are displayed by tapping on the app in question.

For example, if I tap on the line item representing my Scanner Pro app, I can retrieve a list of documents that I have scanned with my iPhone. These files are stored in three places: on my device, in my iCloud storage and in my device backup, which is also on iCloud. As you can see, I am able to select any document. By tapping the Edit button, I can delete files that are no longer needed. Note that in most cases this can also be done from within the app itself. In fact, I do delete files after I have offloaded them to my Dropbox account or other storage.

The Manage Storage Info Preferences panel for the Scanner Pro app.

After selecting an app in the Manage Storage Preferences panel, you can delete either individual or all files associated with the app.

No matter how your files are managed, it should be obvious that deleting them helps recover scarce iCloud storage space. Being able to get granular with your file storage becomes important – and valuable – when it comes time to pare down your storage as a result of the stark realization that you are approaching your quota. It's kinda like getting old.

The iCloud Preferences panel in OS X with the Manage Storage pane showing for a particular app.

Tapping on the Manage button in the OS X iCloud Preferences panel will reveal the list of apps and their individual documents and data files that you can manage.

Don't forget that the Documents & Data section also refers to all those bits of data that iCloud syncs between your iOS devices and, in some cases, your Mac. This kind of data also counts against your iCloud storage quota.

I'd be negligent if I didn't point out that some applications store data in large, single proprietary files. In most cases, you need to go into the app and delete files manually from within, because the app might store and organize your individual files inside its own library.

Many photography apps do this. For example, my copy of Camera+ has about 50 MB of data all packed into one proprietary "database" file. This file actually comprises all image files that I have worked on inside the Camera+ app and that are stored within the app's local storage called Lightbox. To manage my iCloud storage for this app, I need to launch Camera+, go into it's Lightbox, and either transfer the images there to my Camera Roll, and/or delete them. I could have simply deleted that one file from the Manage Data panel, but in this case, I feel it's safer to do it inside the app itself.

Prune your iCloud Mail. All iCloud accounts are given an iCloud Mail account. By default, your iCloud Mail account is configured into your iOS and OS X Mail client. You get to access your iCloud Mail by logging onto from any computer. Nowadays, you are given a, but old-timers can still use their or the mythical addresses.

If you are a regular user of iCloud Mail, whatever mail accumulates there, takes up valuable space that goes against your iCloud storage quota. I suggest that periodically log in and clean things a bit so as to free up more space. Even if you don't use your iCloud Mail at all, you should still take a peek once in a while. After all, you might be pleasantly surprised in finding an email informing you of a vast inheritance.

Upgrade your iCloud storage. If, after going through the above cleanup activities, you still find that you can benefit from having more space, you can increase your quota by purchasing more storage, as described at the beginning if this article. This can be done directly from the iCloud settings on your iOS device or Mac.

On your iOS device, go to Settings > iCloud > Storage & Backup, then tap Change Storage Plan. Choose the amount of storage you want, tap Buy at the top, then follow the prompts.

From OS X, choose System Preferences > iCloud, then click Manage. Click Change Storage Plan, and follow the prompts.

In conclusion, if you properly look after your iCloud configuration, you are well on your way towards maintaining a lean and clean backup system that the service thankfully provides. Thoughtful stewardship of your data will help avoid needless additional data storage costs.