Nick | Edited by Steve N
Updated 1 Feb 2016
It can be a costly and emotional experience if you lose precious holiday snaps, important files and work. To make things easier and for peace of mind, use a free online storage service to back everything up.
This guide explains how online storage services work and how to make sure they're safe, then rounds up the best of the free services out there.
Best free online storage
- Free online storage services
- Free online photo storage
- Compare cheapest paid-for storage
In this guide
- What is online storage?
- Best free online storage services
- Cheapest paid-for storage
- Keeping your online storage secure
Always check for compatibility. Make sure that the software you're using is compatible with your existing set-up. No liability can be accepted for any problems caused from acting upon the info given.
What is online storage?
Online storage systems, or "cloud" services as they're also known, alllow you to store digital media online by uploading it through your computer or mobile device. Though transferred and accessible at any time via the web, the data is actually physically held on mammoth servers owned by whoever provides the partcular service you use (Google, Microsoft etc).
How does it work?
Once you've downloaded and installed the relevant software, any files (such as photos, for example) that you move into the preselected 'backup' folder will automatically be uploaded and stored in the cloud – you can usually change the settings so that your data syncs to other devices too.
It's also possible to access your data via your browser by logging into your online storage account at the company's website. Additionally, most offer free mobile apps for uploading and downloading files.
Many services let you share your photos and documents with friends and family via special links too.
The biggest issue with using cloud storage is data security, as you are relying on the service to keep your files and documents secure. If your account is hacked, your files are immediately available.
Cloud storage companies typically use encryption to keep your information safe and two-step verification to ensure the right person has access to the account.
Encryption scrambles your data so that anyone unauthorised is unable to use it. The strength of the encryption is at three levels, starting at 128-bit, rising to 192-bit and with 256-bit as the most secure. Two-step verification involves sending you a message and asking you to respond when you login or amend your account to check you have the authority to do so.
See below for our full help on how to keep your account secure.
The level of storage you'll need depends on what you'll be using it for. If you typically only back-up documents and emails, then 5GB will be plenty for most. If you want to back-up photos, music or videos then you'll probably need more.
It's impossible to estimate exactly how many files you can store in a set allowance, since it very much depends on the resolution of your photos/videos and quality of your music files.
As a general rule of thumb, 10GB should allow for about 4,000 photos, 12.5 hours of HD video OR 2,500 songs.
Best free online storage services
There are a whole load of online storage services available, with many offering up to 15GB of free space. They're largely similar in what they do, although a few have special functions. There's no limit to the number you can use – sign up for them all and you can grab tens of GB for nowt.
For photo and personal video junkies, we've also got info on free specialist photo storage services. These don't let you store other types of files though, so if you want to do that too you're better off going with one of the general ones, some of which, eg Dropbox, also have photo backup functions built-in.
15GB free, from £1.35/mth for 100GB
If you're a Gmail user, you can sync Google Drive with your Google account to store and access files wherever you are. Google accounts are free to create. If you're storing photos of 16 megapixels or less, try Google Photos for unlimited free storage.
What you get for free: 15GB of free storage spread over three Google services: Google Drive, Gmail and Google Photos (for photos of higher resolutions).
As Google Drive uses your Google account login details, it's important you keep these safe. Google offers some top tips on keeping your account secure.
With Google Drive working for three services, it's also worth looking at what you can clear before you buy more space. Try converting PDF documents to Google docs and have a spring clean of your Gmail inbox. It might also be worth clearing out deleted files in your Google Drive trash as they'll continue to take up space..
10GB free, £7/mth for 100GB
Although more geared towards businesses, Box does offer personal plans too. As with Dropbox and Copy, you can install the desktop app for syncing between your hard drive and the cloud.
What you get for free: 10GB, though this can be boosted by referring others to Dropbox. For every person who signs up via your referral link, you'll both get an extra 500MB, up to a maximum of 16GB.
If you pay: For £7/month you get 100GB of space, and an increased individual file size limit of 5GB. Compare this with others.
Box offers the ability to share files via links with passwords, expiration dates and restricted download access, as well as assign tasks, leave comments and get notifications when files are altered. This makes it particularly useful if you store and access files for collaborative work regularly.
5GB free (1TB for students), 1TB 'free' for Office 365 subscribers, or £1.99/mth for 50GB
Popular with MoneySavingExpert.com's tech team, OneDrive (previously SkyDrive) is Microsoft's free online storage offering. You need to have a Hotmail or Live mail account, but as these email services are free, it's worth setting one up just for the free storage.
OneDrive has 'public' folders and 'shared' folders. Shared folders are only visible to specific people, but public folders (which you can turn off), are visible to all.
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5GB free, from 79p/yr for 50GB
If you're an iPhone or iPad user, you most likely use Apple iCloud to backup at least some of your data. It's well-integrated into iOS – though also runs on Macs and now Windows – and automatically updates and stores your files across all connected devices.
What you get for free: The free version comes with 5GB of storage which you can use to backup photos, videos, mail, notes, calendars, app data, contactand documents. If you're storing images or videos though you'll quickly run out of space, in which case we'd recommend one of the free photo storage services below.
If you pay: Plans available cost from 79p/month for 50GB; £2.49/month for 200GB; £6.99/month for 1TB. Compare this with others.
Apps: Integrated into iOS and OS X; Windows.
iCloud requires iOS 5 or later on an iPhone 3Gs or later, iPod touch (3rd generation or later), iPad or iPad mini; a Mac with OS X Lion v10.7.5 or later; a PC with Windows 7, 8 or 10.
Additional iCloud features include Family Sharing – which allows up to six members of the family to share iTunes, iBooks and App Store purchases, and photos – and Find My iPhone, in case you lose your phone or Apple device, which lets you track it down and lock it.
5GB free, from £6/yr for 20GB, unltd photo storage with Prime
Amazon Cloud Drive
Following in the footsteps of Google and Microsoft, online shopping giant Amazon runs a cloud-based storage service called, straightforwardly enough, Amazon Cloud Drive.
What you get for free: All Amazon customers (incl those without Prime) get 5GB of free storage for photos, videos and documents. Amazon Prime members also get free unlimited storage for just their photos; it's not worth forking out the £79 a year just for this service, but if you're already a member, it's a bonus.
If you pay: Customers of Amazon Prime (£79/year) get unlimited photo-only storage. Otherwise, prices range from 20GB for £6/year to 1TB for £320/year; see the full range on Amazon's site. Compare this with others.
2GB free, up to 16GB via referrals, or £8/mth for 1TB
Launched back in 2008, Dropbox is one of the biggest names in online storage. The easiest way to use it is by installing it on your machine/device, which allows for automatic backups via its mobile apps or (of folders) on desktop. There's also a web version you can use through your browser.
What you get for free: You get 2GB free, though this can be boosted by referring others to Dropbox. For every person who signs up via your referral link, you'll both get an extra 500MB, up to a maximum of 16GB.
If you pay: You can upgrade to Dropbox Pro for £7.99/month or £79/year, which gives 1TB of storage. Compare this with others.
Other users can't see your private files in Dropbox unless you specifically invite them or put them in your "public" folder. Be aware though that everything in your public folder is, by definition, accessible to anyone.
If you upgrade to Dropbox Pro, can also opt for 'Extended Version History' for an additional £29/year. This means Dropbox will store previous versions and deleted files for a year after, without taking up any of your allowance.
5GB or 50GB 'free' for BT b'band customers
All BT broadband customers – standard or Infinity – get some storage space with BT Cloud. Given that BT captures around a third of the UK's broadband market, that's a lot of customers with free storage to take advantage of (and many not know about it).
What you get for free: You get either 5GB or 50GB depending on your package. To find out, log into My BT and click on the "BT Cloud" button snd it should display your allowance on the top right-hand corner of the page.
If you pay: If your free allowance isn't enough, you can pay £3/month for an extra 50GB, or £9/month for an extra 500GB. Compare this with others before paying up though.
Free online photo storage
The services we've listed below are specifically designed for storing photos and videos, so if that's all you're after then they should fit the bill. If you're storing other types of files, scroll back up the page.
Unlimited free photo storage
Whilst technically built in to Google Drive and accessible from within it, it's more convenient to go to Google Photos directly if you want to store just images and videos. It will also help organise your photos, and is full of nifty features for doing fun and useful things with them.
What you get for free: Unlimited storage of photos of 16 megapixels or less and videos of 1080p resolution or lower. Google Photos will compress files larger than this, if you want to keep the unlimited option.
If you pay: If you tend to take very high resolution photos or videos (such as 4K), then you store these on Google Photos, but they'll contribute to your free 15GB Google Drive allowance (which you can get more of, for a fee).
An optional automatic backup feature saves any existing photos and videos on your device. Once activated, this function will also save every photo or video you capture with your phone from then on.
Google Photos Assistant organizes and sorts your photos for you by date and location, into albums, collections and 'stories'. It can even detect certain faces and infer events, allowing you to search by keywords based on these.
Another tool within the apps, 'Auto-awesome', automatically enhances photos and creates collages, panoramas and GIFs with them. You can choose to save and/or share them if they take your fancy, or them discard if not.
1TB free, for any resolution photos/videos
Owned by internet giant Yahoo, Flickr is probably the world's best-known photo-hosting site. More like a social network than a storage facility, its focus is on sorting and sharing your photos, though you can use it for just backing up if you so wish.
What you get for free: Anyone with a (free) Yahoo account gets 1TB of space. One benefit over Google Photos is there's no limit to the resolution of the images and videos you upload.
If you pay: There's no additional storage available – Flickr Pro, which costs $5.99/month (£4) or $49.99/year (£35), gives users advanced stats on their photos and ad-free browsing/sharing.
Flickr is very much geared towards sharing photos with others, which is one of the reasons it's popular with photography nuts. It also offers very basic image editing and a few filters (though nothing like the scale of Instagram).
As with Google Photos, the Flickr apps have an automatic backup feature so every shot you taken is saved in the cloud. Equally it also uses image recognition technology to arrange photos for easier searching through your library.
If you've got a fair number of photos, files and documents and want the convenience of storing them all in one place, you'll have to pay to get more space. Several companies offer an additional 20GB or 50GB, but if you are going to pay it may be more cost-effective to go for an option without any free storage at all.
For example, Currys/PC World-owned KnowHow offers 2TB for £30 a year (though it has other plans avilaable too, see below). Pay in advance for five years and the cost drops to £90 for 2TB.
It depends on your needs but generally speaking the best-value add-on is an extra 100GB from Google Drive, which costs $1.99 a month (£16.60/year, although the cost will change as it is charged in dollars).
Annual cost of online storage
|Google Drive||15GB||£16.70/yr ($23.88)||£84/yr ($119.88)||
|Amazon Cloud Drive||5GB2||£6/yr||£16/yr||£32/yr||£64/yr||£160/yr||£320/yr|
|Google Photos||Unltd for photos|
|Flickr||1TB for photos|
|Table correct as of 2 Feb 2016. Includes plans up to 2TB; Google Drive offers plans up to 30TB, Knowhow offers a 4TB Plan. (1) Includes subscription to Office 365 Personal. (2) Unlimited free photo storage for Prime customers. (3) Up to 16GB on top with referrals. (4) BT broadband customers only – allowance depends on contract, see how to check.|
Remember though, you're signing up for an annual cost, so if you just want to back-up your data, consider buying a portable hard drive instead. The cheapest 1TB of storage we found at the time of writing costs about £40.
Whether it's your pics, your financial information or just your favourite funny cat videos you are storing online, you need to take steps to keep your data safe.
Here are some tips to keep you, and your info, safe from the hackers:
- Keep your password secure. Change your password regularly and don't use the same password across multiple websites. If hackers crack one password it's a pain, but if they access all your online accounts it can be a nightmare. As many sites use your email as a login ID, using the same password increases your security risk.
- Don't use predictable passwords. Using family or pets' names or dates of birth is common, but hackers can access some of this data from public sources such as Facebook. Break up passwords by using ranDoM capiTal leTTers or numb3rs. Or for a truly random password, use a password generator.
- Use a password manager. If you struggle to remember large numbers of passwords, use a password safe or password manager to store them securely online. All you have to do is remember a master password and retrieve the others as and when you need them.
- Disable auto-uploads. If you are concerned about sensitive info or pics, turn off the auto-upload function on services such as Dropbox or iCloud. These services automatically save a backup version of your documents in the cloud but don't distinguish between everyday photos and files and the ones you really don't want getting into the wrong hands.
- Keep antivirus software up-to-date. Hackers are constantly developing nasty new computer bugs so you need to ensure that you've got decent antivirus and antispyware software in place and that it's up to date. Find out more in our Free Antivirus Guide.
- Avoid phishing emails to keep out the nasties. Viruses and malware often sneak in disguised as other attachments, so ensure that any files you are downloading and opening come from a reliable source. See Phishing Emails.
Which services do you rate? We've only picked the big name online storage programs here, but there are loads more. Tell us which you like in the Free online storage discussion.