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 – eg, you can currently get 100GB of free 'cold storage'.
Best free online storage
- Free instant-access online storage
- Free 'cold storage' (with delayed access)
- Free online photo storage
- Compare cheapest paid-for storage
In this guide
- What is online storage?
- Free instant-access online storage
- Free online 'cold storage'
- 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.
Online storage systems, or "cloud" services as they're also known, allow you to store digital media online by uploading via your computer or mobile device. Though transferred and accessible via the web, the data is actually physically held on mammoth servers, often owned by whoever provides the particular service you use (Google, Microsoft etc).
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 – so always weigh up the risks before uploading more sensitive files.
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 get to 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.
There are a whole load of online storage services available, with many offering up to free space – typically 15GB or less. 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.
These sites all allow you instant access to your files – see below for more on 'cold storage', where you can get more space for free but you have to wait a few hours for access. We've also info below on specialist free photo storage services, which only let you store photos and videos.
15GB free (or from £1.60/mth for 100GB)
If you have a Google account (eg, if you're a Gmail user), you can use Google Drive to store and access files wherever you are. Google accounts are free to create.
What you get for free: 15GB of free storage. This allowance is spread across three Google services: Google Drive, Gmail and Google Photos (for high-res photos – Google Photos gives free unlimited storage for photos of 16 megapixels or less).
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 (or £7/mth for 100GB)
Although more geared towards businesses, Box does offer personal plans too. As with Dropbox, you can install the desktop app for syncing between your hard drive and the cloud.
What you get for free: 10GB with an individual file size limit of 250MB.
If you pay: For £7/month you get 100GB of space, and an increased 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
Popular with MSE'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.
What you get for free: 5GB. Students get 1TB of storage free.
If you pay: 50GB costs £1.99/month, 1TB £5.99/mth or 5TB £7.99/mth (see all plans, including annual options). Those who subscribe to Office 365, which typically costs £5.99/month (or £59.99/year), get 1TB storage. Compare this with others.
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 (or from 79p/mth 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 Mac 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, contacts and 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 79p/month for 50GB; £2.49/month for 200GB; £6.99/month for 1TB or £13.99/month for 2TB. Compare this with others.
Accessed via: 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.
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.
What you get for free: With Dropbox Basic account 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 Plus 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.
5GB 'free' and unlimited photo storage if you have Prime
Following in the footsteps of Google and Microsoft, online shopping giant Amazon runs a cloud-based storage service called, straightforwardly enough, Amazon Drive.
What you get for free: All Amazon Prime customers get 5GB of free storage for videos, music and documents, as well as free unlimited storage for their photos. It's not worth forking out the £79 a year just for this, but if you're already a member, it's a bonus.
If you pay: Anyone, including those without Amazon Prime, can opt for unlimited storage of all types of files for £55/year – all newbies get a free three-month trial to test out the service. Compare this with others.
5GB, 100GB or 500GB 'free' for BT broadband 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, 100GB or 500GB depending on your broadband package. To find out your allowance, log into My BT and click on the BT Cloud button under My Extras.
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.
Lower cost 'cold storage' is designed for archiving and keeping files long term, meaning you'll have wait up to few hours to access backed up data – it's not instant.
This makes it more ideal for files you don't need to access that often, and is particularly good for larger files.
New. 100GB free – with up to 5hr delay
Zoolz Cloud Archive
You can snap up 100GB of free storage with Zoolz (100,000 can get the deal in total – about 7,500 spots remained when we checked in Nov). This is a pretty hefty free allowance, though as it's 'cold storage' designed for long-term backups, you'll have to wait up to five hours to access your data.
Zoolz is less well known than other firms in this guide, but it's been operating for six years and has more than four million customers as well as high-profile business clients. It has decent feedback on Google reviews and specialist site Cloudwards. As with all storage services though there's always some element of risk, so weigh this up before uploading any sensitive documents.
How you use it: You can upload any kind of file with no restrictions on image resolution or single file-size. You can also choose how often you want selected files and folders to be automatically backed up. To access your data, simply click on 'Cold Storage' and click through to select the files you want and they'll start downloading within three to five hours – see full step-by-step instructions.
What you get for free: 100GB of free storage 'for life' – Zoolz says users will be able to keep this for as long as they like. Of course if the firm were ever to shut down you'd lose it, though it says users would be given plenty of notice to get their data back.
If you pay: If you want more storage or access for up to five users, you can pay £34.20/year for 1TB or £83.99/year for 4TB – again, this comes with a three- to five-hour wait. If you want immediate access to your files you can pay for an 'Instant Vault' (from $14.95 (£12)/year for 20GB). Compare this with others.
Accessed via: Your browser, or Windows (Vista or later) or OS X (10.7 or later) programs. It also has iOS and Android apps, though these can only be used for viewing/downloading files (not backing up or uploading) with the free storage.
Zoolz's backend services are provided by Amazon Web Services, and it uses industry-standard 'AES-256' encryption.
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, 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 can store these on Google Photos, but they'll eat into your free 15GB Google Drive allowance (which you can increase, for a fee). Compare this with others.
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(£5)/month or $49.99(£40)/year, gives users advanced stats on their photos and ad-free browsing/sharing. Compare this with others.
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 50GB, though the more storage you buy the better the value.
For example, Currys/PC World-owned KnowHow offers 2TB for £30 a year (though it has other plans available 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 $19.99(£16)/year, or if you really need more Amazon Drive at only £55/year for unlimited data.
Annual cost of online storage
|Amazon Drive||5GB + unltd for photos2||£55/yr|
|Zoolz||100GB 'cold storage'||
|£34.20/yr – 'cold storage'||£83.99/yr – 'cold storage'|
|Google Photos||Unltd for photos|
|Flickr||1TB for photos|
|Table correct as of 4 Apr 2017. Google Drive offers plans up to 30TB. (1) Includes subscription to Office 365 Personal. (2) For Prime customers only. (3) Up to 16GB on top with referrals. (4) For 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 cat videos you're storing online, you need to take steps to keep your data safe.
Here are some tips to keep you, and your info, safe from more devious online users:
- 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 (see 60 seconds on password security for more info).
- 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. Choose a secure password using a combination of key words and numbers – see Martin's passwords blog for full steps.
- 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 (again, the password security guide has more on these).
- Disable auto-uploads. If you are concerned about sensitive info or pics, turn off the auto-upload function on services such as Dropbox or Google Photos. 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 anti-spyware 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.