How to free up Google Drive space

Need more space in your Gmail inbox? Time to clear out Google Drive.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Google gives you 15GB of free space in Google Drive, which seems like a pretty good deal compared to Dropbox's 2GB and Box's 10GB. But there's a catch -- that 15GB limit includes not only your Google Drive, but also your Gmail account (messages and attachments) and Google+ Photos.

If you use Gmail as one of your primary email accounts, you've probably found yourself bumping up against that 15GB limit more frequently than you'd like. Here's how you can hunt down the files, messages, attachments, and media that's taking up valuable gigabytes and reclaim that Google Drive space for yourself.

Step 1: Find the problem

To find out what's taking up so much space on your Google Drive, go to Google's Drive storage page. Here, you'll see a pie chart that shows you how much space you're taking up; roll over the chart to see a breakdown by platform.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

As you can see, the majority of my Google Drive space is being occupied by Gmail messages and attachments, although I also seem to have about 4GB tied up in Google+ Photos.

On this page, you can also see how much total storage you have (including any bonuses you may have earned), and you can upgrade your plan if you feel like you need more space. Google Drive plans start at $2/month for 100GB and go up to $300/month for 30TB.

Step 2: What counts toward your limit?

Not everything in your Google Drive counts toward your storage limit, so don't go around indiscriminately deleting files. Anything you create with Google Docs, Google Sheets, or Google Slides does not count toward your limit (neither does any Google Doc, Sheet, or Slide shared with you). Pretty much everything in Gmail counts, but only photos larger than 2048 by 2048 pixels and videos longer than 15 minutes in your Google+ Photos count toward your Drive storage limit.

Step 3: Clean up Drive

Open up Google Drive and take a look at My Drive. If you see a grid of thumbnails instead of a list, click the List view button in the upper right corner of the screen.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

You should now see your Google Drive files listed and sorted by name. Google used to let you sort your Drive files easily by file size, but if you click the Sort button in the upper right corner, you'll see that your only sort options are Name, Last modified, Last modified by me, and Last opened by me.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

But you can still sort your files by file size: In the lower left corner of the screen, you should see the amount of storage space you're using and a link that says Buy more storage. Hover over this area until a box with a breakdown of your Drive storage pops up. At the top of the list, you'll see Drive - click here.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

Your Drive folder will now be sorted by "Quota used" or file size, and you can start deleting the larger files to free up space.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

If you have PDF files that you'd rather not delete, you can save them and free up space by converting them to Google Docs (or Sheets, or Slides, depending on the file). To do this, right-click on the PDF file, hover over Open with, and choose Google Docs from the drop-down menu.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

A new Google Doc with the same name as your PDF file will open, and you can delete the old PDF file.

Once you've deleted the files from your Drive, you'll need to empty your Trash folder. Click Trash, select the files you want to delete forever, right-click and click Delete forever. Until a file has been deleted forever, it will continue to take up space on your Drive.

Step 4: Tackle your Google+ Photos

I hardly use Google+ -- so why do I have 4GB of photos in Google+ Photos? Because I take advantage of Android's automatic photo backup service, which uploads all the photos I take on my Android phone to my Google+ account at full size.

Unfortunately, you can't really search Google+ Photos by file size, so going through and getting rid of storage hogs is going to take some extra work. First, go to the Google+ Photos page and click All photos to see all of your photos. In the upper right corner, you'll see the total number of photos you have saved to Google+ Photos, so you can have an idea of how much work this is going to take.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

To delete photos, hover over them until a little check box appears in the upper left corner. Click the check box, and all of your photos will gain check boxes. Check all the photos you want to delete and then click Delete to delete them.

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Sarah Jacobsson Purewal/CNET

To stop your Android phone from automatically uploading full-size photos, open the Google+ app on your phone and go to Settings > Auto Backup > Photo Size, and change your selection from Full size to Standard size. Standard size photos will be smaller than 2048 by 2048 pixels, and therefore will take up no space in Drive.

Step 5: Purge your Gmail

If you've made it this far, well, let's face it -- your Gmail account is probably taking up the majority of space on Google Drive. To rid your Gmail of large attachments and unwanted newsletters, check out our spring cleaning article on scrubbing out your Gmail. If you need help organizing your inbox so you can find the old messages you no longer need to hang onto, check out these 10 tips for organizing your Gmail.

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