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Back Up Your iPhone Even If There's 'Not Enough iCloud Storage'

You should be backing up your iPhone regularly. We'll walk you through how to do it.

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Manage iCloud storage by removing old backups for iOS devices you no longer have.
James Phelan/CNET

Backing up your iPhone is a worthwhile investment of your time. Whether you're planning on upgrading the new iPhone SE or green iPhone 13, updating to iOS 15.4 (there are a bunch of new emoji to try) or preparing in case your iPhone is lost or stolen, taking a few minutes to secure your important photos, videos and text messages can save you a future headache. Plus, there are several ways to do it. 

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The easiest way to back up your iPhone is through iCloud, but it does have its limits. You might see the dreaded "not enough iCloud storage" error message, which won't allow you to back up, but don't fret. 

I'll also walk you through backing up your iPhone to iCloud to both Mac and Windows, which don't require cloud storage. And I'll even show you how to troubleshoot and work around some of iCloud's limits. 

If you'd like to follow along step by step, watch the video below: How to back up your iPhone.

iCloud: When everything works like it's supposed to

iCloud is a free account (more on that later) that's tied to your Apple ID and can back up your iPhone. However, it doesn't back up everything on your phone. Things you buy with your Apple ID, such as apps or music, won't back up because Apple has a receipt that you already bought them and will allow you to download them again for free. Email, contacts and calendars are usually synced with your email account like Gmail, but in some cases, you might also sync these things with iCloud.

You can double-check all this by going to Settings and then going into either Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes or Reminders. In any of these settings, you can tap Accounts to view your various accounts. Under each account, you can see what's being synced: mail, contacts, calendars and so on.

To start a backup to iCloud, connect your iPhone to Wi-Fi and then go to Settings and tap on the Apple ID/iCloud tab at the top, which also has your name. If you're not signed in, take a moment to do so and then tap on iCloud. On the next page, scroll down and tap iCloud Backup, enable iCloud Backup and then tap Back Up Now to start.

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The setting that tells your phone to maintain automatic iCloud backups, as well as the button to Back Up Now are buried deep within the Settings app, one screen past the backup settings for individual apps.

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Depending on how much data you have or if this is your first time backing up to iCloud, the backup process could take a few minutes or an hour. Check below the Back Up Now button to see the exact time and date your phone was last backed up. Now, any time your iPhone is connected to power, locked and on Wi-Fi, it will automatically back up whatever new data you have to iCloud.

'This iPhone cannot be backed up because there is not enough iCloud storage'

If that iCloud backup worked just fine, then great, you're done. But I realize a lot of people won't be able to back up to iCloud without a little work. You might see this message on your iOS device, "This iPhone cannot be backed up because there is not enough iCloud storage available."

Every iCloud account gets 5GB for free. But most people have more than 5GB of data on their phone -- or they have more than one iOS device that needs backing up. Hence, 5GB isn't enough space. And maybe one day Apple will change its free tier to give us more data and make backing up easier for everyone. But until then, we need to do some calculations to optimize our iCloud accounts.

Figure out iCloud backup size

As I mentioned earlier, iCloud doesn't back up every last thing on your phone. Instead, it takes a smart approach, and won't back up things that are synced with your internet accounts or that you've purchased with your iTunes Apple ID. To figure out exactly how much iCloud space your backup file will take, go to Settings, tap on your Apple ID and then go to iCloud > Manage Storage > Backups. There's a list of devices that are backing up or trying to back up with your account.

By the way, if you see multiple backups of the same phone, take a look at how old each one is. You might have an older iPhone backup that you can delete to open up iCloud space. Once you're done purging this list, tap on the name of the device you're currently using.

Give your phone a few moments to figure things out, then look at the top of the screen. You should see the following details: Last Backup, Backup Size and Next Backup Size. If you haven't backed up your iPhone to iCloud before or in a long time, the Next Backup Size will be a pretty large amount of data. Obviously, if it's more than 5GB you must either buy more storage or adjust what you're backing up.

Change what gets backed up to iCloud

Lower on the screen under Next Backup Size is a list where you can Choose Data to Back Up. This list will have apps and how much data each has to back up. The list goes from what takes up the most space to the least. If you just need a slightly smaller backup file, uncheck larger data items from the list if you don't mind whether or not they're backed up.

If all you wanted to back up was your camera roll, the only setting you'd need would be the first toggle listed, labeled iCloud Photos. Below Photos is a list of every other iCloud-enabled app on your iPhone, starting with Apple's own apps. Besides Photos, the two biggest data hogs using your iCloud storage tend to be Mail and Messages. If you turn off the iCloud backup settings for these two apps however, old messages won't be restored in case you get a new phone.

Buy more iCloud storage

This is the part no one likes to do, but Apple does offer three price tiers for storage: the free 5GB, $3-per-month 200GB or $10-per-month 2TB plan.

I realize that the idea of paying Apple more money on top of what we already spend on devices, accessories and AppleCare doesn't sit well with a lot of people. But if you lost your iPhone, got a new one to replace it and someone told you that you could download a backup of all of the data from your lost phone for just $12, you'd probably say yes. And that's how much extra storage on iCloud costs a year.

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Use your Mac to backup your iPhone.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Use your Mac

A few years ago, with the release of MacOS Catalina, Apple replaced and fragmented iTunes, which used to be how you backed up your iPhone. Now, you must use Finder, but the process to back up your phone is still as simple as ever.

On your Mac, open a Finder window from the dock. Next, select your device from the sidebar under Devices. Then on the right-hand side click on the General tab. Finally, click Back Up Now. Depending on how much data you have, this could take a while.

Use your Windows

If you're on Windows, good ol' iTunes is still alive and kicking (you can download it here), and you can use it to back up your iPhone.

Plug your iPhone into your computer, give your devices permission to talk to each other and then click on the small iPhone icon on the top left side of the iTunes window.

Scroll down to the Backup section, and under Automatically Back Up choose This Computer. After some time, your computer will have a backup file of your iPhone. To double-check the file, go to the iTunes menu, select Preferences and choose the Devices tab. From there, you can see a list of any iPhone backups that you've made via iTunes.

Keep in mind that your backup is only as current as the last time you ran the process. Also, your backup file is only as safe as your computer is.