The best free cloud storage providers give you a place to park your data without opening your wallet. Instead of eating up precious disk space by storing files on your computer or mobile device, you upload those files to an online storage service such as Dropbox or SpiderOak, which are among our top picks. You’ll be able to access your data anywhere there’s an Internet connection, and sharing even large files is often as easy as sending someone a link.
Overhead is cheap for cloud storage companies. Major providers, including Amazon, Google Drive and Dropbox (all cloud storage providers with whom I’ve stored my own data), have been locked in a price war. Lesser-known companies also have to keep things cheap to survive. That means it won’t cost you a lot to move your files online — and in some cases, it won’t cost you anything at all.
In a previous article, my colleague Heather tackled the Best Cloud Storage Providers for small businesses. Free cloud storage accounts are more suited to personal use, although some very small businesses may be able to use a free option in limited cases. In this article, I take a more in-depth look at the best free providers. Here’s a quick look at my picks:
Money360’s Top Picks for Free Cloud Storage
- Best Free Cloud Storage for Ease of Use: Dropbox and Sync
- Best Free Cloud Storage for Productivity: Google Drive and Box
- Best Free Cloud Storage for Security: SpiderOak and MEGA
Below, you’ll find what sets these companies apart from dozens of other free cloud storage options. I’ll also discuss the tradeoffs associated with free cloud storage, as well as some of the questions you’ll want to keep in mind as you compare providers.
Six Best Free Cloud Storage Providers
Best Free Cloud Storage for Ease of Use: Dropbox and Sync
First things first: Dropbox doesn’t offer a ton of free storage — only 2 GB. But if that’s enough for you — or if you’re open to shelling out $10 a month for a huge 1 terabyte of space — few providers compare in terms of ease of use and features. (Dropbox also offers you the chance to earn more free space by completing tasks like referring friends or linking your social media accounts.)
Experts have long hailed Dropbox for its intuitive interface, which lets users drag and drop their files to store them and share them between computers and mobile devices. I’ve been using a free Dropbox account to store personal files for a few years now, and can personally attest to this simplicity.
Mobile apps, available for iOS, Android, Blackberry, and Kindle Fire, also stand out for ease of use. A file versioning feature retains changes to your files for a month, allowing you to restore older versions within that time frame. Dropbox doesn’t impose a file-size limit. It also offers SSL encryption on all plans.
Relative newcomer Sync is a bit more generous than Dropbox with free space, giving users 5 GB. You can also upgrade to two more feature-rich business accounts: 500 GB for $49 per year, or a whopping 2 terabytes for $98 a year. Like Dropbox, you’ll also have the opportunity to earn more free space by referring friends.
Sync also boasts a clean, streamlined, easy-to-use interface. You can easily send files to recipients that don’t have Sync accounts — they can access your data via a link as long as they have Internet access. File size and bandwidth aren’t capped, and Sync doesn’t care how many computers or devices you use to access your account. You also get full file version history, preview and restore functions.
Best Free Cloud Storage for Productivity: Google Drive and Box
You’ll get a healthy 15 GB of storage for free on Google Drive, which puts it in the top tier of providers judged solely by free space. You can also step up to 100 GB for only $1.99 per month, or one terabyte for $9.99.
There’s much more to like about Google Drive than free space, however. It boasts integrated apps that let you create, save, and sync documents, spreadsheets, presentations, surveys, and drawings. Like Dropbox, a file versioning feature lets you recover older versions of files and see revision history. I write my articles for Money360 in Google Docs, and find this feature particularly helpful to see how each assignment has evolved.
The kicker is that files created using Google Drive apps such as Google Docs don’t use your free storage space. However, if you’re a digital hoarder and happen to use Gmail or Google+ photos, beware that files stored in those two applications will count against your storage. Experts also say security could be beefier: Your files are transferred encrypted, but not stored that way.
Box offers its users 10 GB of free storage, and you can upgrade to 100 GB for $5 per month. It really shines by offering users more than two dozen of its own apps and compatibility with 1,000 more — many of which are free. These include Box for Office as well as a Google Docs app. Mobile support is also impressive — iOS, Android, Windows, and Blackberry are all covered.
Experts say Box makes collaboration between users seamless, including task management and discussions within Box. Security is also a strong point, with encryption for both transfers and stored files. The biggest downfalls of the Box free plan are a low 250 MB limit on individual files and the lack of file version history, both limitations that Google Drive doesn’t have.
Best Free Cloud Storage for Privacy: SpiderOak and MEGA
First, the numbers: SpiderOak offers only 2 GB of free storage, and it costs a pricey $7 a month to upgrade for just 30 GB. But if you’re paranoid about security, you might be willing to overlook those limitations.
Data is encrypted for both transfer and storage. Beyond this, SpiderOak has what it calls “zero-knowledge privacy” — this is a fancy way of saying you are the only person on the planet who can access your data; not even SpiderOak itself can do this. In fact, if you forget your password, you can no longer access your files, because SpiderOak will not store that information on its servers.
If you do want to share files, you can create a secure “share room” that others can access only with a unique URL or password. Experts also say SpiderOak syncs data seamlessly between multiple computers and mobile devices.
If you want a lot more space with above-average security, MEGA offers an impressive 50 GB for free; for a little more than $10 a month, you can step up to 500 GB. Like SpiderOak, MEGA can’t access your data. That’s because it’s encrypted on your computer, stored that way on MEGA, and sent back to you before being decrypted. Unlike SpiderOak, however, users can reset their passwords.
You can share files with a public link, but can’t password-protect shared files or folders like on SpiderOak. Experts say uploads and downloads are fast, and the interface is intuitive. There is a 10 GB bandwidth limit, but that’s unlikely to be an issue for the vast majority of users. Mobile apps are available for iOS, Android, and Blackberry.
Free Cloud Storage 101
Why do some companies offer free cloud storage?
It seems crazy for companies to let you park your data on their servers without paying a dime. Why do they do it? Overhead is relatively cheap in the cloud storage industry, but more than that, most providers are hoping you’ll like their service, run out of space, and convert to a paid plan. After all, finding another free provider and transferring your data is a hassle — that’s what they’re betting on, anyway.
What kind of trade-offs will I need to accept with free cloud storage?
Yes, you can store your files for free with many cloud storage providers, but you won’t get all the fun stuff that paid users receive. Here are some common limitations of free cloud storage accounts:
- Space: This is the biggest, most obvious tradeoff. Some providers may only give you a couple of gigabytes to work with. (See the next section on shopping tips for a discussion on how much storage is enough.)
- File size: Some providers will impose a size limit on individual files, making it impossible for you to upload your favorite videos, for example.
- Fewer security options: You may not have the option to password-protect shared files, or you might not get more advanced file encryption.
- Customer service: Your access may be limited with free plans, whereas paid users may get priority 24/7 support.
- Fewer features: Some providers may limit your access to other perks such as file recovery, easier-to-use desktop clients, or ad-free storage.
- Multiple users: You’ll often need to buy a business plan if you want a multi-user account that allows more than one person to access the same file at the same time.
- No guarantees: Finally, you’ll need to accept a major limitation that applies to all cloud storage, whether you have a paid or free account: There are often no guarantees to protect your data from loss. While any cloud storage company lives and dies by its reliability and security, it’s still ultimately up to you to keep another copy of any file you upload to the cloud in at least one other spot. This common-sense strategy will also protect you in case of temporary outages, which have hit major providers including Dropbox and Google Drive.
How to Shop for the Best Free Cloud Storage
Keeping the above limitations in mind, I’ve put together a list of questions to keep in mind as you try to find the best free cloud storage provider for your needs.
- How much storage do you need? Depending on your provider, you may be limited to just a couple of gigabytes of free storage. Others are more generous, providing up to 50 GB. Take a realistic look at your files. If you’re storing mostly text documents, you may not need as much as you think you do — 2 GB of space could store more than 37,000 average-sized Word documents, for example. But the same amount of storage could only handle 460 songs or just one feature-length movie. Also consider how much it will cost you if you want to upgrade to a paid plan.
- Do you have a business? Unfortunately, most free cloud storage plans are targeted to individual users because of storage limits and user restrictions. If you need a plan that lets you allocate storage and file permissions among multiple users, you will likely need to step up to a paid business plan.
- How do you want to access your data? At a minimum, you’ll be able to access your cloud files using your web browser. However, some providers offer computer-based apps that simplify the process. Most are made for Windows and Mac systems; fewer support Linux. Many also have mobile apps so you can manage files on the go. Android and iOS apps are common, but some providers support Blackberry and Windows phone users, too.
- What kind of restrictions can you live with? If you anticipate storing very large files in the cloud, check to see whether your provider has a file size limit. For instance, Box won’t let its free users store individual files bigger than 250 MB. You’ll also want to make sure you can use your account with multiple computers and devices, and check for any bandwidth limits that will restrict the speed of uploads and downloads.
- Do you want productivity apps? Most people will be fine chugging along creating documents in Microsoft Office or other preferred software, but a handful of cloud storage providers have integrated productivity apps that make creating, syncing, sharing, and storing content seamless. In fact, I’m typing this article using the Google Docs app included with Google Drive. My changes are saved automatically every few seconds, I can get to my documents anywhere I have Internet access, and it’s easy to share my work with others without sending emails and attachments for them to download. Also consider whether your cloud storage provider will integrate with any other apps you use regularly.
- What kind of sharing capabilities do you need? Most cloud storage providers let you share a file by generating a public link to it. Once you send that link to the recipient, he or she can access your file. If you need more control over what the recipient can do with your file, look for a provider that lets you set certain permissions. For instance, when I share a document through Google Drive, I can designate whether the recipient can view it, comment on it, or actually edit it.
- Are you nervous about security? SSL encryption is standard for most cloud storage providers, but sometimes not on free accounts. If the provider does encrypt your data, see whether it’s stored encrypted, or simply uploaded and downloaded that way. Additional features include two-step verification (where you must take an additional step, such as entering a code, after entering your password) as well as the ability to password-protect certain files or folders.
How I Picked the Best Free Cloud Storage
First, a word about the term “free”: Many cloud storage providers have a free trial, during which you can try out the provider’s service for a limited period of time. However, only some providers give you free space and access to at least some of their services indefinitely. I only considered cloud storage providers who offer the latter — free trials didn’t cut it since they’re only good for a month or so.
For the best free cloud storage providers for ease of use, I primarily weighed the simplicity of the interface, the amount of free storage space provided, and the cost of upgrading to more space.
For the best free cloud storage for productivity, I examined how seamlessly users can complete common tasks such as creating and editing documents, sharing files, and linking their accounts to popular third-party apps and programs. I also considered storage space and whether the provider integrated any of its own productivity apps with its storage services.
Finally, for the best free cloud storage for security, I looked at additional privacy features providers offered beyond standard data encryption, such as end-to-end encryption, additional password protections, and zero-knowledge privacy. Ease of use and storage space were also considerations.
Though I’ve had first-hand experience with a couple of the companies I recommend (Google Drive and Dropbox), I also relied on expert and user reviews to judge intangibles such as ease of use and customer service. I placed special emphasis on detailed, comparative reviews as I narrowed the field.
What’s Your Time Worth?
If you’re ready to reclaim hard-drive space and send your data into the cloud, you’ll have plenty of choices, even if you don’t want to spend a dime to get started. Any of the providers above, including Dropbox, Google Drive and SpiderOak, are good choices.
Remember to consider how much it will cost to upgrade to a paid plan if you hit your storage limit. Though it’s possible to hop from free provider to free provider, it’s probably worth the cost of a cup of coffee to avoid the hassle of transferring your files over and over again. After all, your time is valuable, too, and making data storage as easy and quick as possible is the main reason to consider cloud storage in the first place.
Looking for business-friendly options? Check out our post on the Best Cloud Storage Providers for small businesses.