Online Backup FAQ

Frequently asked questions about online/cloud backup services

We have a very popular list of online backup services that generates a lot of questions via email. Since the majority of them are similar, we figured it was time to answer the common ones in a dedicated piece.

Before we get to the questions a bit further down the page, here are several of our cloud backup pieces that you may not have seen but might be helpful:

Please let us know if you have another question you'd like us to answer that you also think others would appreciate.

Image of one many being selected among many by a robotic hand
Andrew Baker / Getty Images

Do I have to copy my files somewhere to keep them backed up online?

Absolutely not. You don't have to do any copying or moving or anything like that. After an initial configuration, your data is automatically and continuously backed up.

In general, getting started with an online backup service looks like this:

  1. Purchase an online backup plan.
  2. Install the provided software on your computer.
  3. Tell the software what drives, folders, and/or files you want to keep backed up.

You only do those things once! After the initial upload, changes to data you've selected, as well as new data added to locations you've selected, are all backed up automatically and, with most online backup services, almost instantly.

For example, after you install the backup program, you might tell it to keep your Music folder backed up, to upload all your downloaded files from the Downloads folder, and to never forget a file in your Documents folder.

After choosing those areas to back up, the software will begin uploading all of those files to your online account. Over the next few weeks, after you've added more documents and music to your computer, those files will appear in your online account, too. This happens in the background without asking since you've already chosen to keep those folders backed up.

Is online backup better than traditional/offline backup?

Yes, and most others in the technology industry would probably agree. It's worthwhile to use online backup even when there are plenty of other, time-tested ways to back up data on a computer.

The one clear advantage that online backup has over local backup is that your data is stored away from your home or office, meaning that your important data is free from local disasters like fires and floods that could impact your external hard drive, optical discs, or other local backup destinations or media.

Having your data stored in a physically secure, enterprise-grade data center also means that it's protected from theft as well as most common hardware failures.

Another reason to use online backup over local backup is if you want to be able to access your backed up files from online. Not all online backup services let you browse through your files in a web browser or app, but some do. On the other hand, no local backup program is able to support that because none of your files are stored online.

Local backup is only a better option if one of the following is true: a) your connection to the internet is very slow, b) your internet connection is metered, or c) you have privacy concerns over your files being managed by someone other than you. Since backing up online requires a lot of internet usage, these first two situations make it difficult to back up successfully.

So, while local backup may have an advantage or two over online backup, overall, the benefits of backing up using a reputable online backup service outweigh the negatives, at least for most people in most situations.

While there are plenty of great commercial backup programs out there, the free ones these days tend to support as many, if not more, features.

Is cloud backup the same as online backup?

Some companies and industry experts prefer cloud backup over online backup, but they're exactly the same thing; they're completely synonymous terms.

So why the difference at all? The cloud is a phrase generally referring to the internet itself and is a bit of a buzzword. Technically it comes from the idea of cloud computing, which describes the idea of multiple connected computers working together.

Is it safe to store my files online?

Contrary to what you may have heard in the news, not all data you transmit over the internet, or allow to be stored on a private, or even public, computer server is easily accessible by someone other than you. In an increasing number of situations, as you'll learn, it's nearly impossible.

The key to keeping your data private, even if it's located somewhere else, is encryption. When you encrypt data, you encode it so only authorized people can read it.

All online backup services encrypt your data, both during the transfer from your computer/device to the online backup provider's server and for the time its stored on that server, keeping it completely private at all times.

Some services even have an additional level of security that ensures that only you can decrypt your data, not the NSA or even the online backup service itself. The only disadvantage there is to that is if you lose your password, no one can you help you retrieve it, leaving your data permanently inaccessible.

Please know that encryption doesn't prevent anyone from "stealing" your data. However, since the hacker or government spy doesn't have your secret code to decrypt the data, it's completely useless. In this way, encryption can act at least as a deterrent to theft.

All that said, there will always be some risk involved, but that risk is astronomically small. Consider the fact that, if you use a strong password and choose the 448-bit option, the maximum encryption offered by many providers, it would take a computer not even yet invented many millions of years to crack that encryption and gain access to your data.

Will online backup slow down my internet?

Generally, no, you should not notice that your internet connection is slower during uploads, especially if your large initial upload is already complete and are just doing normal web browsing, video watching, music streaming, etc.

After the initial upload of your data, the software installed on your computer that was provided by your chosen online backup service watches for changes and additions to files and locations and then uploads those changesThe whole of your selected data isn't continually being backed up.

For example, let's say it's Tuesday night and you've just completed your initial backup of 320,109,284,898 bytes (almost 300 GB) of data. Then on Wednesday morning, you make a 5,011 byte change to a file. After that change is saved, only that 5,011 byte change is backed up, keeping what's on your computer in sync with what's backed up on the remote server.

Next, let's say you add a 6,971,827 byte MP3 file to a folder you've previously selected to be backed up. Only that new file is uploaded, not your entire music collection all over again.

It's actually a little bit more complicated than that, and one cloud backup service may do it slightly differently than another, but that's the gist of what's called incremental backup.

Additionally, some online backup software have advanced bandwidth control options that allow you to limit upload rates to certain levels, only back up when you're not using your computer or device, etc.

If bandwidth control is really important to you, look for services that feature it.

Where are online backups actually stored?

Online backup services house your data on enterprise-class servers in professional data centers. Some services own their own data centers while others lease or purchase servers in data centers run by other companies (a very standard practice).

Most online backup services use data centers located in North America, most often in the US, but some also have them in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia to better serve customers in those areas.

Information on data center locations can be had via a quick email with the company or a look through their online FAQ.

Please know, however, that your data will almost always be stored on one or more servers in the closest data center to your location. Exactly which data center, assuming your online backup provider operates more than one, or what the address of that data center is, isn't usually available for security reasons.

Do online backup services have file size or file type limits?

No, most cloud backup services do not place limits on individual file sizes so long as you stay under the maximum amount of backup space you're allowed to take up in your plan.

Also, no, you won't usually find restrictions on the file types you want to backup. In other words, it's not common to find an online backup service that will let you upload music and video files, but won't let you upload a virtual machine or ripped Blu-ray disc.

It is, however, very common to find certain types and sizes of files excluded by default in the online backup service's software. These exclusions are usually there to help prevent massive initial uploads due to very large files, and common but generally useless file types like temporary files. You can usually remove those exclusions if you wish.

If the ability to back up very large or certain types of files is an important factor in your choice of online backup service, please be aware of the service's fair use policy. Check the Fair Use or Acceptable Use section on their website for information about what may or may not be contractually allowed.

How do I know how much online backup space I need?

Once you've determined what you need to back up, calculate the space that data is using and make sure that whatever online backup plan you're looking at has enough storage for that amount of data.

It would also be wise to estimate what you expect to add to your important data in the future. Calculating your future needs is more of an art than a science, so some educated guessing is certainly expected here.

For example, if you're planning to back up everything currently stored on your external hard drive, which is used exclusively for movies and music, first check how much storage space is being occupied on it right now. Then, if you consider that you'll download one new song every day (assuming they're around 4 MB each), and a video every month (5 GB per video), you can guess that you'd need around 1.5 GB every year for music and an additional 60 GB for movies.

Screenshot of a hard drive's used space in Windows 8
Checking a Hard Drive's Used Space (Windows 8).

In this example, if your external HDD is already using 100 GB, and you plan to add, at a minimum, around 60 GB more per year, you not only need a plan that supports 100 GB for what you have now but one that's big enough to hold what you expect to add later. Five years down the road, with this particular setup, you'll be needing 400 GB of total backup space.

Another way to better visualize how much space you might need in the future is to look at how quickly you've already filled up your hard drive(s) in the last few months or years. If you keep buying 4 GB flash drives every few months because you're running out of space, pretend it's all online storage space and do the math to calculate what that would equate to for online storage, and then look for a relevant plan.

Considering the difficulty in knowing how much backup space you might need someday, it would be wise to at least be aware of an online backup service's policies and prices regarding storage overage. Most online backup plans are tiered and they'll contact you with an opportunity to upgrade as the space you're using approaches their next tier. You can also usually upgrade your plan yourself any time you think you'll need more space in the future.

Screenshot of the MiMedia backup upgrade options
MiMedia's Upgrade Options.

Another option is to just go with the service's smallest tier and then upgrade as you go, should you need to. You might find that their lowest storage plan is all you need, or that you only need to upgrade to the next higher tier to fulfill your needs instead of start off with the biggest plan available.

If you're still not sure how much space you might need then consider a cloud backup plan with unlimited space. These plans are rarely much more expensive than space-limited plans and you won't have to worry about uploading more than your allotment.

On the other hand, if you find out that your most important files take up less than a few GB, consider one of the many backup providers that offer feature-rich but completely free plans.

Do 'unlimited' backup plans really allow an unlimited amount of data to be backed up?

Yes, most online backup services that have plans with the word "unlimited" in them really do allow an unrestricted amount of data to be backed up. So, yes, in those cases, you really can back up every single thing you want.

Please check the Fair Use or Acceptable Use section in the terms published by any unlimited online backup plan provider if you're planning on a truly massive backup (several TBs or more). While none of our picks list any sort of "real world" limits and most even explicitly say that there are absolutely no storage space limits in their unlimited plan(s), most do allow for future "reasonable" changes to this policy.

Why pay for a limited plan when there are unlimited backup services?

The amount of online backup space that a plan offers might be the biggest factor for you or me, but it may not be even the least concern for someone else.

A limited plan from one online backup service may offer a killer feature in one person's opinion that's simply not available in an unlimited plan from any other service.

For example, we know of one very good service that doesn't offer an unlimited plan but does have a data center located in Africa, something no other major backup service can say. If you're a South African user greatly concerned with speed of upload and download, that service's limited plan probably looks extremely attractive.

More cloud backup services are dropping support for Windows XP after Microsoft did the same. If you're still using Windows XP (not a good idea, but the situation some still find themselves in even today), and are still interested in backing up to the cloud, this is the only feature that really matters to you.

As you make your decision as to which online backup service to go with, try to figure out what's really important to you. Just because limited vs unlimited seems to dominate a lot of the cloud backup discussion, it doesn't mean that everyone necessarily needs to care about access to limitless storage.

Look at the features these companies are offering, think about the sort of data you need backed up, and make the right choice based on your needs, not those of the average power user or whatever a marketing team decided to focus their attention on.

Can I use a single online backup plan to back up multiple devices?

Yes, some online backup services offer plans that support simultaneous backup from multiple devices. In fact, the majority of backup services with these types of plans support an unlimited number of computers/devices. Some others support up to ten, five, or three.

With multi-device plans, you pay for just one account but each device has its own unique area in the shared backup space where its files are backed up. This means that when you sign up, you have one account that logs into the backup service, but it can pull data to the cloud from multiple computers and mobile devices.

Multi-device plans are almost always the most cost effective way to go if you have more than one computer or device from which you need to keep data backed up.

There are several to pick from. Use the link below to compare prices between each of the major multi-device online backup services. Some are even free, but you're given less overall storage space, which could become a problem if you plan to back up several devices to the same cloud space.

Are 'free online backup plans' just trials that I'll have to pay for later?

Absolutely not! As of the last update, all of the plans we've included in our Free Online Backup Plans list are 100% free. Yes, you're understanding that correctly—they're free as in zilchzeronada... $0.00... forever.

It's true, most online backup services do offer free trials for their non-free plans, but several really do offer completely free backup plans that you can continue to use for as long as you want.

These free plans are typically identical to the paid plans aside from the significantly smaller amount of backup space offered. However, if that's all the space you need, you really can get a "free lunch" so to speak with one of these free backup plans.

For example, MiMedia offers 10 GB of free space. 10 GB! Most average computer users could easily get away backing up all of their important stuff with that much free storage. Most MP3 files are only 3 or 4 MB in size, most high-res photos are similar in size, and all but the rarest of documents average considerably lower than either music or images. Even most short videos come in at under 20 or 30 MB, depending on what device made them.

Now granted, not everyone is average. As of this writing, We have a bit over 350 GB backed up to our Backblaze cloud backup account, which of course is way more than 10 GB. However, we're backing up several virtual machines, a number of ISO images, nearly 25 GB of music, and lots of other non-standard types, and sizes, of data that most people just don't have.

Like with all things, online/cloud backup included, there are lots of choices out there. It's ​possible that in this case, the right choice might be not paying for one of these services at all but simply utilizing a free plan.

The most important factor in this case (i.e., deciding between a free or paid plan) is how much space you'll need. This isn't quite as easy a question to answer as it sounds.

All that said, of course, these companies are hoping that you're both happy with the service you're getting with the free plan and that at some point you decide to purchase more space, but that doesn't make them free trials.

Do I pay for online backup by the month, or once per year?

It depends entirely on the particular service. Most online backup companies give you several term length options with discounts, usually substantial ones, when you prepay for a longer term.

The shortest term available from most online backup providers is month-to-month but a few require at least a one-year prepayment.

Almost all online backup providers also offer the option of longer terms, usually two or three years, all of which is due at sign up. That might seem like a lot of money to provide up front but you can save a lot of money over the month-to-month cost when you do that.

The longest term we've seen is 4 years. Paying up front for this length of time can save you as much as 40% to 50% off the monthly price, depending on the backup service.

If committing to one backup service for a long period of time makes you nervous, please know that most allow cancellation at any time and full refunds of any unused months, but be sure to make sure that's true of whatever service you're looking at before signing up.

While probably obvious for month-to-month plans, we should mention that most longer-term online backup plans also automatically renew after the term has expired.

What should I back up to an online backup service?

Very simply, you need to back up anything you can't replace. For most people, this means backing up things you've created, like documents, things that you can't just download again, like photos from a camera, and things you've purchased, like music and movies.

In newer versions of Windows, like Windows 11 and Windows 10, these sorts of files are often located in the DocumentsMusicPictures, and Videos folders located within the Users folder with your name, but you should check with your other programs to see if they may store files elsewhere.

In macOS, you'll find most of your important files in your Documents, Music, Movies, and Pictures folders.

Installed programs themselves, as well as files that are part of the operating system, don't usually need to be backed up because the files don't usually change and can be easily reinstalled. Software programs also rarely work properly when restored from a backup.

If you're still not sure what to back up, know that most online backup service software includes wizards and other preconfigured backup settings that make it easy to select the majority of the critical locations on your computer that should be backed up.

You could also think to yourself, "If my computer were to get stolen, what would I miss?" This is a good way to think through what you value in your digital life and what would, therefore, be a good thing to back up.

How long will the first backup take?

Assuming that the amount of data you initially select to be backed up is large, which is probably very likely, it could take quite a while to finish. How long is a more complicated question to answer and depends on a number of factors.

In general, the less data you have to back up, the greater your upload bandwidth, and the greater bandwidth available to the cloud backup service's servers all contribute to a faster initial backup.

Aside from the inverse of those things, something else that might slow down your online backup is general internet congestion. Any contractual restrictions that limit your upload bandwidth to your chosen backup provider could also drastically slow your initial upload, but that's not very common.

Faster computer hardware can help considerably with how long the preparation of your data for backup takes. However, unless your computer is very slow, faster hardware doesn't have a great impact on the actual upload time.

With so many variables, it's nearly impossible to figure out how long it will take for that initial online backup to complete.

It's hard to provide an account of an experience with this because yours could differ considerably, but, for what it's worth, it was possible to back up over a few hundred GBs with Backblaze and it only took 3 days, while other applications were a little slower. That said, with so many variables involved, you could have the opposite experience. It's difficult to recommend one backup service over the other solely on our testing experience with a single initial backup.

At the time of those initial backups, the upload bandwidth used was regularly testing between 4 Mbps and 6 Mbps, depending on the time of day. Keep that in mind as you decide how important the initial upload times mentioned here, and in our reviews, are to you.

If you have a lot to back up or have a slower connection to the internet, please know that some online backup services offer an offline backup option for initial backups. With this service, which most backup providers charge extra for, you ship a hard drive or flash drive with a copy of your important data directly to the backup provider, saving you the days or weeks it might take to transfer your data to their servers over the internet.

Can I restore an older version of a file?

Yes, most services continually backup your data and yes, that means that each individual backup is saved and can be individually accessed. This is called file versioning.

For example, if you create a new document on Monday, and then make a change to it on Wednesday, and then another change to it on Friday, three versions of the file have existed over that time frame. Assuming the online backup software is configured to look for changes, and back up those changes, at least once per day (most do so much more often), then all three versions of the file would be accessible via the restore options available from the service.

There's also the matter of how many versions of a file are kept, which is an important feature that differs from service to service. Most services offer either unlimited file versioning or some limited file versioning, usually 30 to 90 days.

If having access to every iteration ever uploaded of your backed up files is important to you, be sure to check into this before signing up.

Do I have to back up everything or do I get to choose?

Almost all online backup services allow fine control over what you want to back up. In most cases, you use the included software to select the drives, folders, and/or files you want to back up.

A few services work in the opposite way. Instead of selecting what you would like to back up, you select what you would not like to back up and everything else is backed up by default.

By selecting only your most important data, or deselecting your least important data, you can keep your initial backup small, your subsequent backups faster, and may be able to purchase a smaller online backup plan.

If you're very discerning or have little important data, you may even be able to get away with a free plan.

Can I access my backed up files from another computer or through my phone?

Yes, every online backup service offers some sort of anywhere-access to your backed up files. Some services offer a website that you log on to access your files, others offer mobile apps for iOS, Android, etc. Many provide both.

Additionally, many online backup services offer integrated playing and viewing of files of certain formats, not just simple file access. With this feature, you can use your online backup account as a streaming service of sorts, playing your music, viewing your photos, and watching your movies right from your account from anywhere else in the world.

You can still view pictures and play music and movies without this feature, but you'll have to rely on software already on the computer or mobile device to do that.

How do I restore all my files if my computer dies?

With most online backup services, the easiest way to restore everything you've ever backed up would be to install and then use the online backup software on your new computer or device to restore whatever it is you'd like to get back.

If you don't have a new computer or device yet, but still need access to your backed up data, your other option is to access the service's web-based restore from some other working computer and select some or all of your data for restoring.

Since you're downloading all of your files, it will probably take a long time. How long exactly depends on a number of factors, most importantly how much data you have backed up that you're planning on restoring.

If the time that may be required to restore your data concerns you, you may be happy to hear that some cloud backup services also offer an offline restore option. This is an additional service, usually for a fee, where you can have a storage device, like an external hard drive or large flash drive, shipped to you with all your data on it.

Having your data shipped to you overnight is one of the few times that transferring data via a package delivery service is likely to be much faster than doing so over your internet connection.

Why don't you have Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc. listed in your online backup lists?

Services like Dropbox are better categorized as online storage services for two main reasons.

The first thing that keeps an online storage service from being synonymous with an online backup service is their lack of a desktop program that automatically keeps your existing data backed up or synced to their servers.

For the most part, Google Drive, OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive), and Dropbox only sync what's in their preset folders. To keep data backed up with them, you'd have to move your existing data to those folders and then work with them from that location in the future. There are unofficial programs you can install that gets around this limitation to some degree, but it's still not a all-in-one online backup package.

The second thing that keeps cloud storage from being used as a real backup solution is the lack of file versioning. File versioning keeps one or more previous versions of your files stored which you can choose to restore from.

For example, with an online backup service, you can restore a version of your backed up file as it was, say, a week ago. Most important to understand here is that the same goes for deleted files. If you deleted a file yesterday and want to restore it, you can go back in time, so to speak, to an earlier backup where the file existed and choose to restore it.

With an online storage service like Dropbox, however, once the file is deleted, it's deleted on every device that you have setup to keep synced and it's gone forever. This is the opposite of how backup works!

If it's just the free storage that has you interested in trying to make an online storage service function more like an online backup service, check out our Free Online Backup Plans list. There are several online backup services that offer plenty of free space.

Now, all this said, we know things are changing in this area and online storage services are becoming much more feature rich. When any of them are able to sync existing data from existing locations, provide file versioning, and support advanced encryption options, then we'd be glad to add them.

Until then, yes, you certainly could manually upload or sync your important folders and files with these services. However, the lack of an automatic process makes them unfit as true backup solutions.

Tim, what online backup service do you use?

Currently, I'm a Backblaze subscriber. Personally, I find Backblaze easiest to use, quicker to back up, and less of a hog on my computer's resource than other services.

I have also been a Carbonite customer at different times in the past. For the most part, I moved on due to price or plan changes, not because of reasons that would keep me from recommending any of them.

It's very important that you understand that I don't get the Backblaze service for free, nor do they (or did they ever) compensate me in return for a positive review or recommendation. I researched and chose Backblaze for my online backup needs at my home prior to writing my review.

As much as it's obvious that I love Backblaze, they might not be the right cloud backup provider for you. You likely got here from our Online Backup Services Reviewed list where we have a couple dozen services listed. Any of those might be the right fit for you based on your needs.

A side note: no, I don't also back up locally. I used to keep all my data simultaneously backed up on a second hard drive installed on my desktop but I don't anymore. The drive failed on me in 2012 and I've never set up another local backup since online backup has worked out so well for me.

If you, however, are interested in also backing up locally, know that the software that facilitates the online backing up for some of the services we talk about also have the option to simultaneously back up locally—just look closely at the service's list of features on their website.

Another option is to run yet another backup program. You'll need to set up an independent backup list and backup schedule with that second tool, but it's doable. There are some great commercial backup programs but first look hard through our Free Backup Software list before paying for anything.

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