How to Update iPhone When You Don't Have Enough Room

Man with a bun and bear using Vero on an iPhone

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The release of a new version of the iOS is exciting — new features, new emoji, bug fixes! — but that excitement can be spoiled fast if you don't have enough room on your iPhone to upgrade. If you're trying to install the update directly onto your iPhone wirelessly and have used up most of your phone's storage, a warning may tell you that you don't have enough room and end the update before it really gets going.

But that doesn't mean you can't upgrade. Here are a few tips for updating your iPhone when you don't have enough room.

Understanding What Happens During an iOS Update Installation

When you update your iPhone to the latest version wirelessly, the new software downloads from Apple directly to your phone. That means you need at least as much free space on your phone as the size of the update. But you actually need even more space than that: the installation process also needs to create temporary files and delete outdated and unused files. If you don't have all of that room, you won't be able to upgrade.

This isn't such a big problem these days thanks to the huge storage capacities of some iPhones, but if you've got an older phone or one with 32 GB or less of storage, it's a problem you may run into.

Installing iOS Updates Using iTunes 

One very easy way to get around the not-enough-room problem is not to update wirelessly. Update using iTunes instead. Sure, it's fast and easy to install the update wirelessly, but if you also sync your iPhone to a computer, try that approach and your problem will be solved. This works because the installation software gets downloaded to your computer and then only the necessary files are installed on your phone. Because iTunes is smart enough to understand what's on your phone and how much space you have, it can juggle that data to make room to update without losing anything. Here's what you want to do:

  1. Plug your iPhone into the computer that you sync with via the included USB cable.

  2. Launch iTunes if it doesn't launch automatically.

  3. Click the iPhone icon in the top left, just under the playback controls.

  4. A window should pop up letting you know there's an iOS update for you. If it doesn't, click Check for Update in the Summary box in iTunes.

  5. Click Download and Update in the window that pops up. The installation will begin and in a few minutes, your iPhone will be updated no matter how much room it has available.

Find Out How Much Room Apps Use and Delete Apps

To address the problem of not having enough available storage, Apple has built some smarts into the update process. Starting in iOS 9, when the iOS encounters this problem, it tries to intelligently delete some downloadable content from your apps to free up space. Once the update is complete, it redownloads that content so you don't lose anything.

In some cases, though, that process doesn't work. If that happens to you, your best bet is to delete data from your iPhone. Here are some tips on how to decide what to delete.

There's a tool built into the iOS that lets you see how much room every app on your phone uses. This is a great place to start when you need to delete apps. To access this tool:

  1. Tap Settings.

  2. Tap General.

  3. Tap iPhone Storage (in older versions of the iOS, this is called Storage & iCloud Usage).

  4. In newer versions of the iOS, everything you need is here. In some older versions, tap Manage Storage to see the information you need.

This shows you a list of all the apps on your phone, sorted from largest to smallest. Even better, you can delete apps right from this screen. Just tap the app you want to delete, then tap Delete App on the next screen.

In iOS 12, the iPhone Storage screen even provides recommendations for how to free up space, including things like deleting text messages that are more than a year old or storing photos in iCloud instead of on your phone.

First Delete Apps, Then Install the iOS Update

With the information about what things are taking up how much data, we recommend taking the following actions, in this order:

  • Delete apps you no longer use: Maybe you've got some games or other apps on your phone that you've stopped using. This is a great time to delete them and free up space. Some games can take up 1 GB or more, so deleting them could open up a lot of room.
  • Clear Deleted Voicemails: Voicemails can hang around on your phone even after you delete them. "Deleting" them actually moves voicemails to a trash can that gets emptied every so often, not immediately. You could have dozens of old voicemails taking up space on your device. To delete them right away, go to Phone, tap Voicemail, tap Deleted Messages, and tap Clear All
  • Clear Deleted Photos: Just like with voicemails, photos that you delete actually hang around on your phone for about 30 days before being removed. This is great if you accidentally deleted a photo and want to recover it, but not if you need that storage space. Get rid of your deleted photos by opening the Photos app and then tap Albums, tap Recently Deleted, tap Select, tap each photo you want to delete (a blue checkmark appears on selected photos), and then tap Delete.
  • If Using HDR, Delete Regular Photos: If you take HDR photos with your iPhone, you've got two copies of every photo in your photo library: one regular and one HDR image. There's no need to keep both. Delete the non-HDR images in your Photos app (they're the lesser quality version) and then clear your deleted photos.
  • Delete Podcast Episodes: Downloaded, but unlistened-to podcasts can take up a surprising amount of space. We listen to podcasts almost every day and we still have 2 GB of unlistened-to shows taking up space on our phone. Delete episodes to free up space and then redownload them after the upgrade. Be sure to delete recent episodes first; older episodes may no longer be available for redownload.
  • Use iCloud Photo Library: Apple's iCloud Photo Library service lets you store your photos in your iCloud account rather than on your device. This is a great way to make sure you keep photos but don't have them taking up tons of space on your phone. There are two steps to this. First, turn on iCloud Photo Library by tapping Settings, then your name at the top of the screen, then iCloud, then Photos, then moving the iCloud Photos (iCloud Photo Library on older versions of the iOS) slider to on/green. Then tap Optimize Phone Storage. This uploads full-resolution versions of your photos and videos to iCloud and leaves lower-resolution versions on your phone that take up less space. You can always download the higher-res versions from iCloud later if you want.

    With these space-saving tactics, you should have cleared more than enough space for the iOS upgrade. Try it again and after it works, you can redownload any content you want after the update is finished.

    One That Won't Work: Deleting Built-In Apps

    In iOS 10, Apple introduced the ability to delete the apps that come pre-installed with your iPhone. Sounds like a great way to free up space, right? Actually, it's not. Even though it's referred to as deleting an app when you do this with pre-loaded apps you're really just hiding them. Because of that, they're not actually deleted and don't give you any more space on your device. The good news is, these particular apps don't really take up that much space so you aren't missing out on saving much space.