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

Man with a bun and bear using Vero on an iPhone

 PeopleImages / DigitalVision

The release of a new version of 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 with other things like movies and apps, you might get a warning about the update not being able to proceed because of low free space.

However, you're not without options. You can still upgrade to a new iOS version, you'll just need to follow a few tips on what to do when an update stops because of low storage space.

Understanding What Happens During an iOS Update Installation

When you update your iPhone to the latest firmware version over Wi-Fi, 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.

However, you actually need even more space than that because the installation process needs to create temporary files and delete outdated and unused files.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, one with 32 GB or less of storage, or simply too much data on it, you might run into this issue.

Install iOS Updates With iTunes 

iPhone 6 details in iTunes for Windows

One very easy way to get around the not-enough-room problem is not to update wirelessly but instead with iTunes. Sure, it's fast and easy to install the update wirelessly, but if you already use your computer to sync your iPhone, you may as well plug it in for the iOS update, too.

This works because the installation software gets downloaded to your computer instead of your phone, and then only the necessary files are installed on your phone, drastically cutting down on the free storage it needs for the update.

Since 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 for an update without deleting anything.

Delete Apps That Are Taking Up the Most Space

To address the problem of not having enough available storage, Apple has built some smarts into the update process. Starting in iOS 9, when faced with the storage problem during an update, the OS tries to intelligently delete some downloadable content from your apps to free up space. Once the update completes, it re-downloads 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. The easiest way to know what to delete is to check which apps are taking up the most space, and then promptly delete them to free up that storage.

You can also remove apps that are built-in to your iPhone, but doing so doesn't really clear up any space. Your phone really just hides them from normal view, so you won't gain any more storage for the update by deleting stock apps.

In iOS 12, the iPhone Storage area of the settings 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. It also lets you offload unused apps to hibernate them for more storage gains.

Other Ways to Get More iPhone Storage for an Update

If none of the above is working to clear up enough storage space for an update, consider the following:

  • Delete apps you no longer use: Maybe you have games or really old apps you tried just a few times but then forgot about. This is a great time to go through all your apps and remove the ones you can do without. Some apps can take up as much as 1 GB or more, so uninstalling them and their data can free up loads of room.
  • Clear old or deleted voicemails: It's easy to hear voicemail after voicemail and let them gather in your Phone app forever. Delete the ones you don't need and then remove them from the deleted box to really get rid of them.
  • Remove photos you've already deleted: Just like with voicemails, photos and videos that you delete actually hang around on your phone for a month before leaving for good. This is great if you accidentally deleted a photo and want to recover it, but not if you need that storage space. Either upload the files to an online file storage service like Google Photos or permanently delete the files.
  • Delete non-HDR photos: If you take HDR photos with your iPhone, you've got two copies of every picture in your library: one regular and one HDR image. There's no need to keep both, so 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 not-yet-listened-to podcasts can take up a surprising amount of space. Delete these episodes to free up space and then optionally re-download them after the iOS update. Be sure to delete recent episodes first; older episodes might no longer be available for re-download.
  • Clear out old or large emails: Reducing email storage is important for gaining more space for the update. Email attachments can take up lots of space, not only on the email server but on your phone, too, if you keep them there. Go through your email app and delete messages you're finished with. Most importantly, be sure to also delete everything in the trash folder.

With these space-saving tactics, you should have cleared more than enough disk space for the iOS upgrade. Try the update again, and if it works and you want some of the data back that you deleted or backed up, go ahead and download it again.