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Best free cloud storage in 2021

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(Image credit: Photo by Lee Campbell on Unsplash)

One major advantage of the best cloud storage providers is that most offer the best free cloud storage plans, alongside the best personal cloud storage and the best cloud storage for business. Free plans are ideal for those with little to no budget, or individuals looking to back up important personal files and photos.

As they're often offered by the best paid providers, the standard of their secure cloud systems remains high, while limited file syncing features may be included. It's worth remembering that while they're less feature-rich, and have smaller storage allowances alongside other limitations, they are often more than sufficient for personal or smaller business needs.

Choosing one, when so many offer similar features, can be tough, but the advantage of free plans is that you can try multiple services out and not spend a cent. If you then want to upgrade to a paid plan, you will be better place to know what you need when looking to choose a premium cloud storage and backup provider.

You should also keep key factors you'd consider for paid plans other factors in mind as well, such as file size limits, ease of use, service access, and any device support. Our guide evaluates each free service in terms of its storage capacity and security, as well as discussing anything extra you may benefit from that providers offer.

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The top 3 best free cloud storage solutions available

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1. IDrive: the best free cloud storage available
IDrive ranks consistently highly across all cloud storage categories thanks to its top features and high security level. It’s available across Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems, as well as smartphones and tablets running Android or iOS, and the free plan includes 5GB of storage with end-to-end encryption.

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2. Dropbox: the free file sharing leader
Dropbox remains one of the leading premium cloud storage solutions, its unobtrusive dashboard ensuring it remains simple to use, and its free offering including a wide range of extra services and features, as well as ways to gain additional storage.

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3. Microsoft OneDrive: the top option for Windows users
Thanks to its close integration with Microsoft 365 and Office apps, Microsoft OneDrive is ideal for free cloud storage, offering 5GB as well as online document editing, top mobile apps, and extra collaborative tools.

Which is the best free cloud storage service?

IDrive is our top choice, offering great value, highly-secure storage for free including backup and restore features, as well as a user-friendly web app, while end-to-end encryption keeps your files safe. It's also top of our rankings for the best cloud storage, the best cloud storage for photos, and the best personal cloud storage

Following IDrive among the best free cloud storage providers are Dropbox, OneDrive, MEGA, Apple iCloud, and pCloud, with each offering varying levels of storage alongside unique features and advanced security tools.

The best free cloud storage providers, compared
Cloud storage providerMax storageEncryption
IDrive5GBEnd-to-end
Dropbox2GBIn-transit and at-rest
Microsoft OneDrive5GBEnd-to-end
MEGA50GBEnd-to-end
iCloud5GBIn-transit and at-rest
pCloud10GBIn-transit and at-rest

The best free cloud storage providers

IDrive logo

IDrive offers best-in-class data protection and recovery features (Image credit: IDrive)

The best platform for cloud backup and high-capacity storage

Specifications
Max storage: 5GB
Encryption: End-to-end
Reasons to buy
+ Back up an unlimited number of drives and devices+ End-to-end encryption 
Reasons to avoid
-Minimal collaborative features 

IDrive is the ideal platform if you need somewhere to back up multiple servers and devices, and prioritize end-to-end encryption. The basic free forever plan only supports 5GB of storage, but this should be enough for you to test the platform.

The apps aren’t the most impressive, but work as described, and the web app in particular is surprisingly useful, making it easy to manage your various backups. However, it isn’t designed for collaboration, and file-sharing is somewhat limited. If you’re a photographer, video editor, or anyone managing lots of data, IDrive should be one of your top considerations. 

Take a look at our IDrive Personal cloud backup review to find out more, and our comparison features pitting IDrive vs Dropbox vs pCloud, IDrive vs Carbonite, and IDrive vs Backblaze. We also reviewed the company's business offerings in our IDrive review.

Dropbox logo

Dropbox offers simple file sharing as part of its free version (Image credit: Dropbox)

A leader in file sharing over the cloud

Specifications
Max storage: 2GB
Encryption: In transit and at rest
Reasons to buy
+Easy file-sharing+Free plan will suffice for many personal users
Reasons to avoid
-No backup features

Dropbox is a fantastic choice for free, personal cloud storage. The free option offers 2GB of storage, but provides ways to increase space by completing its starting guide (250MB), referring others to Dropbox (500MB per referral, up to 16GB), and contributing to its community forum (1GB).

The file sharing leader provides several features that make it easy to share large files with others, whether they use Dropbox or not. You can also use the Dropbox Paper collaboration tool, allowing for seamless file sharing between users, and automatic syncing of photos from the desktop app.

An extra free feature is the File Requests tool, which allows you to request users upload directly to your Dropbox account, and to edit files without downloading them while working on the web client version. There are also desktop and mobile apps for the usual suspects, as well as less well-supported platforms like Linux and Kindle.

One limitation however is that you can’t back up external or network drives to your account. Dropbox only stores what you transfer to its folder on your device. This isn’t a major issue, but differentiates the platform from competitors like IDrive. 

Security is impressive without being exceptional, with all files encrypted at rest and in transit, but there is no end-to-end encryption, though accounts can also be secured with 2FA. 

We think however that you could do much worse than Dropbox for your cloud storage solution: read our full Dropbox review to see why, and our Dropbox Business review to see what it offers to businesses; and see how it compares to other platforms in our OneDrive for Business vs Dropbox Business vs Google Drive Enterprise and Google Drive vs OneDrive comparisons.

OneDrive logo

Microsoft OneDrive is powerful but easy to use, and excels in all categories (Image credit: Microsoft)

The perfect blend of performance, aesthetic-design, and robust security

Specifications
Max storage: 5GB
Encryption: End-to-end
Reasons to buy
+Available in a Microsoft 365 bundle or as a standalone product+Impressive apps across all operating systems
Reasons to avoid
-Minimal backup functionalities

For personal use, Microsoft OneDrive is a great free cloud storage option, with its free plan offering 5GB of storage. It balances high-capacity storage with functional user interfaces, powerful integrations with the entire Microsoft 365 suite, and a robust security framework. 

Once you’ve set OneDrive up, it will perform as described with no further effort or stress on your part. Current users of Microsoft 365 also benefit, because 1TB of OneDrive storage is included in your subscription. Its close relationship with Microsoft Office apps and Windows 10 mean it's ideal for Microsoft users, while mobile apps allow for cross-platform use.

It also provides collaborative features that aren't limited to OneDrive users, so you can share files, customize access, and edit files online without downloading them. Take a look at our Microsoft OneDrive review to find out more about the service, and read our OneDrive for Business review to learn more about its business cloud storage.

MEGA logo

MEGA.nz is a very popular cloud storage company based in New Zealand (Image credit: MEGA)

Controversial, but very secure

Specifications
Max storage: 50GB
Encryption: End-to-end
Reasons to buy
+Generous free plan+Open-source client for file syncing 
Reasons to avoid
-Limited compatibility with third-party apps

MEGA.nz is a very popular, New Zealand-based cloud storage company, founded in 2013 by Kim Dotcom, a rather controversial figure in the online world. It offers end-to-end encryption and a generous 50GB of storage via its free plan, with absolutely no throttling.

While its zero-knowledge encryption technology makes collaboration a bit difficult, individual files can still be shared using a dedicated encryption key required to unlock them. Files can also be password-protected to add another layer of security. 

MEGA does not impose any limitations on individual file size, and allows restoration of previous versions of corrupted files using built-in file versioning technology. The downloadable client is available for Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS, while its entire source code was released on Github. This is good for tech-savvy users who want to audit the technology for security issues. 

However, consumers should be aware that since leaving in 2015, Dotcom has leveled serious accusations against MEGA for possible ties with the New Zealand and Chinese governments. While these accusations have been exaggerated, it is true that its majority shareholder is Beijing-based businesswoman Li Zhi Min. 

However, as well as its source code being publicly available, MEGA's zero-knowledge encryption technology also implies it can't get to your data without permission. Read our full MEGA review for more details.

iCloud logo

iCloud is a logical consideration for Apple OS users (Image credit: iCloud)

Apple users’ favorite cloud storage service

Specifications
Max storage: 5GB
Encryption: In transit and at rest
Reasons to buy
+Reasonable prices on premium plans+Natively built into Apple products 
Reasons to avoid
-No official client for Android devices

If you use Apple mobile and desktop devices, and don’t plan on making the jump to Windows or Android anytime soon, then Apple iCloud is the logical cloud storage platform for you. 

When used on Apple OSs, nothing comes close to iCloud in terms of integration, functionality, and ease of use. It seamlessly takes care of device and app backup, and syncs data across all connected devices. For miscellaneous file storage, there is also iCloud Drive. 

iCloud’s free plans offer 5GB of free storage, not a particularly high amount, but you can always buy more storage, starting at $0.99 a month for 50GB and ranging up to $9.99 for 2TB. Moreover, any items purchased from the iTunes Store can be stored for free without counting towards the free 5GB. We also like that you can share the 2TB storage plan with family members. 

iCloud doesn’t impose any limits on individual file size. Users can also take advantage of the iWork apps included with it, such as Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Compatibility issues prevent iCloud from achieving mainstream status, but it still makes for a lucrative offering for MacBook or iPad users.

However, security is not a strength, as most data is stored with AES 128-bit encryption. 2FA is included, and should be activated by all users. Read our full Apple iCloud review for more details; if you've already got iCloud with an Apple device, make sure to read our step-by-step article detailing how to free up space with your iCloud storage.

pCloud logo

pCloud balances cloud storage, cloud backup and cloud syncing (Image credit: pCloud)

A reliable platform, but not particularly inspiring

Specifications
Max storage: 10GB
Encryption: In transit and at rest
Reasons to buy
+Lifetime purchase possible+Drive backup included
Reasons to avoid
-Encryption a paid extra

pCloud differentiates itself by offering a lifetime access option as well as standard subscription-based options. Its free option provides 10GB of storage, which can be increased to 20GB via completing offers (4GB) and referring people to the service (1GB each), and you get 50GB of downlink traffic bandwidth allowance per month.

However, its range of optional add-ons can be confusing to understand. For example, advanced encryption is not a standard feature, but must be purchased separately. Nonetheless, pCloud offers a range of easy-to-use apps that make storing your files and backing up important files, servers, and devices easy. 

It includes typical features such as file versioning, file recovery, and link sharing, and you can share files with non-pCloud users. Its user interface is easy-to-use, and it has built-in streaming features as well, alongside innovative tools such as automatic upload of content shared via social media. 

We like pCloud because it balances third-party software integration with admirable backup features: however, it isn’t a leader in either category. Read our pCloud review to find out more.


Cloud storage security: what you need to know

While there are many comparisons and much debate on the security of cloud storage, especially when pitting on-prem (on-premises storage) vs cloud storage, or even cloud storage vs external hard disk drives, the best cloud storage (including the best free cloud storage) often utilizes top-line security and encryption tools.

It may not technically be as secure as local storage for obvious reasons, but how secure is cloud storage, and how do secure cloud systems protect your files? Encryption is key here: look in particular for end-to-end encryption and zero-knowledge architecture, or in-transit and at-rest encryption.

End-to-end encryption protects data along its whole path from device to storage and back, while in-transit and at-rest encryption render data indecipherable even if intercepted by criminals. Zero-knowledge architecture meanwhile ensures that not even a cloud storage provider's staff can access your data, nor can they be compelled to release it even if law enforcement demands it.

For enterprises, cloud storage security is significant, particularly if you operate in data or privacy-sensitive sectors. There, investing in secure cloud storage that offers state-of-the-art policies is non-negotiable. However, the very best providers not only protect data, but infrastructure housing it. 

Data centers owned by Storage-as-a-Service (StaaS) cloud storage providers have 24/7 security guards, biometric authorization for entry, and frequent auditing. The location of data centers is key too, with different countries having different data privacy laws, so ensure data is stored in a nation that complies with your data privacy obligations.

Further reading on cloud storage

If you've signed up to either OneDrive, iCloud, or Dropbox, make sure to read our comprehensive step-by-step guide on how to use Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud. Find out more about data backup and recovery too, if you're unsure as to what to do should you lose your stored data.

Darcy French

Darcy is a freelance copywriter, and a candidate for the dual master's program between the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) in France and Peking University in Beijing, China. His academic and professional areas of interest include human rights and development, sustainable agriculture and agroecology, Pacific Islands diplomacy, and Sino-Australian relations.