How to free up space on Mac: The free and paid methods

If you are reading this you are probably familiar with the “Disk is almost full” message on Mac. Even the most spacious hard drives will fill up at some point. Further below I’ll show you my favorite methods of recovering disk space on Mac. They are a bit like alchemy because we’ll be turning junk into free space. 

Okay, let’s go. 

Free up space on Mac for free

Where is your disk space going? 

It’s good to check your storage details before we get down to deleting things. For example, this my disk space structure:

Clean disk space for free

Documents: You have too many downloads and media files on your drive 
Apps: There are probably tons of hidden and forgotten apps on your Mac 
System: Your OS + caches, temporary files, and app localizations that waste space

To view your storage details, click on the Apple icon > About this Mac > Storage

How the full hard drive affects your Mac?

If your drive reaches about 80% of its capacity, your Mac will get noticeably slower. This is because of the so-called fragmenting. When there is only so much space left on disk, your Mac will split every new file into pieces or fragments and fit them into available slots elsewhere on your Mac. This slows down how your Mac processes these files. Also, some amount of your RAM (virtual memory) will be taken out to compensate for the loss of disk space.

According to MacWorld magazine, nearly full hard drives performed 17% slower in the test.

So, how do you free up space on your Mac?


1. Find large files you don’t need — a fast way to clear space on your Mac 

Potential space reclaimed: 2-5 GB

  1. Go to your desktop and press Command + F 
  2. Choose “This Mac” 
  3. Select Other in the dropdown menu 
  4. Under the Search Attributes menu, tick File Size and File Extension
Remove large files to free up space on Mac

Well done! Now you can type in different file extensions and sort the results by size. I recommend starting with the .DMG files or application installers. They are just dead weight and you can live without them. The same goes for .ZIP archives

2. Remove unused apps and all their leftovers 

Potential space reclaimed: up to 5 GB

Did you know there are 3 ways of deleting apps on Mac? One is dragging them straight to the Trash from Applications, the other involves Launchpad. And, finally, you can use a third-party Uninstaller tool, which also makes sense because the first two methods leave parts of old apps on your drive.

Delete apps via Launchpad

Still, I prefer deleting apps via Launchpad because it’s more fun. Open Launchpad from your Dock. Now, press the Command key and hold any app icon until they start shaking. You will see the [X] symbol above the icon — click it to delete the app.

Delete apps to free up MacBook space

Delete your unseen apps

That was easy but here’s the deal. Every Mac has apps that don’t show up anywhere. They may have installed themselves as parts of other apps or be small supporting applications that programmers call “Launch agents” or “Daemons.” In total, they may eat up a whole lot of disk space.

In my experience, of all app cleaners, CleanMyMac X still tops the list. My personal record — 30 GB I was able to clear up on my Mac that had been taken by unused and suspicious programs. So what can you do

  1. Download CleanMyMac X free edition here
  2. Click the Uninstaller tab
How to free up space on drive

From there you can delete apps on a massive scale - simply select the ones you don’t need. Make sure to check the Leftovers section. These are parts and pieces of your old apps that you can’t otherwise access.


3. Remove browser cache

If you are a heavy internet user (like I am) your Mac’s drive is full of browser cache. These are kinds of bookmarks left on your drive by every site that you visited. What’s your primary browser? Here are the solutions for Chrome and Safari.

To clear Chrome cache:

While you are in Chrome, 

  1. Click the three-dot icon at the top right 
  2. Click More tools > Clear browsing data
  3. Choose a time range to clear the browsing data
  4. Also, clear “Cached images and files.”

Instruction to clear cache on Mac

To clear Safari cache:

  1. Click Develop in the top menu 
  2. Click Empty caches

Delete system junk — free up space on MacBook, iMac, MacBook Pro

4. Delete your system junk

Potential space reclaimed: 2-5 GB

There are tons of articles written about system junk and some Mac users claim the system junk is pure evil and slows your Mac down. In my view, it’s only an excess burden to have on your machine — outdated files, browser caches, app localizations, and old time machine backups.

To delete system junk manually, would be a hot mess, even for an experienced user. So if you want to free up space on Mac quickly, just run CleanMyMac X once, and forget it. This app, unlike some Mac-Saviours, is actually notarized by Apple so you’re safe running it. 

Run CleanMyMac X  — download the app’s free edition here 
Click the System junk tab

how to free up disk space on mac

After you run the Scan, review the files and click Clean.

What else can you delete with this tool:

  • Time machine backups
  • Temporary documents versions
  • Outdated system logs
  • App localizations

5. Use Optimized Storage 

Since the arrival of macOS Sierra Apple introduced the storage management tools that come pre-installed on your macOS. Click on the Apple logo > About this Mac Click the Storage tab > Manage   

Optimized storage space

Here Apple offers you 4 options, more generic than practical, really. The first option “Store in iCloud” is self-explanatory. Is iCloud paid? Yes, if your storage needs exceed 5 GB which in 2019 is laughably small. The second option “Optimize Storage” will remove your already watched content from iTunes and the old attachments in Mail. This may help you free up a couple of gigabytes. When you need to clear disk space on Mac, every little helps.

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6. Create the map of your drive 

This method was shown to me by my programmer friend, who also happens to be the fan of CleanMyMac. There is a tool in CleanMyMac called “Space Lens” that builds a map of your entire drive. You can see all your disk’s contents in form of interactive bubbles that represent your big and small folders. It’s the most exciting way to clear space on your Mac. Wow!

Here you can spot the folders that hog the most space. You’ll also find your “Russian dolls” folders that are hidden inside other folders.

Get this app here for free.


7. Delete your duplicate files 

Potential space reclaimed: N/A 

Think of how often we download the same file over and over by mistake. In case of doubt, I always copy my pictures once again before formatting an SD-card, because they are valuable to me. This results in gigabytes of duplicates in all places. A few years ago I started using MacPaw’s Gemini 2 app to delete duplicates. Give this software a try on your Mac.

Duplicate files: How to delete junk for free

8. Take out the Trash 

This advice is easiest of all. Nevertheless, people forget to do it all the time. We throw things down the Trash and think they are over with. But that’s just moving things from one pocket to another. To free up Trash, Command + click the bin icon. Then, choose Empty Trash.

Can you see hidden folders on your Mac? Some system folders on your Mac aren’t visible. But you can use a keyboard shortcut to highlight them. When in Finder, Press Command + Shift + Period.This way you can find grayed out malicious files that eat up your disk space.

9. Delete extra language files

Potential space recovered: 1 GB 

There are 180+ languages in the world and most of your Mac’s applications can operate in these languages. However beautiful the language diversity is, people usually use just one or two. When you need to clear space on Mac, extra localizations is another target. How to see your language files? Language files end with “lproj” extension, which stands for “language project”. Unfortunately, finding them manually is problematic. Still, if you want to recover 1 GB of free space out of thin air, get hold of CleanMyMac X. It deletes extra localizations automatically. 

  1. Get CleanMyMac X here — a link to a free edition 
  2. Click System Junk and Scan 
  3. Then press Review Details
Free up space on MacBook drive

After you click Review Details you’ll see the tab called Language Files. As one can see, each of those files takes up about 30 MB. You can only guess how much more will it be with 180+ languages.


10. Clear your Desktop 

Desktop may not seem a big deal in terms of storage space but only because people rarely visit it. It’s a well-known fact that a messy desktop wastes tons of space — and most importantly — slows your Mac down.

To see your Desktop, press Command + F3

If you running macOS Mojave or Catalina, you can click anywhere in the middle of the Desktop and then choose “Use Stacks” in the window that appears. Everything there will be neatly sorted by categories like Screenshots. Now you can delete all the thousands of screenshots that most of us have.

Clear Desktop files on Mac

If you are using macOS High Sierra, or older, you can clear disk space on your Mac Desktop manually. 

Click Finder > Desktop
Under View, choose the 3-line icon 

Now you can sort all items by size and delete the largest files.

11. Compress your files 

Archiving or compressing files is a nice alternative to permanent deletion. Not all file types compress similarly well, though. For example, documents and presentations can be substantially reduced in size by compression, while movies are harder to shrink.

Luckily, you don’t need a third-party solution to zip things up — your macOS has its built-in tool. 

Did you know: Zip is the lossless compression format that keeps file quality intact.

How to free up disk space on Mac using compression?

  1. Open Finder and go to your Documents 
  2. Command + click on a folder (or multiple folders) 
  3. Choose "Compress"

Be aware that macOS leaves the original file untouched, so once you have the archive, the original folder can be deleted. After you’re done, you may transfer the newly-created archive onto an external drive.  

Well done, you’ve just saved some space!

Archive old files to clear disk space


12. Slim down your Time Machine snapshots 

If you have Time Machine set up properly, it creates backups of your whole system in any given time. I’m not recommending you to delete these backups completely but to trim down their size. This doesn’t affect your user-created data. I’ll show you how to do it with a free version of CleanMyMac, the tool I mentioned in the previous section.

  1. Get a free edition of CleanMyMac X
  2. Click the Maintenance tab 
  3. Choose "Time Machine Snapshot Thinning"

Delete old backups on Mac

Here you are, after your click Run you will successfully reduce the size of backups on your Mac.

13. Trash the old iPhone backups 

Potential space reclaimed: 10-20 GB

Outdated iPhone backups may take enormous space. Once your iPhone is synchronized with iTunes, the iTunes will be backing up your data without your knowledge. So, it makes sense to check your drive for the outdated backups before they grow beyond control. 

  1. Click Finder > Go to Folder… 
  2. Paste in: ~/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backup 
  3. Move the insides of the folder to the Trash and that’s it.
Delete old backups

Note: do this only if you are 100% sure you don’t need your iPhone backed up.

14. Get rid of your junk Mail

Potential space reclaimed: 50 MB 

Everyone hates junk email. Apparently, Apple hates it too because they included automatic junk mail deletion to their Mail app. Junk mail doesn’t weigh much but still, deleting it is good for the hygiene of your Mac.

  1. Open Mail app 
  2. Click on the Mailbox tab 
  3. Choose Erase Junk 
  4. Beware that this operation cannot be undone.
Free up space on Mac quickly

Okay, I’ve told you my favorite ways to free up disk space on your Mac. You can bookmark this article and revisit next time when the annoying “Your disk is almost full” message pops up. Decluttering your Mac can add a fresh spark to your digital life so try it today.

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