How to use Dropbox to save hard drive space

Updated Oct 27, 2023
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If you’re an admin on a Dropbox team account and you’d like to manage your team’s hard drive space, learn how to manage your team’s default online-only settings.

You can sync your files in three different places with Dropbox:

In the Dropbox folder on your computer.

In a web browser at dropbox.com.

In the Dropbox mobile app on your Android device, iPhone, or tablet.
 

You can set files to either: 

  • Online-only: An online-only file is stored in the cloud and won’t take up storage space on your computer or mobile device.
  • Available offline: If a file is available offline, you can open it from the Dropbox folder on your computer or from your mobile device without needing access to the internet. These files take up storage space on your device.
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Notes:

  • Dropbox Basic users can’t make files online-only unless they’ve updated to the latest version of Dropbox for macOS on File Provider. If you’re on Dropbox Basic and you’d like to save storage space on your device, you can use selective sync. Or, you can upgrade your account.
  • The system requirements for using online-only files are:
    • Windows: 7 and higher.
    • Mac: OS 10.12 and higher.

How to make files online-only

In the Dropbox desktop app, there are two ways you can make files online-only. 

  • You can manage files directly in the Dropbox folder and individually mark them as online-only.
  • You can use the Manage hard drive space tool, which allows you to sort files to mark as online-only. 

You can also set files to online-only on the Dropbox mobile app. Online-only files won’t occupy storage on your local hard drive. 

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Note: When you open an online-only file from the Dropbox folder on your computer, it will automatically download and become available offline. This means you’ll need to have enough hard drive space for the file to download before you can open it. You can change it back to online-only by following the instructions below.

To manually change files to online-only in the Dropbox desktop app:

Windows

  1. Open File Explorer.
  2. Open the Dropbox folder.
  3. Navigate to the file or folder you’d like to set to online-only.
  4. Right-click the file or folder.
  5. Click Make online-only.
    • If you’d like to store the file or folder on your hard drive instead, click Make available offline.

Mac

  1. Open Finder.
  2. Open the Dropbox folder.
  3. Navigate to the file or folder you’d like to set to online-only.
  4. Right-click the file or folder.
  5. Click Make online-only.
    • If you’d like to store the file or folder on your hard drive instead, click Make available offline.

 

To make files online-only using the Manage hard drive space tool:

  1. Click the Dropbox icon in your taskbar (Windows) or menu bar (Mac).
  2. Click your avatar (profile picture or initials).
  3. Click Manage hard drive space to open the tool.
    • You can view and sort files by size and the date they were last modified. 
  4. Check the boxes next to the files that you’d like to make online-only.
  5. Click Move to online-only.

 

A confirmation message will appear indicating the amount of hard drive storage you’ve freed up. Additionally, the files set to online-only will be removed from the suggested files list in the Manage hard drive space tool. 

 

To make files online-only in the Dropbox mobile app:

Android

  1. Open the Dropbox mobile app.
  2. Navigate to the file or folder you’d like to set to online-only.
  3. Tap ““ (vertical ellipsis) for more options.
  4. Toggle Make available offline to off. 

The toggle symbol will turn gray. This means that the file or folder is online-only.

 

iOS

  1. Open the Dropbox mobile app.
  2. Navigate to the file or folder you’d like to set to online-only.
  3. Tap ““ (vertical ellipsis) for more options.
  4. Toggle Make available offline to off. 

The toggle symbol will turn gray. This means that the file or folder is online-only.

How to make files online-only by default

To make all files that you add to the Dropbox folder on your computer online-only by default:

  1. Click the Dropbox icon in your notification center (Windows) or menu bar (Mac).
  2. Click your avatar (profile picture or initials) in the top-right corner.
  3. Click Preferences.
  4. Click the Sync tab.
  5. Click the dropdown next to New files default.
  6. Select Online-only.

This setting means that all future files and folders that you add to the Dropbox folder on your computer will be online-only. New files won’t take up storage space on your computer. This won’t affect existing files and folders.

FAQs about online-only

What does online-only mean?

When you set a file to online-only, it’s stored online and won't take up storage space on your computer or mobile device. Online-only files take up storage space on dropbox.com.

What does available offline mean?

If a file or folder is available offline, you can open it from the Dropbox folder on your computer or the Dropbox mobile app even when you’re not connected to the internet. This means that it’ll take up storage space on your computer or mobile device and dropbox.com. If you don’t want a file or folder to take up storage space on your device, set it to online-only.

How do I know if a file is online-only or available offline?

If you’re on Windows, check for the sync symbol described in this article.

 

If you’re on Mac, check for the sync symbol described in this article.

 

Note: If you haven’t set a file or folder to online-only, then all files and folders in the Dropbox folder on your computer are available offline. Learn how to make your files and folders available offline.

Why can’t I open an online-only file from the Dropbox folder on my computer?

You must be connected to the internet to open online-only files from the Dropbox folder on your computer. 

Why can I still see online-only files in the Dropbox folder on my computer?

You’ll see an online-only file or folder in the Dropbox folder on your computer, but it’s just a placeholder.

How can I see how much storage space each file or folder is using?

Right-click the file or folder, then click Get info. The information will show next to Size.

Why do online-only files take up storage space on my hard drive?

Online-only files take up a small amount of space on your hard drive as the placeholder requires space to store the file name and the shortcut to dropbox.com. Still, this takes up much less space than the file itself would.

 

If you’re using online-only files with macOS 10.13 to 12.2, you may notice that online-only files appear to take up space when you try to manage storage space in your Mac settings.

 

The reason for this is that file size is calculated based on something called “logical size” rather than “physical size”.

 

To see which files are really taking up your storage space, adjust your Dropbox settings so that online-only files have both logical and physical sizes set to zero. To do so:

  1. Log in to dropbox.com.
  2. Click your avatar (profile picture or initials) in the top-right corner.
  3. Click Settings.
  4. Toggle on Update for online-only files on Mac.
    • Note: This setting may take some time to update. If you don’t see the update reflected after a few minutes, close the Dropbox desktop app, then reopen it.

What happens if I delete an online-only file?

If you delete an online-only file it will be deleted everywhere you use Dropbox.

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