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How to navigate your Android phone's storage

File managers can be a powerful tool for keeping your phone's storage organized, but it's not always clear what some folders are for.
By
April 13, 2022

File management is one of Android’s biggest strengths and greatest draws. Unlike iOS, Android allows you to manipulate files and folders directly via file manager applications without external hardware or software. While you can’t access a handful of system-level files, the operating system still grants you plenty of control. Here’s a quick guide on how to navigate your Android phone’s storage folders.

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To access and navigate your Android phone's storage, use a file manager app or connect to a PC.


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How to access and navigate your Android phone’s storage

Dark mode in the Files by Google app.

In many ways, Android’s filesystem resembles that of a desktop operating system like Windows and macOS. This is not too surprising — Android is based on a modified version of the Linux kernel.

Like most desktop operating systems, Android also bundles a native file manager application. Some device manufacturers like Samsung and Xiaomi go one step further and offer a more fully-featured version. Open your device’s app drawer and look for an app called File Manager, My Files, or simply Files. You can also download a third-party application from the Play Store. Google’s Files app is a good starting point.

Depending on the app in question, you may be presented with a simplified view of your device’s storage (pictured above). The aforementioned Files by Google app, for example, bundles items under categories such as downloads, images, videos, audio clips, and documents. This interface also comes in handy when looking for large files taking up your phone’s valuable storage space. We’ll discuss how you can free up storage space later.

If you need full access to your device’s internal storage, tap the Browse or Internal Storage button. If your device supports a microSD card, you’ll also find a button to access it. Once again, though, the exact method may differ depending on your device and app choice.

Related: 10 best Android file explorer apps

Manage your Android phone’s storage with a PC

Huawei USB file transfer widget with the Mate 30 Pro
Ryan-Thomas Shaw / Android Authority

If using an app to manage your phone’s vast storage seems too inefficient, you can also access it via a computer. Connect your device to a computer using the USB cable bundled with most smartphones. Once connected, a notification should pop up on your device — select File transfer instead of the default Charging setting.

You’ll get access to the same files and folders discussed in the above section via this method. The biggest advantage is that you can offload files from and to your device without any third-party application. If you like to make backups of your photos and videos, this is the most reliable way to achieve it.

Related: How to transfer files between your Android device and any computer

Android’s flexibility also means you can use your phone or tablet as a portable storage device. However, keep in mind that many devices still ship with slower USB 2.0 ports since most users never use their devices for file transfers. Still, you can go down this route if you’re ever in a pinch and don’t have a dedicated flash drive on hand.

Common Android folders

Fingerprint app lock functionality on the OnePlus 6.

Even before you start using your device, Android creates a handful of folders on your internal storage. For example, some of these folders — like Downloads — are pretty self-explanatory. Nevertheless, here’s a quick rundown of the various default Android folders and what they’re meant for:

  • Android: This is the default location used for app data, cache, and other important files. It is not recommended to delete this unless you don’t mind losing your app data. Keep in mind that certain apps like WhatsApp also store your media files under this directory.
  • Alarms, Ringtones, Notifications: These folders store custom audio files for alarms, ringtones, and notifications that can be used by some default and third-party apps.
  • DCIM: Images and videos captured from your device’s camera app are saved here. You’ll also find this folder created on your microSD card if you opt to save pictures there.
  • Downloads: Anything you download from web browsers, such as Chrome or Firefox, will appear here. Other apps can also use this folder to store downloaded images and documents, even though separate folders exist too.
  • Pictures, Music, Movies, Video: These are all default folders used by various apps for your media needs. Some apps will allow you to specify other locations, but most media players will search these directories by default. The Pictures folder also holds screenshots under a sub-folder of the same name.
  • Podcasts: This folder is used by some apps to separate podcast files from the rest of your music. It will be empty if you don’t use a podcast app or don’t opt for downloads.

Advanced storage hierarchy

file manager system folders 01
Calvin Wankhede / Android Authority

As mentioned previously, your Android device features a Linux-esque file system structure. However, only a small portion of your phone’s storage can be accessed when connecting your phone to your PC or browsing via a file manager. This user-accessible portion is often known as Android’s data partition. MicroSD cards also count as their own discrete partition.

If you root your Android device, you can also access five other hidden partitions, namely boot, system, recovery, cache, and misc. Here’s a quick breakdown of what each partition does:

  • boot — This partition contains the kernel, ramdisk, and bootloader. Your phone relies on these to boot when powered on.
  • system — The system partition houses the operating system files (also known as the ROM), including the Android UI and pre-installed applications.
  • recovery — An alternative to booting into the OS, the recovery software can allow the user to backup and restore other partitions.
  • data — The data partition saves user data ranging from contacts and messages to apps and music. This sector gets wiped when you perform a factory reset.
  • cache — Android stores frequently used data and app components here. You can wipe this partition to fix certain issues.
  • misc — This partition contains other important system setting information, such as a USB configuration, carrier ID, and other hardware settings, usually saved in the form of on/off switches.

Since the introduction of seamless updates with Android 7.0 Nougat, many devices also include a second system partition. One partition can be updated in the background and quickly switched to on reboot, making the update appear seamless.

Free up storage space: Which Android folders can you delete?

phone cache
Hadlee Simons / Android Authority

If your Android device is running low on storage space, you may be tempted to delete folders that you don’t recognize. However, this isn’t the best approach as many apps share common Android folders. Instead, try to delete individual files, apps, and games that you may no longer need. Large video files, for example, quickly add up and exhaust your phone’s storage. You can also get a quick summary of storage utilization from the Settings app, under the Storage > Manage Storage submenu.

Alternatively, try using apps like DiskUsage to visualize which files and folders are taking up the most space on your device. As mentioned earlier, Android won’t let you delete critical system files from your phone’s internal storage, so you don’t have to worry about doing any permanent damage.

Up next: How to free up storage space on Android