How do I backup email to an external hard disk using Outlook?

Backing up or archiving portions of your email collected in Outlook is pretty easy with one basic concept: creating and opening your own PST files.

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In Outlook, I’ve created an Archive folder for my mail as part of Sent mail. I want to move all of the messages to an external hard drive, but when I try, it only gives me the option of text only, which I presume is the header of each message. If I select one message, I can save it as Outlook message format which displays the whole message. I have some 2,000 messages that I would like to transfer. Is that possible? I should probably delete the whole lot, but on rare occasions, I have to check an old message in my line of work.

If you’re just dragging and dropping email messages from Outlook to your external hard disk as viewed in Windows Explorer, I believe you’ll get a separate file for each message that you select. In Outlook 2010, I get a .msg file (which is not a text file) for each.

That’s one way to do it, but it isn’t particularly manageable.

I prefer a different approach that is actually exceptionally flexible both now while archiving, and later, when you need to access your archive.

Backup First

Until you’re familiar with the techniques that I’m about to demonstrate, I’ll suggest that you backup your existing PST files. Just close Outlook and copy them somewhere.

Given how important email is to many people and that we’re about to be doing things that could move email from one PST to another, it just makes sense to save a copy of what we have before we begin.

Create another PST

A PST, or Personal data STore (or storage), is the file format that Outlook uses to keep all of your email, contacts, calendar information, and more.

But really, it’s just a file.

And while Outlook will create one or more for you automatically, depending on the types of email accounts that you have, you can most certainly create your own.

Click the File menu and the Account Settings button.
Outlook Account Settings link
In the resulting dialog box, click the Data Files tab and then click the Add… button:
Add... button in Outlook Data Files management
In the resulting “Create or Open” dialog box, navigate to where you want the data file to be placed and enter a new filename for the PST to be created:
Outlook create Outlook data file
In the example above, I’m about to create “MyEmailArchive.pst” located in my D:backup folder. The name and location can be whatever you like, including your external drive.

Click OK.

Outlook now displays the PST in its list of PSTs:
Outlook PST list, showing the newly added PST
Click Close.

You’ll now notice a new entry in the left pane for the newly created and open PST:
Outlook showing the newly created PST in the folder pane

Creating a folder in the new PST

This PST has no folders, so we’ll create one. Right-click the new PST (MyEmailArchive, in this example) and click New Folder…
Create a new folder in the new PST...
Enter in a name for your new folder:
Naming a new folder
In this example, I’ve elected to call my folder March Archive, but you can use any name or organizational strategy that makes sense to you.

Click OK.

You can see that Outlook creates not only the new folder, but a Deleted Items folder for this PST as well as its Search Folders.
Outlook displaying the new folder in our new PST
You can create as many folders and sub-folders as you like, just like your existing PST files.

Moving email into the new PST.

Actually, archiving your email is as simple as drag and drop.

Select the messages that you want to place into the new PST, click-and-hold, and drag to the new folder:
About to move email to the newly created PST
Important: Look closely at the following example as compared to the one above:
About to copy email to the newly created PST
The default action is to move the email from one folder to another – meaning that after the email is placed in our newly created PST, it will be deleted from its original location.

Holding down the CTRL key causes a small plus sign to be added to the pointer icon as shown above. This indicates that the messages will be copied to the new folder and the originals are to be left alone.

Once you’ve determined whether you want to move or copy, and thus pressed the CTRL key or not, move the mouse over the destination folder and release.

The messages will be placed into the folder in your archive PST.

Once you’re done moving or copying email into your archive PST, you can right-click the PST and click Close:
Close PST item in Outlook
The PST is closed. You can now copy it, back it up somewhere, or in the case of an external drive, click Safely Remove and disconnect the drive if you’re so inclined.

Accessing your archive PST

Time passes, and you eventually decide that you want to access something that you’ve placed into the archive PST.

Make sure that the file is accessible on your hard drive or network or that the external drive you have it on is connected.

Go back to the File menu, Account settings and the Data Files tab and once again click Add… like you did when you created the data file above.

This time, in the Create or Open dialog box, locate the archive PST:
Outlook opening an existing PST
Above, I’ve located the PST that I created earlier: D:backupMyEmailArchive.pst.

Click the PST filename in the selection pane and click OK to open it.

That’s all there is to it. The PST is once again open and visible in the folder pane in Outlook. You can view its contents, and copy things in and out to your heart’s content.

PST location

I’ve not made a big deal out of where you should create your archive PST.

My recommendation is that you create it on your computer’s internal hard disk; then, when you’re done accessing it, copy the file to where you plan to keep it – be that a network location, an external hard drive, or something else.

Technically, you could create and access the PST directly on either of those. The problem is that if there is a hiccup in the network connection or the external drive is accidentally disconnected while the PST is open, the PST file itself can be left in a corrupt state. Often the PST can be repaired with the ScanPST utility, but sometimes it cannot. Of course, the risk is that you might lose the contents of the PST completely.

Unfortunately, when last I checked, PST files don’t behave well when placed on read-only or write-protected media such as CD-R, DVD-R, or flash or other drives with a write-protect option, or even if the file is marked with the read-only attribute.

Outlook seems to insist on read/write access to the PST no matter what you actually intend.

The good news here is that it’s pretty simple to deal with. Because the PST is just a single file, copy it to your hard drive before opening it in Outlook, and then copy it back or burn a new CD/DVD when you’re done.

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