The Best Ways to Back Up Gmail

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You’ve mentioned that you back up Gmail somewhere on your own computer; how do you do that?

Of all the current free email services, Gmail is my favorite. I know I’ve railed against free email services as your only email service, but they definitely have their place. And Gmail is the service I recommend.

In part, I recommend it because I can answer this question. Gmail is very easy to back up.

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Desktop email programs

In a nutshell the easiest way to back up Gmail (or many other online email accounts) to your own machine is to use a “traditional” email program like Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird or others and configure them to download your mail.

If you don’t already have one, or have a preference for one, Thunderbird, which is free, is a good, reliable and feature-rich email program. I used it myself for many years before switching to Gmail’s web interface. One of the reasons I prefer it is that the email is stored in a non-proprietary format on your machine – plain text. If you’ve ever had an email program’s database become corrupt, you’ll appreciate the simplicity of this approach.

Another contender is Microsoft Office’s Outlook (not to be confused with outlook.com – they are unrelated). Outlook is an incredibly powerful desktop email and personal information management program. If you have Microsoft Office, depending on which edition of Office you have, it may already be available to you.

Windows Live Mail is a free download from Microsoft. It’s the closest thing to an Outlook Express replacement that they offer, and many people find it a convenient and comfortable program.

Honestly, there are literally hundreds of different desktop email programs out there, and almost any of them will work to back up Gmail. The important features that they need to include are:

  • POP3 protocol (all of them will do this)
  • IMAP protocol (most current ones will do this)
  • SSL connections
  • The ability to have a “leave messages on server” option when using POP3

Other than that, it’s really your choice.

Use POP3

POP3 is the way traditional email programs that run on your PC get your email from your ISP. It’s perhaps the oldest email protocol still used, and is one of the reasons that so many different email programs – even ones decades old – can often be used for our backup purposes.

Once you have an email program, Gmail’s online help has instructions for configuring POP3 access in many popular email programs. The important points are:

  • POP3 access must be enabled in your account – it’s a setting you’ll need to confirm in the web interface at gmail.com.
  • Your email program must be appropriately configured to use Gmail’s POP3 servers.

Gmail POP settings

IMPORTANT: Before you download your email, there is one setting that applies only to using your desktop email program to back up Gmail: “leave messages on server”:

Leave Messages On Server

The reason that this is so important is that without it your email may be moved from Gmail’s server to your PC and disappear from the web interface. What we want, like any good backup, is to make a copy on your PC, leaving the originals on the server.

Once configured, when you go to download or “check for new mail” using your email program, you’ll back up Gmail by downloading all your email. The first time it could be a lot, depending on how long you’ve been using Gmail and how much email you have.

Do that periodically, and the mail that’s stored on your machine is your backup should you ever lose anything from Gmail.

If at any time you want to re-download all the mail in your Gmail account, you can. Gmail help includes instructions to backup all mail by forcing Gmail to download all email, even that which might have been downloaded before. That’s a good way to create a snapshot at any point in time.

Using IMAP

IMAP is the protocol used to allow multiple devices to all access the same collection of email in a synchronized way. Rather than moving mail to your PC by default, as POP3 does, IMAP simply makes a copy on your local machine, and synchronizes what you do on your machine with what’s stored on the server. Read something on your PC? It’s marked as read on the server and reflected as such on your mobile device. Delete a message from your mobile phone? It’s deleted from the server and disappears from your PC.

“Makes a copy on your local machine”? Sounds like a perfect way to back up Gmail. 🙂

Much like POP3, Gmail’s online help has instructions for configuring IMAP access in many popular email programs. The important points are:

  • IMAP access must be enabled in your account – it’s a setting you’ll need to confirm in the web interface at gmail.com.
  • Your email program must be appropriately configured to use Gmail’s IMAP servers.

Gmail IMAP Settings

Once you do so, fire up your email program and synchronize. A backup of your Gmail will be created on your PC.

Unlike the POP3 scenario above, using IMAP to backup isn’t really any different than simply using IMAP. If you choose to, after setting up IMAP access to your account you could continue using your desktop email program for your day to day email. Or you can switch back and forth between the desktop program and Gmail’s web interface. It all just works and stays in sync.

Backing up the backup

One of the nice side-effects of using your PC to back up Gmail like this is that your backup will, itself, be backed up again when you back up your PC.

You do back up your PC, right? (If not, start now, before something happens and you lose everything on it.)

By backing up your PC you’re creating an additional safety net that ensures you’ll never lose the contents of your email again.

Using another free account

One other approach that I’m not as fond of, but can work, is to use a different free email account to back up Gmail.

There are two approaches:

  • Configure Gmail to automatically forward all email received to the other account’s email address.

Gmail forwarding settings

  • Use a “POP3” in the other free account to fetch your Gmail. Make sure that this makes a copy and leaves the email in Gmail.

As I said this can be a viable solution for many. I dislike it because I prefer the control of having my backups on my own machine. By pulling your email into another online account you’re simply relying on yet another provider to perform that service.

About those pesky contacts

What we’ve discussed so far has been how to back up Gmail – your email in Gmail, specifically. Your contacts are not part of this process.

Contacts (or address book entries, depending on your terminology) are kind of a mess across all email programs, providers and platforms. There’s little consistency as to exactly how they are stored, what they contain or how they are exchanged.

My recommendation for contacts is very simple: export them from Gmail periodically.

Go to your contacts:

Gmail contacts

And then click on the More item and the Export… menu item:

Gmail Contacts Export

Follow the instructions to export your contacts in “Google CSV format (for importing into a Google account)”. This will let you restore your contacts to a Google account should you ever need to. Alternately you can choose a different format for potential later import into a different program.

And of course, store this export file in a safe place, perhaps with your backups.

61 comments on “The Best Ways to Back Up Gmail”

  1. If you`re using Hotmail and Thunderbird, a useful extension is (strangely enough) WebMail.
    http://webmail.mozdev.org/
    Although Hotmail is not supposed to be a POP service, this extension works fine and downloads my Hotmail.co.uk and Yahoo.co.uk accounts to Thunderbird seamlessly. Also claims to be able to deal with five other web mail domains as well, but I can`t vouch for those!

    • But this article is about backing up for Gmail…

      As an admin for 14 years, I’ve had plenty of talks with friends about what’s the best way to back up a Gmail account and even though this is a great article Leo (it was written a long time ago when hard drives were perceived as safer as backup), I would actually say backing up your Gmail to another Gmail account is the safest and most convenient way.

      As for ways to do that, you can still do it manually with POP (but this will not transfer labels in Gmail, will not transfer anything but Inbox) and IMAP which for the average person has it’s own hurdles that are annoying.

      Personally, I just pay for it because third-party services for Google (e.g. https://www.g-transfer.com) exist now and have streamlined the entire process into a minute’s work. I hate to sound spammy, but it’s really a great service and hope it adds to the discussion! It moves all of Gmail (Sent, Drafts, labels, folders, attachments), Contacts, Google Drive (owned and shared files), and even more stuff. I was very frustrated backing up manually and this was a god-send for my situation.

      And that’s on top of other problems that for some reason Google still hasn’t fixed, for instance, the “Server denied POP3 access for the given username and password” when trying to enable POP. There’s still no solution for that. Also, Thunderbird-related message “Allow less secure apps to access your account,” even when enabling them https://www.google.com/settings/security/lesssecureapps and enabling POP and IMAP, it still will not work for some people. It’s unfortunate, but there’s a slew of problems that Google still needs to deal with when it comes to manual migration.

  2. Thunderbird 2 makes it even easier to download GMail messages since they have a special option for setting up Google Mail access. I think all you need to give Thunderbird now is your username and password and Thunderbird handles all the server settings and port settings for you. (Although since I upgraded from Thunderbird 1.5 where I already have Gmail setup I haven’t actually setup a Google Mail account on Thunderbirds 2 yet – I have seen the new option)

    Eli

  3. I backup my Gmail account in a different, yet easier method. I created another email account (yahoo), and using the Gmail rules, all incoming GMail emails are automatically forwarded to the yahoo email account. I also use this backup method for files I want to keep. I email the file to Gmail, which automatically forwards to yahoo. I then have the file located on three different places: my own PC, Gmail & Yahoo. I do not use this method for proprietary files.

  4. Not sure what it does you’re trying to show? But I want to access a gmail account which I forgot password. Will your method work? and how? thanks

  5. What does this backup backup? Only mails, that are in inbox? What about mails that are in send folder?!? Or mails that are in archive folder? Drafts?

  6. I am frustrated with the fact that I only have list of e-mails that I have send out in my inbox not recieved ones. It is always me, someone. I want to see recieved e-mails not just the one I have send out. could you please help.

  7. We have developed a simple tool ( http://www.gmail-backup.com/ ) to back up your emails from Gmail. It is written in Python but it is compiled into an EXE file for windows. As a result, you do not have to install anything. It is still only command line tool but very soon it will have GUI. You can also use it for migration or restoration of your Gmail Account. We hape that very soon it will be “one click solution”. 😉

  8. Having been a fan of firefox and seen you post, I was greatly encouraged and used Thunderbird2.0 to backup my gmail. My gmail is fairly large (2GB) and, in more than 1 day, I downloaded 60% of it, and the program crashed. I tried to resume the backup, the program re-started by repeating the download right from the first email again. Tried all kinds of solutions suggested in the internet including uninstalling and wipe the program from the system and re-installing. It kept making the mistake as far as the program is interrupted while downloading the emails from gmail. After wasting 2 days, I gave up and used outlook from Microsoft, which worked perfectly. Although I really do not like Microsoft, I could not afford to waste time to just playing around with a problematic software.

  9. You could also just set up Thunderbird to check Gmail through IMAP. It keeps it synced for you and I have had no problems with it.

  10. regarding gmail, it is my understanding that gmail does not have a “folder” system, therefore if you transfer all of your hotmail email……you will get a very long list of email and not individual folders…..havent looked at this recently, but this was my last understanding.

  11. for those who couldn’t re-download, do this:

    Enable POP for all mail in the ‘Forwarding and POP/IMAP’ section of your Gmail settings

    then re-run email pop3 download.

  12. I use a free back up email program called MailStore. I use it to back up Hotmail, Thunderbird, etc. The site is : mailstore.com to check it out.

  13. Yahoo’s mail, Flickr and IM interface are superior to the Google counterparts. Especially the tabbed interface in Mail Plus that allows you to switch between mails without closing them. In addition Gmail makes e-mails spontaneously disappear (it is all over the web, do a Google search). When you do business you do not want these kinds of things to happen. Yahoo’s mail data-integrity is more reliable than Gmail’s.

  14. gmail is still the best by far. all my site emails are directed to my gmail for reading and pricessing and reply.
    with google talk and the simplest interface no email service comes close and not to mention the lightning speed.

  15. What I don’t understand is, if you delete an email on your gmail, wont it also delete that same email on Thunderbird? So how does that backup your gmail emails?

    If you’re using POP3 to download your email, then no, deleting in GMail does NOT delete the same message in Thunderbird.

    Leo
    22-Apr-2010

  16. I already use thunderbird to access my gmail through IMAP. But I would also like to use this technique to backup gmail through POP3. It doesn’t seem that Thunderbird will let me — it keeps saying that I already have an email account set up for this email address, my IMAP one, and it won’t let me create another one for POP. Can I still use your POP method for backup?
    thanks

  17. ok good tip about backing up your email.
    HOWEVER i used Thunderbird and i can see that it only downloaded last years mail .
    so i did it on 15 may and the first mail I have on my disk is the one of 7may 2009…but i started using Gmail in 2006 all that mail still is at google’s and not in my thunderbird
    Question ? how do I download the earlier mail?
    I cannot find any settings or options who forces thunderbird to go back at the very beginning…
    Outlook has the same preset limit…

  18. I HAVE ALREADY DELETED MY GMAIL ACCOUNT BUT I WAS NOT AWARE OF BACKUP, SO I HAVE LOST ALL THE PHOTOS IN PICASO .HOW TO RETRIVE IT PLZ HELP.

  19. is there a way of bcking up gmail to a fingernail file?
    (pkiss)
    (please keep it stupid simple) 🙂

    No idea what you mean by “fingernail file”. Sorry.

    Leo
    22-Nov-2010

  20. Thank you for the directions, I found this to be quite helpful and to the point. My Gmail account is a 97% full and I don’t want to buy more space, I would rather back it up, now I know an easy way. I in fact do use gmail as my primary account, I find it better and more reliable than any other e-mail service I have used. I travel internationally and gmail seems to have fast connectivity no matter what country I am in, and what device I am using to access it.

    Thanks again.

  21. Leo, why POP and not IMAP? I installed Thunderbird and downloaded all my gmail (lots!), but I’m beginning to understand that if I delete it in gmail, it doesn’t delete it in POP, so the file in Thunderbird (I suppose) grows ever larger? Or is the idea that you delete it in TB as well? Have you ever used Gmail Backup or MailStore to backup gmail?

    IMAP’s a valid solution if you understand how IMAP works (I’m using it these days as well). Most people are more familiar with POP, and since a delete in a POP-downloaded installation doesn’t delete the original on the server it’s somewhat safer, IMO.

    Leo
    10-Jun-2011

  22. I need some urgent help – How can I backup the chats and mails from and to a particular mail ID in my gmail account? I need to keep a copy in some CD/ hard disk and delete these chats/ mails from gmail once i have a backup. Please suggest the easiest and safest way possible.

  23. If we backup, and if we create another account (with different name), will we be able to import the old email back?

    Thanks!Thanks

  24. in which archiver i can archive 27gb Email form my gmail account. Thunderbird support 15gb archive eamil. please suggest me any good archiver.

    You’re not looking for an “archiver”, you’re just looking for an email program that can download the email. I would expect Thunderbird to work just fine (I’m NOT suggesting you use Thunderbird’s archive feature, just download the mail). If not any good email program should do. Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 or better would probably be my next choice.

    Leo
    22-Nov-2012

  25. Have downloaded http://code.google.com/p/gmail-backup-com/ on my desktop, windows 7 64 bit, when program is run all you need to do is enter gmail password and date range, complete gmail is saved to your desired location, I do this on my HD, and follow up with daily backups to my Seagate free agent drive and monthly backups to my Click Free drive.

    • You’d have to specify which email program you are using to get specific instructions on where to find it. But in general, the “Leave a copy of messages on server” is found in the account settings in your email program. In recent versions of Thunderbird the default set up is to leave the mail on the server.

  26. Any email that contains vital information (sent or received) needing to be kept, can (sually) be printed to a PDF and saved locally.

  27. I recommend an open-source program called “gyb”. It stands for (g)ot (y)our (b)ack, and it backs up everything Gmail, and downloads it to your PC. It doesn’t mess with the registry, and it works on the command line, so you can automate your Gmail backups with the Task Scheduler.

    I think that you can find it on Sourceforge.

  28. Your writing about backing us HotMail/GMail is great if this is done on same computer. But if access is from two or more computers how to COMBINE THEM SUCH THAT ANY OF THEM HAS ALWAYS THE COMPLETE INFORMATION?
    Also how to do that on a portable HD so that it is always available?
    Also how to change PERMANENTLY the booting sequence in new EFI machines yo start from a backup program bootable CD or DVD if the machine happens to be not booting on its own? This was simple in BIOS but not easily achievable in new EFI. Obviously when the user has to connect to a complete information email, it may be a very essential information. In my case, I travel a lot and often my machine is not booting after the x-ray or due to some action from airport inspection..

  29. I have tried to use another email client to backup Gmail and it always gets blocked. As noted below:

    “Allowing less secure apps to access your account

    Google may block sign-in attempts from some apps or devices that do not use modern security standards. Since these apps and devices are easier to break into, blocking them helps keep your account safe.

    Some examples of apps that do not support the latest security standards include:

    The Mail app on your iPhone or iPad with iOS 6 or below
    The Mail app on your Windows phone preceding the 8.1 release
    Some Desktop mail clients like Microsoft Outlook and Mozilla Thunderbird”

    Any ideas?

      • To add to that: the setting you’d need to change is to allow IMAP or POP3 access to the account. This article you are commenting on explains how to do that.

  30. could i for example find out my bf’s gmail password from my own pc (he once logged into email from my pc but in incognito mode)? and if someone hacks your gmail do you get notification you’ve been hacked?
    no i am not planning to hack anyone’s gmail, just have my own reasons for wanting to know that

    • If he logged on in incognito mode, there would be no instance of the password left on the computer. In fact, it shouldn’t happen in normal mode either, but if the person logging in is careless in normal mode, they might leave the “keep me signed in” or “remember me” box checked which would leave a cookie which would allow access to the account without having to log on.

  31. I am just wondering, there are a lot of sites which hack someone’s password for free. Is it really so easy to find out someone’s gmail password? Kind of find it hard to believe. Thank you!

    • If you have a good password, those hackers shouldn’t be able to get in, otherwise, the all email systems would be quickly broken. I would imaging those sites promising to be able to hack are just trying to get your money without being able to deliver. If they claim to do it for free, there has to be some catch too.

      • yes, exactly, it sounds like scam to me. I would say that gmail is better protected then to let it be able to access all paswords with one “free” software. Thank you for your reply

  32. I read somewhere from an IT expert that Gmail has a default setting that automatically saves emails sent to your Gmail account to your local server. Is this true?

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