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What Is an Email Quota and What Does “Over Quota” Mean?

Too. Much. Email.

Too Much Email
Too Much Email (Image:
Being over quota means you've received or kept too much email. To deal with it, you need to understand where that email is being kept.
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Question: After I did a recovery on my computer, my email program has not worked properly as far as the inbox is concerned. I used to be able to get 700-800 or more emails in my inbox (if I went on vacation or didn’t check for a while) and after the recovery, once I reached about 80 emails it started bouncing my messages saying I was OVER QUOTA!!! How can that be? It is getting worse now. I can have only 40 messages in my inbox and it will start bouncing my messages, still saying I am OVER QUOTA! Soon, I won’t get ANY messages!

Believe it or not, being over quota has nothing to do with the inbox on your PC, or even what email program you’re using.

But it might have everything to do with how your email program is configured.

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A quota is a limit placed on disk space usage. For email, it’s not your computer, but the space used by your account with your email service provider. You can ask for more, but a more common solution is to download email to your PC and remove it from your provider, to free up space. POP3 configurations generally do this automatically, but IMAP, which is becoming more common, may not. You may need to take additional steps.


A quota is nothing more than a limit on how much disk space your email can take up.

The catch is, it’s not on your machine; it’s on your email service provider’s server.

It’s your email service provider that imposes a quota on how much of their disk space you’re allowed to use. That could be Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, or the email provided by your company, your ISP, or whomever else you’re using.

For example, in Gmail, I have this message at the bottom of the page:

10.33 GB (60%) of 17 GB used

That means I have a space quota of 17 gigabytes. Presumably, if I exceed that limit — if I accumulate more than 17 gigabytes of email — Gmail will start rejecting email sent to me.

Over quota

The big clue in your question is this: the email program on your computer does not “bounce” email — your email provider does.

When your account is over quota, two things may happen:

  • Your email provider will reject email sent to you, since you have no more of their disk space available to store it. Usually the provider will send a bounce message to the sender, saying the mail could not be delivered.
  • Your email provider may send you an email message to let you know you’re over quota.

In either case, the fact that you’re over quota is being detected by your mail server without your mail program even being involved.

The most common cause for being over quota? Going on vacation.

When you go on vacation, you don’t download email, so it accumulates on your email provider’s server. If, while you’re away, the email you receive exceeds the amount of space the email provider has set aside for you, you’re over quota.

The only real solutions are to:

  • Ask for a larger quota (meaning more space)
  • Check, download, or clean up your email from time to time while you’re away
  • Move to an email provider with a larger quota, or no quota at all

Now, it sounds like you may have a little more going on, since after getting back (and presumably downloading your email) you’re still running into trouble.

Email program settings and going over quota

When you set up your email account in a desktop email program, one of the configuration options you specify is what type of email server you’ve been provided.

POP versus IMAP selection

Each can have ramifications on the amount of space that will be used at your email service provider.

IMAP and over quota

IMAP by definition leaves all the messages that you don’t delete on the email service provider’s servers, in addition to copying them to your email program. In this case, the act of downloading and viewing your email does not free up any space against your quota — only actually deleting messages will do that.

If you use IMAP, which is a common default these days, and are reaching your provider’s email quota, you have three options to resolve the issue:

  • Ask your email provider for a larger quota. This may or may not be available, and may or may not require payment.
  • Delete messages. This might be the most practical approach if you want to keep using IMAP. If there are messages you want to save, perhaps save them to disk before deleting them from your email program. Depending on your email program, this can be as simple as moving them to a local folder.
  • Switch to POP3. More on that next.

POP3 and over quota

When you download email from a POP3 server, it’s downloaded to your machine and normally removed from the mail server. Thus the act of downloading email to your email program automatically frees up space counting against your quota.

There is an obscure setting I occasionally see set when people don’t expect it: “Leave a copy of messages on the server”.

Leave messages on server

The location of the setting varies depending on the email program you’re using, but the effect is the same: rather than removing the messages from your mail server when you download, it leaves them there, and they continue to count against your quota.

In addition to asking for a larger quota, as above, your options here include:

  • Turn this off, and remember that your computer will have the only copy of messages once they’re downloaded, so make sure you’re backing up!
  • Set or shorten the length of time after which email is automatically deleted.
  • Make sure to check the checkbox to immediately delete emails on the server when you delete them on your computer.

The bottom line is that if you’re over quota, you need to change how you manage your email so less space is used on your email service provider’s servers.

The impact of mobile email

One of the reasons you might be seeing “over quota” messages a little more often of late is the rise of mobile email. In addition to reading and dealing with email on your computer, you might also be using a mobile device, such as a mobile phone.

The “problem”, so to speak, is keeping your phone and your desktop email program “in sync” so that your view of email on both devices is roughly the same. Emails marked as “read” on one are marked “read” on the other, emails deleted on one disappear from the other, and so on.

The most common solution is IMAP. As I mentioned above, using IMAP, the “master copy” of your email is left on the email provider’s server, and your desktop and mobile devices are simply views of that master copy, though they may download local copies just to make things faster. Of course, as we’ve seen, IMAP leaves all the email on the server, making it more likely to run into a quota issue.

The other common solution is to enable “Leave a copy of messages on the server” in POP3. Again, as we’ve seen, that also makes greater use of the storage at your email service provider, and can similarly cause quotas to be reached more quickly.

The solutions remain the same: get a larger quota from your email provider, or save less email.

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21 comments on “What Is an Email Quota and What Does “Over Quota” Mean?”

  1. Hi Leo

    Regarding the use of either POP3 or IMAP.

    Is it a choice?

    I was under the impression that you had to comply with the requirements of your ISP, so it was they who specified whether your account was POP3 or IMAP controlled.

    Is it an end-user choice after all, depending on your personal requirements?

    You’re right, in that it’s totally reliant on what the ISP provides, but in reality more and more ISPs are providing both. IMAP is gaining in popularity (as a result of people’s internet connections getting faster and faster), and thus it’s a choice you can make when you configure your email program.

    – Leo
  2. The choice between IMAP and POP3 is offered by almost all providers. It depends on your provider. As for a quota problem, you could open a GMAIL account which has enough room for most people’s email needs as Leo said almost 17GB. The quota is slowly increasing so that by the time you read this, it may be more. You could then tell everyone about your new Gmail acct and keep your old address open for stragglers who might try to email you for years after switching to Gmail. I never close an email account, I just tell everyone about my new acct and stop giving the old one to people. But then I usually check my old address occasionally for people I may have forgotten to tell my new address to. I’ve gotten emails from people I haven’t seen in years on my old accounts. I know Leo doesn’t recommend free emails, but if you use the email address of your ISP and you change ISPs for some reason you can lose a lot of emails.

  3. Can someone please tell me what sort of wording the email provider uses when notifying a sender that their email has been bounced. ( I have never seen such a notice, unless they just send a general notice stating that the mail is undeliverable. And if this is what happens it surely must be unfortunate, for many people will not think of trying to send the email again in a week or two I should think.

  4. At this time, with the Internet being so much faster than it used to be, more and more people are attaching large attachments like photographs that are multiple mega bytes in size. A few of those will clog up an in box very quickly.

    Sometimes when you run into problems with being over quota, a call to your ISP may help. I had this happen a couple of times and the ISP set up a temporary folder for my incoming emails that were over quota so that the inbox was within limits. This temporary folder had to accessed directly online and not through my email client. I was given a time limit of a couple of hours to download the messages and delete them from their mail server. After that, all messages older than the current day were going to be deleted.

    It pays to be on good terms with your ISP:)

  5. Another thing you can do to get more storage space if you don’t want to change your email address or pay for more storage is to open a Gmail account and have Gmail download your emails from your original email account. That way your emails are cleaned from the server and store on Google’s servers. This will give you 17GB (19 if you run the security check) of email storage.

    Another way to save space is to remove the attachments from your emails after you’ve downloaded them. Thunderbird, Outlook and some other email programs give you that option.

  6. Here’s something you’ll want to check: Go to your email provider’s webmail access (using your browser, log in to your email online, without using your email client like Outlook or Thunderbird).
    Then go through your Spam (or Junk) folder and clean everything out.
    Finally, go through your Trash folder, and clear that out.
    All those files count as part of your “quota,” so cleaning up your webmail folders regularly should provide more room for actual emails.
    For example, if you have a 3GB quota (limit) on emails and you have 2GB of junk files, you effectively have only 1GB of space for new emails, which can fill up quickly.
    Hopefully this will help with your email problem.

  7. I use iMap to keep everything in sync. However, on one computer, I have a Thunderbird local folder on the hard drive. Any emails that I want to save, but not need to have access to on every device, I save in the local folder. This keeps my inbox cleaner and less likely to go over the quota.

  8. Yahoo offers 1 terabyte of storage for email, way more than the examples shown in this article.

    I believe that is multiple millions of messages, plenty for most folk I would think.

    Using a program like Thunderbird to download messages to your own computer may assuage the fears of some that one day all their email may have inexplicably been deleted from Yahoo servers. This way you can have email on your own computer plus on the Yahoo servers for easy access from any device.

  9. We moved from using POP3 with a 50MB provider, to using IMAP with a 2GB provider. Was shocked to see how easy it was to still run out of space.

    With the old arrangement we set POP3 to “Remove from the server after 14 days”. This allowed for multiple access by BlackBerry etc. before being finally deleted from the server. Sometimes we had to log on to webmail and clear some messages if we ran out of space prematurely.

    My solution now with IMAP which doesn’t download and delete is to use the Archive feature in Microsoft Outlook. Archiving deletes messages from my regular folders and moves a copy to local Archive folders on the computer. The delete action synchronizes with the folders on the server and frees up space. (Deleted items go to Trash which is still a part of the account, so Trash has to be cleared also.)

    I set Archive to run automatically every 2 weeks and archive anything older than 6 months. A colleague of mine receives much heavier emails than mine due to the nature of his job, so I had to set his to archive anything older than 3 months. Our laptops are backed up continuously, so hopefully the Archive folders should never be lost, and we get to keep all our mail.

  10. Tony’s solution can be applied in other ways. If you use a client like Thunderbird you can move e-mails to an off-line folder. Obviously you then need to take responsibility for ensuring the off-line folders are backed up.

  11. On my yahoo account I got a mail daemon saying google account is over quota. I have read the articles. There are 3 G mail accounts.
    2 are mine 1 is my husbands. His is used by an android phone as well. I read the article info; but am unclear as to the INDIVIDUAL account – part and where on the G mail account to delete garbage, advertisements and spam. I do not want to lose what is there particularly playing around with my settings and ending up maybe loosing his saved stuff inadvertently. Also I want to have my G mail account come up on the Desk top computer as 1 it is a school email. There used to be a spot to click on change user, but I do not see it anymore. As I have 2 accounts I would like to switch back and forth to I am not clear on how to set that up or IF I have ability to do so anymore. My Yahoo account has a g link but something says it is not in sinc even though I went into tools, all information appears correct. So my ? here is can I set up just my G mails to delete and can I set it so I can go directly to my g mails through Yahoo link? I know basics but admit to not being a wiz.

  12. I have i email of 10,800 bits and I cannot delete it because it is over quota.
    It seems to be a scam or spam. It is clogging up my email system.
    What can I do?


  13. I went over quota on my gmail because I had too many pictures on my google photos! I had cleaned out ALL mail but was still way over. It took a very long time to figure this out! Now I have to dump all those photos onto my computer and will close down google photos.

    • Good point, services like Google give you an overall data cap. Things stored in Google photos and Google are included in that cap. One workaround is to open another Google account to store your photos or use Flickr or other photo storage services. It’s also very important to have a backup copy of everything you have out on the cloud. Since everything should be backed up, it would be a good idea to have a USB hard drive for system image backups and a copy of the files you have on the cloud.


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