How to Back Up Your Most Important Emails

Google, Microsoft, or Apple may deliver and store your emails, but the most valuable ones deserve a second home, just in case.

We’re all used to having all our emails available in the cloud all the time, easily searchable and on all of our devices. But there are multiple points of failure to think about—what happens if something  in the cloud breaks, or your connection to the internet does? What if your account gets banned or closed for whatever reason, and all of your email goes with it?

Those are only a few potential problems. You might accidentally delete a bunch of emails you didn’t mean to; someone else could access your account and wipe everything they find; or your email provider might suddenly decide to lock you out.

With all that in mind, access to your email doesn’t seem like such a given. It might not matter for all those newsletters, special offers, and account notifications that clog up your inbox, but what about emails and documents you really need access to? It helps to have at least some of your emails backed up in another location so that you can always get at them, offline or otherwise.

Forward Emails to a Backup Account

pForwarding emails is one way of backing them up.p
Forwarding emails is one way of backing them up.Apple via David Nield

The simplest way to get all of your emails sent to another account is to forward them, either manually one by one or automatically as they come in. From iCloud Mail, for example, you can click the cog icon (bottom left), then choose Preferences and General: Tick the box next to Forward my email to and enter another email address.

If you open up Gmail on the web, click the cog icon (top right), then See all settings. Under Forwarding and POP/IMAP, tick the box labeled Forward a copy of incoming mail to and enter your secondary email address. Gmail actually lets you create a filter for forwarded emails (messages from a specific contact, for example), so you don’t get everything forwarded—click the create a filter link next to Forwarding to do this.

Finally, for the Outlook web client, click the cog icon (top right), then View all Outlook settingsEmail, and Forwarding. Tick the Enable forwarding box, enter the secondary email address you want to use, and all of the messages that arrive in your Outlook inbox will be sent on to the other account too. If something happens to your primary account, you can still at least reference your messages.

In each case, you can choose to delete the original copy of the message or keep it—you’ll want to keep it, otherwise it defeats the purpose of creating a backup. Forwarding emails is a quick and simple way of getting your messages in two places, but if you’re forwarding your emails to another cloud account, you can still lose access to both copies if you’re unable to get online for whatever reason.

Use POP and IMAP (Remember Those?)

pBoth POP and IMAP can be used to back up emails.p
Both POP and IMAP can be used to back up emails.Microsoft via David Nield

POP (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) are the two main ways of getting emails in multiple places at once, and both standards are supported by most email providers. Choosing which to use for the purpose of backing up emails is a bit tricky, as they tend to be implemented in slightly different ways depending on the programs you’re using.

Generally speaking, the older POP technology is a less effective way of collecting two or more copies of an email from where your email is hosted. The newer IMAP standard is usually preferred because it offers features like two-way sync. IMAP makes it easier to keep your inbox looking the same across multiple devices and multiple email apps because it keeps talking to the email server as you go.

In this case, though, we’re not particularly worried about keeping up a two-way sync: We just want copies of our emails stashed away. IMAP can also be more difficult to set up offline because it relies more heavily on a constant connection to the web—you usually have to tell your email client to keep certain IMAP folders offline, as it won’t necessarily happen automatically. But in some cases, POP will just download all of your messages, leaving your account empty and all of your mail now stored in one place—on the device you wanted to use as a backup.

It’s really up to you which you use. IMAP is best if you want to be able to interact with your email from different devices and apps, but it requires a bit more attention to set up properly as a backup. On the other hand, POP isn’t always available—iCloud supports IMAP but not POP, for example.

Download Everything To a Desktop Client

pThunderbird is a free desktop client that can download emails via POP or IMAP.p
Thunderbird is a free desktop client that can download emails via POP or IMAP.Thunderbird via David Nield

To provide a safety net against most potential issues—an account hack, having no internet access, accidentally deleting messages—we’d recommend downloading messages to a desktop email client such as Microsoft Outlook or Thunderbird, and keeping them separate and untouched unless you need to refer to them. POP is ideal as long as you make sure its settings leave copies on the server so you don’t inadvertently wipe the account you’re trying to back up. IMAP is fine too, especially for accessing your emails offline, but as we’ve said any data wipe disaster that befalls your cloud emails will be synced to your desktop client, as well, unless you’re careful or tell it only to sync manually.

With Gmail, you need to make sure POP or IMAP is enabled first: Click the cog icon (top right), then See all settings and Forwarding and POP/IMAP. With Outlook, IMAP is automatically enabled, and POP can be switched on by clicking the cog icon (top right), then View all Outlook settings and Email. iCloud email from Apple only supports IMAP, and it’s always enabled, so you don’t need to do anything to set it up.

A modern-day client like Thunderbird can connect up using just your email address and password, though it’ll use IMAP by default. To go for POP instead, click Configure manually during the setup process. You can find the various access codes you need online for Gmail and Outlook emails (iCloud only supports IMAP, remember, so Thunderbird can set it up automatically). With accounts that are protected with two-step authentication, you might need an app-specific password for Thunderbird.

As your emails sync to Thunderbird, there are a couple of checks to make. If you’ve gone for POP, right-click on the account heading and choose Settingsthen Server Settings to make sure Leave messages on server is checked—otherwise your emails will be deleted from the cloud as Thunderbird downloads them, as we mentioned. If you’ve chosen IMAP meanwhile, right-click on the folders you want to be able to access offline, then choose Properties and Synchronization to make sure offline access is enabled.

Other Options

You can download everything in your Gmail account as part of the Google Takeout feature.Google via David Nield

As we’ve already explained, there’s more than one way to do this, so think about the sort of scenarios you want to put in contingency plans for, and how robust you want your backups to be. Individual emails can be downloaded from iCloud on the web, for example, by clicking on the cog icon at the top of an open email and choosing Download Message. For a handful of messages, that might be all you need.

There’s nothing comparable on Outlook on the web, but Google gives you a far more comprehensive download option: Go to the Google Takeout page on the web, and you’re able to download absolutely everything in your Gmail account, or just emails with specific labels. If you just want to make periodic, local backups of key messages that you’re unlikely to need very often, maybe this is the way to go for you.

Gmail on the web is actually smart enough to access other accounts via POP and IMAP—if you go to the settings pane (click the cog icon then See all settings), open Accounts and Import then Add a mail account, you can set this up. This will give you another copy of emails from another account inside Gmail, and you can even ensure offline access from the Offline tab of the settings page. This is another alternative to using a desktop client like Thunderbird.

Both Windows and macOS come with default desktop clients of their own, meanwhile, and these are programs you can use in place of Thunderbird and Outlook to back up your emails while primarily accessing them through the cloud. Some combination of the methods we’ve mentioned should be enough to give you peace of mind that your most important messages are copied somewhere else, safe and sound.

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