How To Download & Back Up Your Gmail & Other Google Data

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back up your gmail accountWe’re storing more and more data in the cloud these days. Email, contacts, documents, photos, calendar entries – you name it, it’s on Google’s servers. But what happens when the services we rely on go down? When the US government seized Megaupload, many users lost data they were storing on Megaupload’s servers.

Recent events have highlighted the importance of local backups. Google makes getting data back onto your computer pretty easy but you can also use these same methods if you’re looking to ditch Google because of concerns about their privacy policy.

Google Takeout

You may have heard of Google Takeout, which we’ve covered in the directory. Google Takeout is supposed to package all your Google data into a single file for download, but it isn’t quite there yet. It is improving, though – Google recently added Google Docs support.

back up your gmail account

With just a few clicks, you can download photos from your Picasa Web Albums account, documents and files from Google Docs, contacts from Gmail and various bits of information from Google+. Google does all the work of getting your data together and packaging it into a single ZIP file for you — you can even close the window and have Google email you when the file is ready to download.

back up your gmail

In a perfect world, this would be the end of the process. But we still have to manually back up our Gmail emails, calendar events and other information.

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Gmail

Gmail emails are the hardest thing to download properly. Google’s other services let you download a file directly from the associated website, but Gmail requires an email application that supports IMAP. We’ll use Mozilla Thunderbird here. Gmail Backup, which we’ve covered in the past, is another option.

First, you’ll have to head into your Gmail settings, click over to the Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab and ensure that IMAP is enabled. You’ll also want to disable folder size limits – otherwise, Thunderbird won’t see all your Gmail messages.

back up your gmail

After that, you can launch Thunderbird and add your Gmail account. Thunderbird automatically detects and provides the appropriate settings for Gmail, so you don’t have to enter them manually.

back up your gmail

IMAP isn’t meant for doing full backups, so Thunderbird won’t automatically download all email messages and their attachments by default. We can use Thunderbird’s Configuration Editor window to tweak some internal settings and transform Thunderbird into a proper IMAP backup application.

back up gmail account

First, set the preference “mail.server.default.mime_parts_on_demand” to False to have Thunderbird download all email attachments. If you can’t locate this preference using the Filter box, you can create it by right-clicking in the window and creating a new boolean preference.

back up gmail account

Second, create a boolean preference named “mail.check_all_imap_folders_for_new” and set it to true. Thunderbird won’t download messages from outside your inbox unless you click each label individually until you set this preference.

Third, set “mail.imap.use_status_for_biff” to false. This causes Thunderbird to always check each label for new messages.

Lastly, ensure “mail.server.default.autosync_offline_stores” is set to true, or Thunderbird might delay downloading of emails until you go offline.

That’s quite a few settings, but after configuring all four you can click Get Mail and Thunderbird will automatically download and store all your email and attachments. If you have a lot of email messages, this may take some time.

back up gmail account

Thunderbird automatically updates your local backup each time you open it. If you want to switch to another email provider, you can even add another IMAP account to Thunderbird and drag and drop your Gmail emails onto that account.

Chat Logs

Your Google Talk chat logs are stored along with your email in your Gmail account, but you won’t see them in Thunderbird yet. Not to worry, you can back up your chat logs along with your email in Thunderbird.

Just go back into Gmail’s settings, click over to the Labels tab and enable the Show in IMAP check box for the Chats label.

Google Calendar

Calendars are easy to download from Google Calendar. Just click the arrow next to My Calendars in the Google Calender sidebar and click the Export Calendars link on the page that appears.

You can’t download calendars that have been shared with you using this link. Instead, download a shared calendar by clicking the arrow next to the calendar’s name, selecting Calendar Settings and clicking the iCal button.

back up your gmail account

Other Services

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Google offer easy ways of pulling your data back down to Earth from the cloud – not like Facebook, which requires tricks. If you want to download data from another Google service not covered here, check out Google’s Data Liberation Front page. It provides guides for nearly every type of data associated with your Google account (although its Gmail guide is incomplete).

Let us know in the comments what your experiences have been with backing up your Google data.  How easy or difficult was it?  Did you use a different method to the ones outlined here?

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Comments (35)
  • Odile Francia

    Hello Chris:

    I have an email account set-up on google apps (15Gb aprox) and I want to be able to make a backup. I work with Outlook 2007 (imap) and also with gmail. What I want is for security purposes plus that I’m changing my domain name I want to make a backup of all my emails. I proved Gmail Backup but it didn’t work for me. Do you know a way to make this possible? Or if Outlook has a a way to do that?
    Thank you.

  • jon

    Thanks for this was looking everywhere for those thunderbird settings, you’re a legend thanks mate.

    • Chris Hoffman

      You’re welcome! They were hard to find, and some other websites included unnecessary configuration options that made the process more confusing and complicated.

  • Mohammad Farhat

    Chris

    Your article is of great help on backing up my gmail messages on my Mac. It is clear and dependable. Question, once messages start to download, will they be available for offline review immediately?

    thanks.

    • Chris Hoffman

      Well, you’ll have to wait for the messages to finish downloading — but yes, each message will be available offline after it downloads. You can pause the process in the middle and review the mail that’s been downloaded offline.

  • Gavin Rayner

    Thanks-a-mundo for the blog article.Much thanks again. Great.

  • Dan

    Great article. Thanks!  Let me ask you a question.

    I am trying to move away from Google, and gmail in particular right now. What I want to do is fetch all of my gmail emails and put them on my desktop as well as on an external drive or two. I want to be able to search those “archived” emails easily on my desktop. Once I am confident I have that ability, I want to start the process of gradually moving away from gmail, and then possibly delete the account of just use it for random crap.
    OK. So if I download everything to Thunderbird, it seems that I will then need to keep using Thunderbird in order to search those “archived” emails. To your knowledge, is there “someplace else” I can put those emails where they will still be easily searchable? I don’t want to have to use Thunderbird for this one purpose forever.  Does that make sense? 

    Ideally, I’d love to have all of my old gmail emails in a folder or something on my desktop. I like to be able to then copy that folder to a couple of other “backup” locations (external drives, etc.). Then I would like to be able to easily search only that folder when I need information from old gmail emails.

    Anyways, sorry to ramble. Trying to be somewhat clear. LOL!  Any help or direction would be appreciated.

    Thanks!

    • Chris Hoffman

      Hi Dan — sorry it took so long for me to get back to you, our comment notification system has been broken.

      If your new email system supports IMAP, you could use Thunderbird to drag-and-drop import them to your new email inbox.

      But you don’t want to do that, so this looks like your best bet: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-us/thunderbird/addon/importexporttools/ It’s an extension for Thunderbird that will let you export your emails to text or html files from Thunderbird.

      Let us know how it works!

    • Dan

      Thanks for getting back to me. No worries at all! That looks like it might do the trick. I will check it out further later when I get a chance. Thanks again for your time!

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This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.