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

google data liberation logo   How To Download & Back Up Your Gmail & Other Google DataWe’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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

35 Comments -

Anonymous

When  I used Thunderbird with IMPA Gmail, it never downloaded my emails until I clicked on them. Would that be because I didn’t use the settings you describe above?

Chris Hoffman

Quite possibly! I wanted to download all my Gmail to Thunderbird — I used all these settings myself, and it works perfectly. Whenever I need to update my backup, I just open Thunderbird

Anonymous

Thanks Chris. I had tried to use Thunderbird with IMAP to back up my Gmail account before and thought “IMAP is useless; it doesn’t work unless my Gmail is working”. As a result I never had my Gmail backed up.

Seems to be working now, thanks to you. Got any advice on what to do you when your Gmail account is full? Mine nearly is.

Chris Hoffman

Yikes! Well, aside from paying for more storage from Google, there isn’t an easy way to see large emails from within Gmail.

If you’re using Thunderbird, you can click the little icon above the vertical scrollbar in the pane that lists your emails and select “Size.” You’ll get a Size column — click the size column to sort emails by size. This will help you find your biggest emails, which probably have large attachments. You can delete them to free up space.

Anonymous

Might have to pay for more storage. I knew I’d have to start paying for something in my life sometime. Maybe that day is coming.

Anonymous

 No, that is good value.Thanks for the link.

GeekLad

Sonofagun!  I wish I had known you were going to post this Chris.  I just happened to be working on something to export my Google history to a CSV.  Any chance you could add it in later once it’s ready for public consumption?

Chris Hoffman

Send me a message when it’s done and I’ll look at including it in a future post — if it’s good!

Chris Hoffman

Thanks for your input, Murray. Looks like a great service, if someone’s comfortable backing up to the cloud instead of their local system.

Murray Moceri

Thanks Chris. As a matter of fact I use Outlook as my local Gmail backup as well so I can work offline, but I find there is a whole generation of new users / businesses who are working entirely in the cloud with Google, Office 365, etc, and aren’t interested in paying the cost of MS Office software fees. Might be an interesting survey/blog to look at how many people are working in the cloud without a safety net…

Gpredett

the hint to use MAC is just because you have to be stupid to build infographics?

Chris Dinesen Rogers

Definitely trumps VistaPrint–without the outrageous shipping cost. MooCards are my go to for a classy card. Vista Print is total crap compared to this fine line of products. If you’re in the market, go with MooCards and pop for a superior product.

Dino Dogan

hey Mark (O’Neill)

Thnx again for featuring my little doodle on makeuseof. I’m truly honored.

You’re right. Creating an Infographic is certainly not an easy task. Since I made this Infograph I’ve worked with some really talented dudes who have made WAAAAY better stuff in a lot less time. And that kinda sucks lol

Chris Hoffman

Looks good. If anyone’s interested in downloading their Google Web History to a file, definitely go check that bookmarklet out.

I’m not aware of any other ways to export Web History — that may be the first tool to do it.

DLCPhoto

I’m wanting to have local backup of my GMail email, and have been looking at Thunderbird for this purpose.  Others have recommended simply using POP3 access, rather than IMAP, to accomplish this.  This seems to work without the various ‘tweaks’ to IMAP settings in Thunderbird.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of using IMAP rather than POP3 for local backup of GMail?

Thanks.

Chris Hoffman

Good question! Bear with me for a moment while I go into IMAP vs POP here.

POP is a one-way protocol. When you download email with POP, Thunderbird just downloads every message and dumps them in your inbox. The emails won’t have your labels attached, so you’ll have to re-sort it from scratch. This method also doesn’t allow you to download chat logs.

IMAP is a two-way protocol. When you use IMAP, Thunderbird synchronizes itself with your Gmail inbox. This means that your labels, chat logs and everything else are reproduced in Thunderbird.

If you make changes, such as deleting or sorting mail in your Gmail inbox, Thunderbird will automatically replicate those changes, keeping your inbox in sync. (as long as you’re using IMAP)

In other words, POP just downloads emails to your system. IMAP takes a full backup, along with labels and chats, and keeps it in sync.

Which one you use depends on the kind of backup you want. If having copies of your emails is good enough, POP works. If you want a full copy of everything, including labels and chat logs, IMAP is the only option.

DLCPhoto

Thanks for the reply, Chris.
I had gone ahead and implemented the IMAP strategy, for the reasons you listed.

I did this first with my wife’s relatively small account, and it went flawlessly.

I then set up a separate profile for my account, to keep them segregated and more manageable, and this one was much larger (around 700mb all together).

This one started fine, but seemed to stop during the downloading phase.  I started and restarted TB, which seemed to get it going again, but it never seemed to complete.

To check this, I went to Offline Mode in TB, and allowed the option there to download all items before I went offline, and this is what seemed to complete the full download.

Two questions on this:

1.  I imagine it’s the sheer number of emails to be downloaded on my account that caused it trouble; I think I’ve read this can happen.  But it does make me wonder if this will also cause trouble “maintaining” the download status on an ongoing basis.  Any thoughts on this?

2.  This might be coincidental, but during this process I noticed that when I logged into Gmail, the little graphic 2/3 of the way down the page, which shows the amount of storage in mb and as a percentage of the total store, now read 11mb instead of the 700mb or so, and 0% instead of the roughly 11% it previously showed!!

I initially freaked out thinking that somehow the download process was removing files from my online Gmail storage, but it turns out this isn’t the case.  It’s just Google’s reporting seems to have gotten screwed up.

Do you have any idea why this reporting is so far off, how to “reset” it, or if the process of downloading with TB had anything to do with it?

Thanks!

Chris Hoffman

1. This is very possible! I can’t say for sure. However, I’ve heard rumours that Google throttles Gmail access. For example, if you download a large amount of emails, Gmail might slow your downloads or cut you off for a while. All I can recommend is that you wait a little while when this happens. After the initial download process, keeping Thunderbird and Gmail in sync should be no problem.

2. I’ve never heard of this before. It definitely sounds like a problem on Google’s side, but it sounds harmless. IMAP won’t delete messages unless you delete them in Thunderbird (Thunderbird will sync deletions with your Gmail account). If you like, you can report Gmail problems to Google here: http://support.google.com/mail/bin/request.py?hl=en&contact_type=direct

DLCPhoto

Thanks for the reply, Chris.

I agree – this is all on Google’s side.

And I have posted about this issue:

http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/gmail/thread?tid=2f2878b579444d2b&hl=en 

For as much as I’ve enjoyed the switch to Gmail and other Google services, my Android phone, etc., I’m pretty unimpressed with their support system, response to problems, complaints, etc.

Don

Chris Hoffman

Yup, that’s one of Google’s big problems. They don’t have a good customer support infrastructure in place.

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!

Gavin Rayner

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

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.

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.

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.

Chris Hoffman

I’m not sure about Outlook, but you can use Thunderbird.

You might also try Gmvault, which I’ve recently become aware of: http://gmvault.org/

Dino Dogan

I’m no fan of paying for software either, but as an alternative to Photoshop or Illustrator, 30 bucks is really not that much.

And even tho I’m not an designer, illustrator, or anything of the sort, I find Im using Pixelmator a lot to do quick edits of the images and what not….but I dont want to sound like Im pimping Pixelmator, I accomplish 80% of what I need to do with Preview, which is free, comes installed and is quite serviceable.

Dino Dogan

 hehe…ya, I guess you’re right, it is kinda big :-)

Dino Dogan

 wud up Afurzmom…I wasnt trying to say that Mac is the only choice, only that Mac is the better choice if you’re talentless like me. Hence the “no describable talent” bit :-)

Dino Dogan

Hi Christian, Ya, I tend to use conversational style of writing, so I can see how “Gimp? Not on a Mac” bit might sound like Gimp is not compiled for Mac. What I was trying to illustrate is that Gimp works much better on Linux and Windows. I find Gimp on a Mac much more difficult to work with than the alternatives.