If you got locked out of your Gmail account, do you have a local backup copy of your emails and contacts in the event of an emergency? This document describes how and why you should have a backup of your emails.
How to Make a Backup Copy of Your Emails
To create a local copy of all your emails, you will need an email client — a software program that can check your emails. There are several popular email clients commonly on computers. Others are available as well. Here are a few to consider:
- MAIL. Apple computers come with a program called Mail. [Learn More]
- OUTLOOK. Microsoft Outlook is a similar program available for Windows or Apple computers. It is included with a $100 yearly Microsoft 365 subscription, or available for $140 when purchased separately. [Learn More]
- THUNDERBIRD. Mozilla Thunderbird is a free email client that works on Apple, Windows, or Linux computers. [Learn More]
With services like Gmail, the locally stored emails are automatically synchronized with the service. Anything deleted from your computer is deleted from the service, and the other way around as well. So, just using the software doesn’t create a backup.
You will want to have a copy of all the emails copied to an external hard drive that is stored in a safe location. Each of these programs has a slightly different method of storing emails locally. However, they all offer some method for keeping emails stored locally, apart from the synchronized account.
- For Apple Mail, there is an “On My Mac” option where you can create a folder system for emails copied to or moved to email folders stored on your local computer. You can also right click (or Control+Click) on a folder, and choose the Export option to save the emails to an export folder that you can copy to an external drive.
- For Microsoft Outlook, you can create an archive PST file, and copy or move emails to that file system. Then make a copy of your PST file on an external drive.
- NOTE: Outlook may not show your Gmail – All Mail folder. This means you will think you’ve copied all your emails, but you haven’t. You will want to go to the web Gmail system, select all the emails in your All Mail folder, and move them to the Inbox. Hopefully you don’t have a complicated way of handling your emails that involves removing some emails from the Inbox and putting them in the All Mail folder. Once the emails are moved to Inbox then they will show up in the Outlook Inbox.
- For Thunderbird, there is a plugin that can be added for exporting. Or, you can copy the Thunderbird local folders to an external drive.
Here are some important considerations to be aware of:
- CAREFUL. Be careful when working on copies and backups of emails. By all appearances, mail client software will tell you and show you that the copy process has been completed. You’ll wait a few minutes and then delete the originals that you’ve safely copied. What you won’t see or realize is that the email software has only copied the email headers (to, from, subject, etc). When you double-check to see if the emails have copied, it will look like they actually have copied. With slower computers and thousands of emails, you may want to wait a few hours to make sure the process has actually completed. You can spot-check a few copied emails to make sure that file attachments are visible. What you’ll initially notice is that none of the attachments are available. As the copy process continues in the background, you’ll notice that more and more emails are completely copied including their attachments. Early on in the copy process, you may open a copied email and see that it contains no message or text of any kind. This is because only the initial email header is copied at first.
- DETAILS. The specific step-by-step details of how to make a backup copy are going to be somewhat unique to each person’s computer and software. So, the instructions here are just a general guide. You will likely want some guidance for managing this process.
- DRIVE. For your external drive, you should only use an actual high-speed USB 3 device. An older USB flash drive would likely not have the capacity or speed necessary. So, use a 500GB or larger USB 3 external hard drive or SSD.
- FOLDERS. Gmail uses a system of ‘tags’ to organize emails into what appears to be folders. When you backup your emails, the tags will be ignored. That is a system unique to Gmail servers. These may be reflected in an email client as folders, but they aren’t. When you create a backup copy of All Messages you’ll only get the emails saved in a single folder (inbox and sent) in your email client.
Creating RAID for Email – Realtime Backups
Most email services let you forward a copy of incoming emails, and there’s an option to keep or delete a copy in your local inbox. If you choose to forward and keep a copy, then the account you are forwarding to becomes like a realtime RAID for all your emails. You can always go to that secondary account for any emails if needed. This could be instead of or in addition to the local backups mentioned above. However, keeping years of emails in any online system does leave you open to the potential of the account and emails being hacked.
Avoiding Email Problems
People regularly rely on their browser to automatically login to their Google / Gmail account. A year later, on their computer and their smartphone, they are still using the automated login with a saved password.
Many people don’t have a good system to manage their passwords and are unlikely to remember all their passwords.
If you get locked out of your account, and have no other method of accessing the account you could be locked out forever.
This is why it is important to have an alternate email or phone number on file for account recovery. It is also a reason to have a good system for keeping track of your passwords and account information.
Three Reasons to Backup Copies of Your Emails
There are three primary reasons to backup your emails:
- LOCKED OUT. If you forget your password and are locked out of your account, it would be helpful to have offline access to a copy of all your emails.
- LOST DEVICE. If your computer or mobile device are lost or stolen, they could be accessed by a third party, causing you to lose access.
- HACKED ACCOUNT. When online email accounts get hacked, after the hacker has copied all of your contacts and emails to their own local hard drive, they delete them from the service. When you finally regain access to your account, you are unable to easily notify people that your email account was hacked. You’re also unable to see what they did while they had control over the account.
Reasons to Not Keep Emails in the Cloud
Like many people, you probably have 5 years or more of emails stored on Google’s servers. Perhaps every email you’ve ever sent or received. All of those emails are of great value to hackers. It helps them establish networks of friends for more effective phishing scams. It provides hackers and dark web dwellers access to a treasure trove of information about you.
Your email history probably provides information about all of your others accounts, like bank accounts and hotels you have checked into. Removing these emails can provide some privacy and security in the event your account gets compromised.
Having Backups of Backups
You should have a copy of your emails stored on a drive in a safe place, and perhaps have a second drive as a backup to your backup. The reason for the extra caution is that once your emails are removed from Google’s Gmail servers, you will have the only copy of them. If you lose your backup, they will be gone forever. This is a reason why some people may prefer to leave copies of their emails in the cloud.
It’s good to have backups of everything you do. All your documents, photos, and audio or video files should be in at least two places. Email should be included in your backup planning. Talk to a tech-savvy friend or tech consultant to help you create a backup plan.