How to Backup Your Web-Based Email Account Using Thunderbird

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If the Gmail scare earlier this week has you thinking about backing up your Gmail or other web-based email account, we’re here to help. Read on to learn how to backup your web-based email using open source email application Thunderbird.

In case you missed it, earlier this week Gmail suffered an unusual series of glitches that led to 0.02% of Gmail users finding their inboxes totally empty. The good news is that the glitch was fixed and no actual data was lost (they restored the missing email from tape backups that were unaffected by the issue). While that’s wonderful nobody lost any important emails it’s also very unsettling. Not every “Oops, we lost your data!” scenario ends so well. Today we’re going to walk you through backing up your email using the free and robust open-source application Thunderbird.

What You’ll Need

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You won’t need much for this tutorial, just a few minutes to set it up and the following:

  • A copy of Thunderbird for your OS (available for Windows/Mac/Linux)
  • Login information for your web-based email provider.

For this tutorial we’ll be using Thunderbird for Windows and Gmail. The steps we’ll be guiding you through, however, will work for Thunderbird on any OS and for any web-based email provider which allow you to access your email through a third-party client—in fact, Thunderbird does an excellent job detecting the necessary information just from your email address.

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Depending on the web-based email you’re using you may need to enable access before proceeding. In the case of Gmail, our test service for this tutorials, you’ll need to navigate to Options –> Mail Settings –> Forwarding and POP/IMAP and then toggle the following settings 1. Enable POP for all mail and 2. When messages are accessed with POP keep Gmail’s copy in the Inbox.

Installing and Configuring Thunderbird

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Installing Thunderbird is straight forward but there are a few things you may want to consider based on your needs and desire for additional backups. If you’re a Windows user you may consider opting to install Thunderbird portable so that you can have a totally self-contained installation suitable for transferring/backing up to a USB drive. Also, depending on which backup service you use and how much space you have, you might consider installing Thunderbird to your Dropbox (or similar service) directory so that your local backup will also be stored remotely.

If you’re satisfied with a local backup (or your backup service nabs your entire drive at one time) go ahead and proceed with the installation without any modifications.

After running Thunderbird for the first time, navigate to Tools –> Account Settings and then click on Account Actions (located in the lower left corner).

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Fill in your username and password then click continue. For a significant number of web-mail providers Thunderbird will auto-populate the server information (courtesy of the Mozilla ISP Database) as seen in the screenshot below. We’re going to switch from the default of IMAP to POP. If you were planning on using Thunderbird as your daily email client, IMAP would be a vastly superior choice (IMAP allows you to work with email like a remote access file share instead of downloading it to your local machine). For our archiving purpose, however, POP is a superior choice as it will easily and with no fuss download all the old email messages (not just the new ones). If you find yourself wanting to use Thunderbird as a full time client, you can easily switch back to IMAP once you have an archive of your old emails.

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Click Create Account and you’re in business. Thunderbird will authenticate your account against the server and warn you if the authentication fails. Baring that, you’ll find yourself back at the Account Settings screen.

While we’re still in the Account Settings screen we need to check a few very important settings before leaving. Click on Server Settings under your account login name on the left hand side of the window. We need to make a few adjustments here. Change the Check for new messages every 10 minutes setting to 1 minute. For the initial download we need the frequency of checks really high. Also make sure Leave messages on server is checked and uncheck For at most… and Until I delete them.

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Before we leave the configuration stage, click on the Junk Settings at the top of the left hand column and uncheck Enable adaptive junk mail controls…, the Thunderbird spam filtering is great when you’re using it as a primary client but we don’t want it to do anything but a straight download of our messages. Under Disk Space make sure Don’t delete any messages is checked (it should be, by default). This operation is totally backup-oriented. We don’t want Thunderbird getting any wise ideas and deleting anything.

When you’re done click OK in the corner and return to the main Thunderbird dashboard. If Thunderbird isn’t already downloading email, click Get Mail in the corner to start the process.

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At this point everything is on autopilot. Thunderbird will continue to check your email every minute and download new messages bit by bit. Here is one of the quirks of POP downloading, each batch will be roughly 400-600 messages in size. You’ll never see a massive download of all your email at one time. Be prepared, if you have a big account, to leave it running for awhile. In the case of our test account it took 37 batches to download all 17,000+ emails dating back almost a decade.

When the downloading is done you’ll have an up-to-date backup of your Gmail (or other web-based email) account. All you need to do in the future is run Thunderbird to grab the newest emails and update your archive.


Have a pressing question about your email or other technological issues? Hit us up for an answer at ask@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to help.

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/1/11
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