The 2017 ultimate guide to Gmail backup

Want to make sure you have a local or backup copy of all that mission-critical business and personal history in your Gmail archives? David Gewirtz takes you through an array of options.

This article was originally published in July 2015. It has been updated for 2017.

A few years ago, I moved off of Office 365 and Outlook and onto Gmail. Many of you thought I'd regret the move, but I have to tell you that Gmail has been a nearly frictionless experience. I don't think I'd ever go back to using a standalone email application. In fact, I'm moving as many applications as I can to the cloud, just because of the seamless benefits that provides.

Many of you also asked the one question that did have me a bit bothered: how to do backups of a Gmail account? While Google has a strong track record of managing data, the fact remains that accounts could be hacked, and the possibility does exist that someone could get locked out of a Gmail account.

Many of us have years of mission-critical business and personal history in our Gmail archives, and it's a good idea to have a plan for making regular backups. In this article (and its accompanying gallery), I will discuss a number of excellent approaches for backing up your Gmail data.

By the way, I'm distinguishing Gmail from G Suite, because there are a wide range of G Suite solutions. Even though Gmail is the consumer offering, so many of us use Gmail as our hub for all things, that it makes sense to discuss Gmail on its own merits.

Overall, there are three main approaches: on-the-fly forwarding, download-and-archive, and periodic or one-time backup snapshots. I'll discuss each approach in turn.

On-the-fly forwarding

Perhaps the easiest method of backup, if less secure or complete than the others, is the on-the-fly forwarding approach. The idea here is that every message that comes into Gmail is then forwarded or processed in some way, ensuring its availability as an archive.

Before discussing the details about how this works, let's cover some of the disadvantages. First, unless you start doing this as soon as you begin your Gmail usage, you will not have a complete backup. You'll only have a backup of flow going forward.

Second, while incoming mail can be preserved in another storage mechanism, none of your outgoing email messages will be archived. Gmail doesn't have an "on send" filter.

Finally, there are many security issues involve with sending email messages to other sources, often in open and unencrypted text format.

Those considerations aside, it's a way to go.

Gmail forwarding filter: the very easiest of these mechanisms is to set up a filter in Gmail. Set it to forward all you email to another email account on some other service. There you go. Done.

G Suite forwarding: One easy way I grab all incoming mail to my corporate domain is using a G Suite account. My company-related email comes into the G Suite account, a filter is applied, and that email is sent on its way to my main Gmail account.

This provides two benefits. First, I keep a copy in a second Google account and, for $8.33/mo, I get pretty good support from Google. The disadvantage of this, speaking personally, is only one of my many email addresses is archived using this method, and no mail I send is stored.

SMTP server forwarding rules: For the longest time, I used Exchange and Outlook as my email environment and Gmail as by incoming mail backup. My domain was set to an SMTP server running at my hosting company, and I had a server-side rule that sent every email message both to Exchange and to Gmail.

You can reverse this. You could also send mail for a private domain to an SMTP server, but use another service (whether Office 365 or something free, like Outlook.com) as a backup destination.

Forward to Evernote: Each Evernote account comes with a special email address that you can use to mail things directly into your Evernote archive. This is a variation on the Gmail forwarding filter, in that you'd still use Gmail to forward everything, but this time to the Evernote-provided email address. Boom! Incoming mail stored in Evernote.

IFTTT to Dropbox (or Google Drive or OneNote, etc): While this approach isn't strictly forwarding, it's another on-the-fly approach that provides a backup as your mail comes in. There are a bunch of great rules that link Gmail to storage services like Dropbox, and you can use IFTTT.com to backup all your messages or just incoming attachments to services like Dropbox.

In each of these cases, you're essentially moving one cloud email store to another email store, so if you want something that you can physically control, let's go on to the next strategy.

Download-and-archive

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The download and archive group covers methods that get your message store (and all your messages) from the cloud down to a local machine. This means that even if you lost your internet connection, lost your Gmail account, or your online accounts got hacked, you'd have a safe archive on your local machine (and, perhaps, even backed up to local, offline media).

Local email client software: Perhaps the most tried-and-true approach for this is using a local email client program. You can run anything from Thunderbird to Outlook to Apple Mail to a wide range of traditional, old-school PC-based email clients.

All you need to do is set up Gmail to allow for IMAP (Settings -> Forwarding and POP/IMAP -> Enable IMAP) and then set up an email client to connect to Gmail via IMAP. You want to use IMAP instead of POP3 because IMAP will leave the messages on the server (in your Gmail archive), where POP3 will suck them all down, removing them from the cloud.

You'll also need to go into your Label settings. There, you'll find a list of your labels, and on the right-hand side is a "Show in IMAP" setting. You must make sure this is checked so the IMAP client can see the email stored in what it will think are folders. Yes, you might get some message duplication, but it's a backup, so who cares, right?

Just be sure you check your client configuration. Some of them have obscure settings that limit just how much of your server-based mail it will download.

The only real downside of this approach is you need to leave a user-based application running all the time to grab the email. But if you have a spare PC somewhere or don't mind having an extra app running on your desktop, it's a versatile, reliable, easy win.

Gmvault: Gmvault is a slick set of Python scripts that will run on Windows, Mac, and Linux and provides a wide range of capabilities, including backing up your entire Gmail archive and easily allowing you to move all that email to another Gmail account. Yep, this is a workable solution for easily moving mail between accounts.

What's nice about Gmvault is that it's a command-line script, so you can easily schedule it and just let it run without too much overhead. You can also use it on one machine to backup a number of accounts. Finally, it stores in multiple formats, including standard ones like .mbx that can be managed in traditional email clients like Thunderbird. Oh, and it's open source and free.

Upsafe: Another free tool is Upsafe. Upsafe is Windows-only, but it's stone-cold simple. All you do is install the program, connect it to your Gmail, and download. It will do incremental downloads and even let you browse your downloaded email and attachments from within the app.

Upsafe isn't nearly as versatile as Gmvault, but it's quick and painless.

The company also offers a cloud backup solution, which listed as free, but also comes with a premium backup solution which increases storage beyond 3GB and allows you to select whether your data is stored in the US or EU.

Mailstore Home: Yet another free tool is Mailstore Home. Like Upsafe, Mailstore is Windows-only. What I like about Mailstore is that it has business and service-provider bigger brothers, so if you want a backup solution that goes beyond backing up individual Gmail accounts, this might work well for you. It also can backup Exchange, Office 365, and various IMAP-based email servers.

MailArchiver X: Next, we come to MailArchiver X, a $34.95 OS X-based solution. Even though this solution isn't free, it's got a few interesting things going for it. First, it doesn't just archive Gmail data, it also archives local email clients as well.

Somewhere on a backup disk, I have a pile of old Eudora email archives, and this could read them in and back them up. Of course, if I haven't needed those messages since 2002, it's not likely I'll need them anytime soon. But, hey, you can.

More to the point, MailArchiver X can store your email in a variety of formats, including PDF and inside a FileMaker database. These two options are huge for things like discovery proceedings.

If you ever need to be able to do really comprehensive email analysis, and then deliver email to clients or a court, having a FileMaker database of your messages could be a win. It's been updated to be Sierra-compatible. Just make sure you get version 4.0 or greater.

Backupify: Finally for this category, I'm mentioning Backupify, even though it doesn't really fit our topic. That's because many of you have suggested it. Back in the day, Backupify offered a free service backing up online services ranging from Gmail to (apparently) Facebook. They have since changed their model and have moved decidedly up-market into the G Suite and Salesforce world and no longer offer a Gmail solution.

One-time backup snapshots

Our final category of solution are one-time backup snapshots. Rather than generating regular, incremental, updated backups, these approaches are good if you just want to get your mail out of Gmail, either to move to another platform or to have a snapshot in time of what you had in your account.

Google Takeout: The simplest of the backup snapshot offerings is the one provided by Google: Google Takeout. From your Google settings, you can export just about all of your Google data, across all your Google applications. Google Takeout dumps the data either into your Google Drive or lets you download a pile of ZIP files. It's easy, comprehensive, and free.

YippieMove: I've used YippieMove twice, first when I moved from a third party Exchange hosting provide to Office 365, and then when I moved from Office 365 to Gmail. It's worked well both times.

The company, disappointingly known as Wireload rather than, say, something out of a classic Bruce Willis Die Hard movie, charges $15 per account being moved. I found the fee to be well worth it, given their helpful support team and my need to make a bit of a pain out of myself until I knew every email message had made the trip successfully.

Backup via migration to Outlook.com: At roughly the time I was moving from Office 365 to Gmail, Ed Bott moved from Gmail to Outlook. He used some of Outlook's helpful migration tools to make the jump.

From a Gmail backup perspective, you might not necessarily want to do a permanent migration. Even so, these tools can give you a great way to get a snapshot backup using a completely different cloud-based infrastructure for archival storage.

Partial, recent messages only

There is one more approach you can use which is technically not forwarding and is somewhat more limited than the other on-the-fly approaches, but it works if you want to just grab a quick portion of your recent email, for example if you're going on vacation or a trip. I'm putting it in this section because it didn't really fit anywhere better.

That's Gmail Offline, based on a Chrome browser plugin. As its name implies, Gmail Offline lets you work with your recent (about a month) email without having an active internet connection. It's certainly not a complete backup, but might prove useful for those occasional when you just want quick, offline access to recent messages -- both incoming and outgoing.

Recommendations

One of the reasons I do large "survey" articles like this is that each individual and company's needs are different, and so each of these solutions might suit you better.

Here at Camp David, we use a combination of techniques. First, I have a number of email accounts that forward to my main Gmail account, so each of them keeps a backup in addition to my primary Gmail account.

Then, I use Gmvault running as a scheduled command-line process to download regular updates of both my Gmail archive and my wife's. Those downloads are then archived to my RAID Drobos, a second tower backup disk array, and back to the cloud using Crashplan.

While individual messages may be a royal pain to dig up if needed, I have at least five copies of almost each one, across a wide range of mediums, including one (and sometimes two) that are usually air-gapped from the Internet.

Yeah, I get too much email. But hey, it's a living.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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