How to back up your Gmail: The ultimate guide for 2020

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.

If your entire life is in your Gmail account, you need a back-up plan

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.

Also: Why cloud sync, not backup, worked better for business continuity during the hurricane

Many of you 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.

Also: How to troubleshoot G Suite connectivity issues: 6 steps (TechRepublic)

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 involved 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 your 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 $5/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. I also can't quite get over the fact that I'm buying G Suite and larger businesses get unlimited storage, but because my small business doesn't need five accounts, I don't.

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.

Also: 8 ways you can (maybe) get Microsoft Office 365 for free or cheap 

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.

Save emails from Gmail to Evernote

Evernote now has an Evernote for Gmail add-in that allows you to save emails from Gmail to Evernote. This add-on adds the familiar green elephant to your message interface. Tapping it drops the message right into 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 back up 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.

Cloud backup with storage

There are quite a few cloud-to-cloud backup options for G Suite, but backing up personal Google accounts to the cloud seemed to have gone away when Backupify went up-market into the Office 365, G Suite, and Salesforce realms. But that's changed and there are now a few personal Google account backup solutions.

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Of course, the disadvantage is that of all cloud systems: you don't have a local copy. If you were to lose access to the internet (say during a hurricane) and needed something in your email, you'd be as out-of-luck as you'd have been if you relied only on Gmail itself. Such is the cloud.

Spinbackup

Spin Technology has both a G Suite version and a Spinbackup for Individual Use version, which will dynamically back up your Gmail from Google's cloud into Spin's cloud. If your data use needs are less than 4GB, you can back up for free. For four bucks a month (it was $2/mo the last time we looked, in 2018), you can back up 50GB, and there are increments above that for additional storage.

What we particularly like about Spinbackup is that it does more than just Gmail. It will back up Contacts, Drive, Calendar, and even Photos. Spinbackup is probably the easiest comprehensive backup solution for Gmail we've found. You don't need to dedicate local computing resources to it, you don't need to keep your computer on to run the backup, and you get regular backups.

Upsafe

When we looked at Upsafe back in 2017, it was a free Windows app you downloaded and installed on your computer. Now, Upsafe has a Google Account backup service that's cloud-to-cloud and runs on Amazon S3 and Backblaze B2. Pricing on Upsafe is $24/year or $3/month, but for that you get unlimited storage. There is also a free version that will allow you to store up to 3GB.

Cloud sync

Unlike the previous section, cloud sync providers don't normally provide their own storage. Instead, they enable you to sync or archive message from Gmail to another cloud storage provider like Dropbox.

cloudHQ 

cloudHQ provides real-time transfer between Gmail and SharePoint, Box, Egnyte, OneDrive, WebDAV, Evernote, Google Drive, and SugarSync. You can choose to archive messages, messages and attachments, or just attachments. 

You can also choose a variety of file formats in which to save your messages. Even though storage is not provided, cloudHQ is more expensive than some of the services we've looked at. Base plans begin at $118/year, although the company does offer a free, limited plan as well.

Handy Backup

We're going to spotlight Handy Backup in our cloud sync section, even though it would be just as relevant in the download-and-archive section below. Handy Backup is an installable Windows application that runs on your PC. 

The $39 base version connects into your Gmail account and either makes local on-your-PC backups or backs up your message data to OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, Box. The $89 Pro version adds Amazon S3 support. There are also small business and server versions that add backup of database systems and server-based agents.

Download-and-archive

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.

Also: Here's how Office 365 users can get a custom email address -- without corporate headaches 

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 back up 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 Free Gmail Backup 

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.

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 back up Exchange, Office 365, and various IMAP-based email servers.

MailArchiver X 

Next, we come to MailArchiver X, a $34.95 MacOS-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 High Sierra-compatible. Just make sure you get version 4.1 or greater.

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SysTools Gmail Backup

If you want to back up your Gmail to a number of classic email formats, including PST, EML, MSG, or MBOX, you may want to look at SysTools Gmail Backup. This product runs on both Windows and MacOS, and has a boatload of features including the ability to also download Yahoo and Hotmail accounts. Wait? Hotmail?

This is our one problem with SysTools and leads to a cautionary note. It looks like the company's site hasn't been updated in a long time, with system requirements specifying a minimum of 1 GHz processor and 512 MB RAM. Yeah. We definitely recommend downloading and testing the trial version before deciding to spend on the full version.

BitRecover Gmail Backup Wizard 

This product is another installable Windows application that will allow you to backup your Gmail data. It also will convert Gmail to a number of popular POP3 local storage email formats, like Thunderbird MBOX.

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 its 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. 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 occasions 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.

Also: 6 clever Gmail tricks to cut down on regret, frustration and spam (CNET)

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 local NAS and backed up to the cloud.

While individual messages may be a royal pain to dig up if needed, I have 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.