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 it provides.
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 Workspace (formerly known as G Suite), because there are a wide range of Workspace 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.
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 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.
Workspace/G Suite forwarding
One easy way I grab all incoming mail to my corporate domain is using a Workspace account. My company-related email comes into the Workspace 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 per month, 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.
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 Workspace, but backing up personal Google accounts to the cloud seemed to have gone away when Backupify went up-market into the Office 365, Workspace, and Salesforce realms. But that’s changed and there are now a few personal Google account backup solutions.
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.
Spin Technology has both a G Suite version (they still call their version “G Suite” even though Google is all in with “Workspace”) 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, 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.
When we looked at Upsafe back in 2017, it was a free Windows app you downloaded and installed on your computer. In 2020, Upsafe had a Google Account backup service that was cloud-to-cloud and ran on Amazon S3 and Backblaze B2.
Today, just one year later, Upsafe is gone. Going to upsafe.com results in a “This site can’t be reached error.” It’s ironic that we’re talking about using backups in case one cloud service (Gmail) has an issue, but another cloud service (one that does backup) is gone. That’s the risk we all face with every single cloud service we rely on.
Unlike the previous section, cloud sync providers don’t normally provide their own storage. Instead, they enable you to sync or archive messages from Gmail to another cloud storage provider like Dropbox.
cloudHQ provides real-time transfer between Gmail and SharePoint, Box, Egnyte, OneDrive, WebDAV, Evernote, Google Drive, S3, 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 per year, although the company does offer a free, limited plan as well.
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 to your Gmail account and either makes local on-your-PC backups or backs up your message data to OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Box. The $89 Pro version adds Amazon S3 support. There are also small business and server versions that add a backup of database systems and server-based agents.
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 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. Yes, 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 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.
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.
Next, we come to MailArchiver X, a $49.95 MacOS-based solution (it was $34.95 last year). 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.
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.
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.
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.
Wow. I’m deeply bummed. I 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 worked amazingly well both times. The company charged $15 per account being moved. I found the fee to be well worth it, given the 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.
Unfortunately, YippeeMove is no more. This was a very valuable resource and it’s a shame to see them go. Another cloud-related service bites the dust.
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.
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 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.
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