How to Save Gmail Messages Offline

An illustration of email being received and backed up automatically.

 Getty Images

Why would you want to back up your Gmail emails? Gmail is a trustworthy service and won't just randomly delete your email one day or decide that it's done for and cancel your account. However, you can still keep a backup of your Gmail messages just in case you want them offline.

One of the easiest ways to save all your Gmail messages offline is to download them to an email client, but you can also save specific messages by dragging them out of your email program and into a different folder. Some other options include setting up a forwarding rule to send messages to a different email account, or using an email backup service to back up emails online.

Use an Email Client to Download Your Gmail Emails

Screenshots showing how to download Gmail messages to Outlook and make a backup copy
Making a Backup of Downloaded Gmail Messages.

If you use Outlook, Thunderbird, or some other email client, your emails are already downloading to your computer every time you get a new message. However, your Gmail account and the program you're using both have to have POP enabled so that the emails don't get deleted if you delete them from Gmail.com.

Here's what to do:

  1. Enable POP in your Gmail settings.
    1. Go to the Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab in your Gmail settings, and make sure POP is enabled. 
  2. Set up Gmail in your email client, using the POP server settings (not IMAP).
    1. The messages will download automatically and saved in the default folder where all emails are stored.
  3. Copy the emails somewhere safe. You can usually do this by selecting the emails you want to back up, and then dragging them out of the program and into a folder.
    1. You can keep the emails in your email program so that you can easily browse through them much like you do now in your email client, but it'd be a good idea to copy them out of the program and put them somewhere a bit harder to accidentally delete, like on an external hard drive or in an online backup account.

If you go this route, all the messages are displayed in the email program just like you have always seen them. However, since POP is being used, the emails are saved on your computer all the time, even if you delete messages from Gmail.com; they'll stay on your computer so long as POP is being used.

The only downside to POP retrieval is that if your PC gets stolen or breaks down, or your local email folders become corrupt, and you don't have another backup elsewhere, you've lost your entire archive.

Note: You can also back up your Gmail messages with an IMAP email program but because changes made to the server are reflected in an IMAP account, you'd have to avoid deleting messages from Gmail.com if you want to save them to your computer (the moment you delete them from Gmail.com, the IMAP program will show them as deleted, too).

Screenshots showing how to download Gmail messages with Google Takeout
Using Google Takeout to Download Gmail Emails.

Use the Google Takeout site to download a one-time archive of your entire Gmail account.

  1. Open Google Takeout and log in to your Google account if asked.
  2. Click the SELECT ALL button to deselect every option in the list (unless you want to include something else in the backup).
  3. Scroll down and find Mail, and toggle it on by clicking the button off to the right.
    1. Optionally click the arrow next to the button and pick which email labels you want to download, otherwise you'll get a copy of every email.
  4. Scroll to the bottom of the page and hit NEXT.
  5. Pick an archive format option from the three that are available:
    1. File type: Pick .zip or .tgz. Windows users should go with the ZIP option while TGZ is best for other operating systems.
    2. Archive size (max): Choose an option here for how big you want each archive part of the download to be. In most cases, a 2 GB limit is appropriate.
    3. Delivery method: This is how you'll download the Gmail backup. You can get a link over email so that you can download your Gmail emails to your computer, or you can pick an online option to store your backup in Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, or Box.
  6. Click CREATE ARCHIVE or (if you chose a third-party option) LINK ACCOUNT AND CREATE ARCHIVE​.
    1. You'll get an email telling you when it's finished, regardless of the option you chose in the previous step.

The Gmail archive files appear in MBOX format, which is a very large text file. Email programs like Thunderbird can read MBOX files natively. For very large archive files, you should use an MBOX-compatible email program instead of trying to parse the text file.

Google Takeout offers a snapshot-in-time view of your Gmail account; it does not support incremental archiving, so you'll get everything unless you limit yourself to specific labels. Although you can request Takeout archives whenever you wish, using Takeout for repeated data extracts is not efficient. If you need to pull data more frequently than once a calendar quarter or so, find an alternative method of archiving.

Use an Online Backup Service

Screenshot of UpSafe Gmail Backup
UpSafe Gmail Backup.

Backupify backs up personal information from Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Google Calendar and Contacts, LinkedIn, Twitter, and similar services. Give it a 15-day trial for free before you commit to paying for the service.

Alternatively, try Upsafe or Gmvault. Upsafe offers up to 3 GB of storage for free (with free options for more), while Gmvault is an open-source project with multiplatform support and a robust developer community.

Selectively Archive Using Data Rules

If you don't need all your emails, consider a more selective approach to email archiving.

  • Forwarding: When you receive a mail you know you want to keep, forward it to an archiving account elsewhere, like another Gmail account or even one at a different provider like an Outlook or Yahoo account. To keep a copy of what you send, use that other account's email address on the BCC line of your outgoing emails.
  • Auto-forwarding: Tell Gmail to copy or blind copy all received email to a specific email address.
  • IFTTT recipe: The IFTTT website creates recipes (scripts stipulating that when X event occurs, Y event should follow) so that you can set up specific Gmail actions to trigger a particular activity. IFTTT recipes are especially useful when you need to set custom rules and use resources outside of Google's ecosystem.
  • Forward to Evernote or OneNote: Set up the me@onenote.com alias to import emails straight into an assigned OneNote notebook, or use your custom Evernote email address to log messages into Evernote.

Think Before You Archive!

There's a whole industry of backup services that suggest that you must back up your emails lest they one day magically disappear forever. 

Although Google can delete your account for a terms-of-service violation, or a hacker could gain control of your account and delete some or all of your archive, these outcomes are relatively rare. Google, as a cloud-based provider of a robust email platform, is not inclined to lose messages or randomly delete accounts for no reason.

Although you may have a legitimate reason for backing up your account, backups aren't ordinarily necessary. They can actually open your emails to even greater data leakage as you connect other products and services to your Gmail account—tools that may not be as secure as Google's own cloud platform.