There are many reasons you might want to back up your Gmail account, such as: It’s good to have a copy of your most-important data; you’re about to be fired from your job and you want to save everything you did; you’d just like a little extra protection in case someone hacks your account and takes it over (or deletes it).
While most of us probably trust that our Gmail accounts will be there forever — since it’s Google’s problem to manage, not ours — it’s always worth having a backup of your emails.
Worst case? You’ll never need the backup. Best case? You’ll prevent a mental breakdown when disaster strikes. That, and you’ll get your data back.
Download everything from Google
The easiest method for backing up your Gmail happens to come from Google itself.
Go to the “Download your data” portion of your Google account settings, uncheck everything via the “Select None” box (or else this process will take much longer than it should), and scroll down until you see the option for Mail. Select that.
If you don’t want to back up all of your Gmail, and only want emails with particular labels, you can also click the down-arrow to get more specific about what Google saves.
Once you’ve made your selection — “Include all of your mail” should be good enough for most people — scroll to the bottom of the page and click Next.
I tend to leave all the options as their defaults on the next screen, but you can always change the archival size if you think you have a lot of email and attachments to back up and want to deal with fewer files.
You can also direct Google to dump your backup to your Google Drive automatically — or Dropbox, OneDrive or Box. I usually just have Google email me a download link, so I can then store my backup on my PC, NAS box or other portable storage.
Click “Create Archive” when you’re ready, and take some time to relax while Google backs up your stuff.
What do I do with this .MBOX file?
Once you unzip Google’s archive, you’ll see one (or a few) .MBOX files. Viewing their contents — your emails — can be a cumbersome process.
First, grab Thunderbird — Mozilla’s not-quite-dead email client. If you just need a quick and easy version for viewing archival .MBOX files, I recommend downloading a portable version of Thunderbird instead of the full Thunderbird client. Your call.
Once you’re in Thunderbird, click on Tools and then Add-ons. Click on Get Add-ons at the top of the left sidebar and search for ImportExportTools. Install that.
Head back to the Local Folders tab. Click on Tools again, scroll down to ImportExportTools, and select “Import mbox file”.
Pick which option makes the most sense for you — importing a single .MBOX file or multiple — and then go find the .MBOX file(s) you downloaded from Google.
It might take the add-on a bit of time to dump your emails into Thunderbird, depending on how many it has to go through, but you should see them all pop up as a folder (or folders) within Thunderbird. You’ll now be able to click through them (and re-save attachments) as you see fit.
This is also part of the process you’ll use to restore your messages to your Gmail account — or to copy them over to a new Gmail account, if everything hit the fan with your old one.
If you don’t want to fuss with Thunderbird and an add-on, you can try the app CutePieSMPT Daemon, which also makes it incredibly easy to view the contents of an .MBOX file. The app felt a little laggy — and crashed once — when I used it, but if you just need to quickly check something in your downloaded Gmail archive, it’s a fine alternative. I also love its name.
If you’re on a Mac, you can use Apple’s Mail app to import .MBOX files. Open the app, click on File, and click on “Import Mailboxes”. Make sure “Files in mbox format” is selected, and then find your .MBOX file(s). Anything you import will get dropped into the “On My Mac” section of Mail as a subfolder of a new “Import” folder.