It's hard to imagine being without email as it's embedded into our work and personal lives. Everything from gas bills to shopping receipts to business matters are sent via email, so the question is, could you cope if you lost it?

There are messages in your inbox going back years and they contain important information like login details for websites, contacts, business information and so on. Losing it is a frightening thought and it is essential that you back it up. You may never need the backup, but you will be glad you have it if disaster strikes.

Email can be placed into one of two categories according to where it is stored: either online or offline. Examples of online email include Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Outlook (the new name for Hotmail).

This type of email is stored online and is accessed using a web browser. It doesn’t matter which computer, tablet or smartphone you use because your mail is always accessible. Except when things go wrong, that is. No service guarantees it will never lose your emails, so it could happen. Alternatively, your account may be hacked and you lose access to your web mail.

Offline email is accessed using software like Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Outlook, Windows Live Mail and Thunderbird. All these programs connect to an email server on the internet and, depending on the preferences you set, may download your messages to a local hard disk.

A disadvantage is that your email is stored only on the computer with the email software. Suppose you buy a new computer or replace a faulty disk drive, how do you transfer your email to it? Fortunately, email on the disk drive is easy to back up and move from one computer to another.

Backing up email from Outlook and Thunderbird

Backing up email in Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Outlook, Windows Live Mail and Thunderbird is straightforward. First you find out where the program stores the files on the disk drive, then you simply copy it to a USB disk or flash memory drive, or even across your home network to a different computer or NAS drive. Once you have this backup, moving it to another computer is straightforward: you just copy the files to the same location on the new computer or disk drive.

Start Outlook Express or Windows Mail and go to Tools, Options. Select the Advanced tab and then click the Maintenance button. Click the Store Folder button to see where the program saves email messages. Windows Mail for example, typically uses C:\Users\YourName\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Mail. Windows Live Mail is almost identical and you go to File, Mail, Advanced, Maintenance, Store Folder. In each case you just copy the folder to make a backup. Should you ever need it, copy the folder back to restore things to that point in time.

Back up Windows Mail

Outlook is slightly different and it stores everything in files with a .pst extension. All versions of Outlook use pst files, but the disk location has changed over the years. Right-click your email account on the left in Outlook and select Data File Properties. Click Advanced to see the filename. Only the pst file is essential, but copy the whole folder to back up Outlook’s settings and preferences too. Just copy it back to restore it, or click File, Open, Open Outlook Data File. Outlook can work with any pst file stored anywhere.

Back up Outlook email

If you use Mozilla Thunderbird as your email client then it is a similar process. Find where it stores the email and simply copy it to another disk or PC. Right-click your email account in the left-hand panel and then select Settings. Select Server Settings on the left and then look in the Local directory box. It’ll be something like C:\Users \YourName\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird\Profiles\3hkni28w.default\Mail\

Back up Thunderbird email

All these mail locations are in a hidden folder, so you won't be able to see it in Windows Explorer. Go to Folder Options in the Control Panel and on the View tab select ‘Show hidden files, folders and drives’. You can then access the mail folders in Explorer and copy them elsewhere to back them up.

Next page: How to back up your web-based online email

Back up your webmail

Google Mail, Yahoo! Mail and Outlook/Hotmail do not have any backup facilities. However, all three services can be accessed with traditional email clients. Programs like Outlook, Thunderbird and Windows Live Mail (the latter two are free) can download email from these services and store it on your hard drive.

It's possible to have your email both on the web and the disk drive at the same time, so the local copy on the disk is your backup and you can continue to access Google, Yahoo! and Outlook with a browser from any PC, tablet or phone. There are a few things to watch out for though and it isn’t quite as straightforward as you might expect.


In Gmail click the gear icon and then Settings. Select Forwarding and POP/IMAP, then set the status to enable both POP and IMAP. There is a ‘When messages are accessed with POP’ setting and it should be set to ‘Keep Gmail’s copy in the inbox’. This is to prevent the email software deleting messages when it downloads them. The idea is to copy messages and not move them to the PC’s disk.

Down at the bottom of the page are instructions for setting up Thunderbird and Outlook. You don’t need them because modern email software knows exactly what settings are required for Google, Yahoo! and Outlook/Hotmail. An email address and password is sufficient to set them up.

Back up Gmail

Outlook (Hotmail) and Yahoo!

In Outlook (Hotmail) click the gear icon at the top right, More Email Settings, then ‘POP and deleting downloaded messages’. Select ‘Don’t let another program delete messages from Outlook’.

Yahoo! doesn’t have this option, but it can be set in the email software. In Thunderbird for example, right click the email account in the left panel and select Settings followed by Server Settings. Tick ‘Leave messages on server’. Just run your email software whenever you want to make a backup and it will copy all the messages and save them to disk.

There are alternative ways of backing up Gmail, Yahoo! Mail and Outlook. Go to the settings in each service, select the mail forwarding option and enter an email address. When an email arrives a copy is automatically forwarded to the specified email account. So if you have Google Mail for example, you could get a Yahoo! Mail account and set it as the forwarding address. Yahoo! Mail is then your Google Mail backup, or vice versa. Old messages won’t be copied across, but any new ones will.

Another option is to use Gmail as a backup for your email. In Settings, Accounts and Import there is an option to add a POP3 email account. Add your email account and Gmail will copy every message you receive. Don’t forget to tick the option to leave a copy of emails on the server or Gmail will delete them after copying them.

Use Gmail to back up another email account