Best free email backup tools

A look at some of the easiest to use tools for saving your essential data

You probably haven't given much thought to backing up your email, especially if they use webmail services like Gmail and Outlook.com, where the messages are stored on reliable servers and accessible from anywhere. But what happens if the service you use goes down for an extended period of time, or a hacker gains access to your account and locks you out?

Even just finding yourself somewhere without a decent internet connection at a time when you desperately need a particular email can be massive headache. Backing up your messages means you'll always have a copy of them when needed, and the process doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming if you follow our guide.

Before you start

Most of us have the good sense to regularly backup our PCs in case disaster strikes, but very few people bother to backup their emails. It's true that most large webmail providers are perfectly secure and undoubtedly have copies of your email stored in more than one place, but it's not a complete guarantee of safety. Would you be upset if you lost all your emails? If the answer is 'yes', then you ought to consider taking steps to secure them.

Before you create a backup, it's worth doing a spot of spring cleaning, to avoid saving copies emails you don't want, such as emails from mailing lists and other marketing materials.

Gmail makes it easy to find and remove unwanted messages. To delete content from a specific sender or organisation, type their email address in the search box and press Enter. Click the tick box under the search bar to select all the messages, then delete them by clicking the bin icon. If you want to remove all older messages, type in:inbox before:YYYY/MM/DD and specify a cut-off date. For example, typing in:inbox before:2018/01/01 displays all messages received before that date, so you can select and delete them all.

The biggest space hogs are messages with attachments, and you can get Gmail to display them all. Just type has:attachment into the search bar and press Enter. You can also display just the largest emails, by specifying a size (in bytes): for example size:1000000.

Backup your email with free software

There are a number of methods you can use to back up your messages. One option is to use email software such as Thunderbird. This works with all types of email, including webmail services like Gmail and Outlook.com. All you have to do is enter your name, email address and password, and it will fetch copies of your emails for offline viewing.

When setting up you can choose between POP (Post Office Protocol) and IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol). With the former, messages are downloaded to your computer and then, depending on your settings, either deleted from the source, archived, or left alone. With IMAP, messages are synched: delete an email in Thunderbird and it will vanish from the web and vice versa.

Messages can be exported in EML format, for opening in a different mail client. To do this, select the messages you want to save (press Ctrl+A to select them all), then right-click a message and choose Save As. Select a format to save the emails in, and click Select Folder.

Alternatively, you can use the excellent MailStore Home, which works with any mail provider including Gmail and Outlook.com and securely saves your messages in a central location on your hard drive. You can search for, read, and restore emails back to your email account, directly from the software. The latest version includes a faster search tool and the ability to hunt for messages by archive date.

Save email attachments to Google Drive

If you're not too worried about backing up your individual emails, but you want to save the attachments you've been sent, you can use a Gmail add-on called 'Save Emails and Attachments'. Click the Free button and a Google Sheet will open.

The addon needs a variety of permissions to run, including the ability to 'Read, compose, send and permanently delete all your email from Gmail,' and 'See, edit, create and delete all of your Google Drive files'. That may feel like too much of an imposition, but it's standard for this kind of backup tool. Click Allow and go to Add-ons, 'Save Emails and Attachments', then Create New Rule.

In the window that opens, choose if you want to download emails, attachments or both. You can also narrow the results by choosing a particular Gmail label, and specifying who the messages are from, to, what the subject is and when they were received.

Specify the Drive folder to save the attachments to and click Save. Select Run Manually, then Run and it will go to work. The Google Sheet updates to show what's being saved to your Drive. If you require local copies of your attachments you can download them from your Drive folder.

Backup your important messages

Just because you can backup your entire inbox, it doesn't mean you have to. Some people might prefer to save copies of just their most important emails - the ones you can't afford to lose.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to create a label for those messages and have them forwarded to another email account. To create a label, select an email and click the Labels button above. In the window that opens, click 'Create new' and give it a name. Use this label on all future important messages. You can then use CloudHQ's 'Save and Backup My Emails' extension for Chrome to backup that label.

The free version limits you to saving 100 emails a month. Alternatively, you can use Google's Takeout service, which we show you how to use in our Mini Workshop, below.

Automatic: Thunderbird

In Thunderbird, an email client from Firefox's creator Mozilla, the Mail Account Setup Wizard simplifies the process of adding an email account down to entering your name, email address and password. It works with all the main webmail and email services, and has a tab-based interface to make it easy to switch between messages.

When setting up you can choose between two email protocols: POP and IMAP. With the former option, messages are downloaded to your computer (250 at a time) and then, depending on your settings, either deleted from the source (Gmail, or Outlook.com, for example), archived, or left alone.

When setting up Thunderbird choose either the POP or IMAP protocol

With IMAP, messages are synchronised. Delete an email in Thunderbird and it will vanish from the web and vice versa.

Automatic: eM Client

eM Client is a more advanced alternative to Thunderbird, containing a calendar, a to-do list and tools for managing your contacts. Like Thunderbird, it works with POP and IMAP, downloads your messages as they arrive, and lets you save them by dragging them to your desktop or a folder.

It automatically sets up Gmail, Outlook.com, and Apple iCloud accounts, and even imports email from other clients you used in the past. It's free for home users, with no limitations, though you'll need to register to get a licence.

There's a 30-day free trial of the Pro edition, but the free version should be enough for your needs.

Automatic: IFTTT

Use IFTTT to set up automatic actions, such as saving email attachments to Google Drive

If This Then That is a useful service that lets you link popular programs and devices so an action in one triggers a related action in another. A simple example is "if I get an email from a specific sender, then forward it to a different email account". Sign up for an account, choose the options you require, then customise them. You can use it to do all sorts of tasks, such as automatically downloading attachments to Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox.

Manual: MailStore Home

MailStore Home backs up your emails, and works with all email providers. To use it, select the service(s) to back up, then enter your email account details.

Your messages are saved in a central location on your hard drive, from where you can search for and read them. You can also easily restore them back to your email account. You can password-protect your archives, and the software fully encrypts all databases to make it impossible for anyone other than yourself to view the messages. You can run the software from a USB stick if you require.

Manual: Upsafe Free Gmail Backup

Some backup programs come with annoying limitations or, only store emails online (in the 'cloud'). If you just want to save a copy of your Gmail messages to a folder on your hard drive, use Upsafe's Free Gmail Backup, which is a breeze to use.

Once you've backed up your emails in Upsafe, click 'View mail backup' to see them

Install and run it, click the 'Sign in with Google' button, then enter your Google username and password and grant the program permission to access your account (none of your login details go to Upsafe).

Click 'Start backup' in the program and it will begin downloading your messages. You can choose where to save your backup to and see how much space is being used on your hard drive. Messages are downloaded in EML format (the format used by all email programs), and saved in Zip files. To see your emails in the program, click 'View mail backup' button (see screenshot).

Manual: Save and Backup My Emails

Most backup tools save copies of all your emails, which may be overkill. To selectively save emails, use CloudHQ's 'Save and Backup My Emails' Chrome extension, which works in Gmail only.

Select emails to back up using CloudHQ's extension, then click this button

Once you've connected CloudHQ to your email account, select one or more messages, then click the extension's button under the search bar (see screenshot) to save a copy online.

You can download these at any time as PDFs by clicking the extension's icon at the top right. If you don't select any emails, you'll see a button to 'Backup all emails' instead. This might be tempting, but the free version limits you to saving just 200 emails a month.

Manual: Google Takeout

Google lets you download a copy of all your data from its various products and services, including Gmail. Go to the Takeout page, click Select None, then scroll down and switch on the Mail slider (underneath 'Location History'). Next, click the arrow next to the slide so you can choose to include all of your email or selected labels. Scroll to the bottom and click Next, and select the format to save the data in (it's Zip by default).

Click this slider to download your Gmail emails using Google Takeout

You can send backed-up data as a download link via email, or added to Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive. You can browse this data once downloaded, but can't restore it or import it into a new account. Takeout is strictly export-only.

Manual: Outlook

The best way to back up emails from Outlook.com is using an email client like eM Client or Thunderbird. To back up in Outlook 2013, click File, then select Open & Export. Click Import/Export then select 'Export to a file'. Click 'Outlook Data File (.pst)', then click Next. Select your email folder, click Next and then Finish. You can import the backup through the Import/Export page.

Image: Shutterstock

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