How to archive your email off-server


Leaving your email server-side only (similar to being ‘in the cloud’), as occurs by default when using IMAP, results in great synchronization of mail folders between your multitude of mobile devices. This is because each device first syncs with the server before showing you your emails. The downsides of server-synced emails are that your mailbox size will continue to increase and that you have a single point of failure. If you reach your storage limits, this could become a problem and similarly, if there’s ever a problem server-side, you may not be able to access the messages because the problem will sync to your computer.

In this post we’re going to talk about how to archive your emails to a local mailbox on your computer. When we say archive, it really just means moving messages to another location. An off-server archive means we’re moving messages from the server/cloud to your computer. This is not the same thing as the archive button in your mail app, which moves messages to another folder on the server, nor auto-archiving in Outlook.

If you connect to the mail server using POP, then your mail app is already downloading full copies of the messages from the server. If you find that your mail is amassing on the server still, check your mail app’s settings for one similar to “Delete messages on server after [x] days” and be sure to configure that for however long you wish to keep a backup of messages on the server — we suggest 90 days. If, after changing this setting, the server still contains your older messages, you can login using webmail and remove them from the server manually.

Configuring a mail app to archive locally to your computer will allow you to:

  1. Free up space on your hosting plan with us for files that don’t need to be available across all devices (like those older than a time of your choosing — we recommend 3-6 months).
  2. Decrease the time necessary for webmail or your mail apps to load mail folders. By making your server-side folders smaller in size, mail applications (including our webmail system) will be able to load the contents of that folder quicker.
  3. Ensure that if there’s ever any problems with emails server-side, those problems will not affect your local archived messages.

If your computer is configured to back up to an external hard drive (such as using Time Machine on MacOS), then you’ll end up with a local copy of old emails on your computer as well as a regular backup, which is the best possible configuration and we strongly recommend ensuring you have local computer backups to do this.

We’re going to use the Thunderbird mail app to show how to do this, however you can implement the same general idea with just about any mail application, like Apple Mail, Outlook or Windows Live Mail.

If you’d like to use Thunderbird so the instructions below are precise (rather than a general guide), get started by installing Thunderbird and set up your email account using our guide. If you’ll be using your own mail app, the steps below won’t be 100% precise, but the same general idea should apply.

Create local archive folders

Although I’ve got a few server-side folders, I like to merge everything into one off-server archive folder for all messages because I can always search for emails later on and that search is faster when the messages are fully located on your computer.

In other words, folders for separate emails may simply make things more complicated than they need to be. You can choose to create as many off-server folders as you like for archiving, but it will make more work to set-up. Mail apps will typically call off-server folders “Local” folders, meaning those folders and their contents will be stored on your local computer, rather than the server. (Tip: Apple Mail shows them as “On My Mac”).

Here’s how to create one with Thunderbird

  1. Right click on “Local Folders” on the left in the Thunderbird folders pane.
  2. Choose “New Folder”
  3. Give it a name — I called mine “Archive”. It should be a subfolder of “Local Folders” already, but if it isn’t, be sure to select that option.
  4. Press Create Folder
  5. You will now see a folder called “Archive” (or whatever you named it) under “Local Folders” in the left sidebar.

Here’s how to create one with Apple Mail

  1. Open Apple Mail and select the “Mailbox” menu from the menu bar at the top of the screen.
  2. Choose “New Mailbox”
  3. Set the Location to “On My Mac”
  4. Give it a name like “Local Archive” or just “Archive” as long as you won’t get that mixed up with the server-side Archive folder.
  5. Press OK
  6. You will now see a folder with the name you specified under “On My Mac” in the left sidebar.

If you’d like to use multiple categorized archive folders, you can repeat the process above to create each one of them.

Move server-side emails to local archive

Now it’s time to move your emails from the server-side folders to the local (off-server) archive folder. All messages that you move will no longer be accessible with your other devices or webmail; these messages will only be accessible from the device you’re working on now.

  1. Find the folder you wish to archive emails from and click on it.
  2. Select all the messages you wish to archive (such as all those older than 90 days or 6 months) and drag them to the Local folder you created using the steps above. (In the example I used above, this would be the “Archive” folder, but if you created your own folder name(s), you can choose one of those).

You can follow the same steps above for any or all of your mail folders. For example, create a “Sent Archive” and drag and drop all of your old Sent emails from the IMAP folder into the Local Folder.

That’s it! Note that it might take some time for your mail app to download the full copy of each email, especially if your Internet connection is limited in speed and if you are moving a large number of messages. This means it can also take a long time for the server-side storage usage to update. Give it time!

Let us know if you run into any problems with these instructions using the comments below.

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Jordan Schelew

Jordan has been working with computers, security, and network systems since the 90s and is a managing partner at Websavers Inc. As a founder of the company, he's been in the web tech space for over 15 years.

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  1. Nicole on March 5, 2022 at 7:52 am

    Ni,I have accidentally moved my archived folder which contains a lot of sub folders, to the server. Now, my mailbox full. It is so tedious to move obe folder by folder back to archive. Is there a better method to bring thr archive folder out of server?

    • Jordan Schelew on March 5, 2022 at 9:51 am

      Not short term, I’m afraid. Best options are probably:

      • Upgrade to a mail service that has larger storage, then sync everything over to that service. For example, the 50GB or 300GB mailboxes with our Exchange hosting:
      • Stop using multiple folders and simply throw everything in the archive folder. That way when it comes time to move things off-server, you can simply grab everything in that one folder rather than go through dozens of possible folders within it.
  2. Paulette on September 20, 2021 at 8:09 am

    I’ve always archived outlook emails to a few PST files with sub folders – which helped keep cloud email cleaned yet allowed me to access old emails when required.
    How do I do this on Apple Mail client on a Mac… emails coming from gmail and Comcast?

    • Jordan Schelew on September 20, 2021 at 8:02 pm

      Hi Paulette, the details in this guide will show you exactly how to do this using any mail app that *isn’t* outlook using PST files 🙂

  3. Patrick Smith on February 17, 2021 at 11:36 am

    Does using this method keep you in line with the data retention laws in the USA, particularly in relation to HIPAA, CPRA and GDPR?

    • Jordan Schelew on February 17, 2021 at 12:24 pm

      Hey Patrick,

      Good question! The archiving method described here pulls the messages onto your own computer where backup and retention is entirely in your hands. This could be a problem if your own computer is not set up for proper data retention of files on its hard drive. But for those with a reasonable backup system in place, like either cloud backup software or on-premises backups — like Apple’s Time Machine, or Microsoft’s Windows Backup utility — then that should certainly do the trick for data retention. Even better if you’re using an external RAID enclosure with that software.

      If you’re wondering about our general mail storage systems’ compliance, this isn’t the place for that question as I can’t see how that is affected by your choice to archive messages on your own computer (which is what this guide is all about). However, you can use our contact page to ask about that 🙂

  4. Tom McCaffrey on April 25, 2020 at 10:58 pm

    I have an office an home computer. I wish to archive files at both locations, but when i archive at anyone location, it deletes the messages from the server and I cannot save an archive copy at the second computer.

    • Jordan Schelew on April 26, 2020 at 3:04 pm

      Hey Tom,

      It’s not possible to archive emails to two computers simultaneously while using IMAP, as the act of moving the messages to local folders typically removes them from the server. The only exception to this is if your email application explicitly supports copying messages from the server to local folders. You would need to consult the mail application’s documentation to find out if it does or not.

      That said, you could switch to using POP connectivity. You would lose syncing of things like read-status of the messages, but you would gain the ability to specify to leave messages on the server for x days. If you set that to something like 30 days on all mail apps, then they’ll all download copies of the same messages, then ultimately remove them from the server once they’re older than 30 days. You will then be effectively archiving emails on both devices.

    • Nishil on September 9, 2020 at 2:57 am

      Thunderbird has an option to copy messages. I am on version 78.2.1 and I have it in the right click menu after selecting a message.
      So you will need to use this at one of the computers and use move on the other computer.
      If both computers are on the same network you can also change the location of the local folder to a shared drive. With this you’ll only need to move the emails to the local folder once.
      One more technical option I am exploring is setting up a imap server locally. I can then ‘archive ‘ the emails from by moving to this server. is probably a good option for doing this.

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