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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 because they’re all accessing the emails by keeping them in sync with the server. However it also means 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, the problematic server copies will be downloaded to your computer.

In this article 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 manually 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 (except Sent emails) because I can always search for emails later on. 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. Here’s how to create one:

  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

You will now see a folder called “Archive” (or whatever you named it) under “Local Folders” 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. Under your IMAP email account in the sidebar, find the folder you wish to archive emails from and select 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 your folder of choice under “Local Folders”. 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 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.