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Moving from a web based free email service to downloading email to your desktop is a smart move, but often not as easy to do as we'd like.

I want to move from Windows Live Hotmail to something where I have the emails on my desktop. Any suggestion on how I can move my emails into my PC and any suggestion for a email service?

If you've read many of my articles on Ask Leo! you'll know that I applaud your decision.

But I do wish it were easier to move.

1. Choose an email service

Step one is to choose a new email service, making sure that it supports downloadable email. Typically that means that they support "POP" or "POP3" - they'll either call that out in their feature set or it'll just be part of their configuration information.

I've discussed selecting an email provider before in What for-pay email providers do you recommend?. The short answer is that your ISP probably provides you with one or more email accounts already and they're typically POP3 accounts.

I also discourage use of free email accounts as your sole repository for anything important. However Google's GMail supports POP3 access which can go a long way to avoiding many of the "I've lost everything in my account" stories I hear. If you download to your machine and use your email program's address book, then you control what happens to your email and how long you get to keep it even if the actual email account were to go away.

"I also discourage use of free email accounts as your sole repository for anything important."

So, having selected an email provider and created a new email account that supports POP3 access, we move on to the next step...

2. Chose an email program

To use email on your computer instead of via a web based interface, you'll need an email program.

Outlook Express is a popular choice (aka Windows Mail in Windows Vista) mostly because it's present on every Windows machine.

Outlook is a popular choice for business and heavy email users. It's more than an email program; it's a complete personal information manager, or PIM. It includes contact management tools, calendaring, notes, and more, right out of the box. Microsoft Outlook is a part of Microsoft Office, and while it can be purchased separately, it's not free.

An alternative that's growing in popularity, and happens to be what I'm using today, is Thunderbird. If you're considering Outlook Express, I'd actually recommend using Thunderbird instead. Many of the issues I hear in regards to Outlook Express just don't happen with Thunderbird. I actually find it more powerful, and the fact that it does not use a proprietary storage format means that your email is stored in a way that is easily accessible by many other programs.

Because we seem to spend so much of our time in email, what program you use becomes a very personal choice, and people are often adamant that their email program is by far the best and we'd be silly to consider any other. My advice is to look into a few and see which one makes the most sense to you and fits your needs the best.

Once you've installed and configured your email program to use your new email provider, it's time for a step that nearly everyone misses.

3. Backup your new email

If you're planning on having your email on your desktop machine, then you're explicitly taking responsibility for backing it up as well as archiving it according to your preferences. That may sound onerous, but in fact it's one of the very reasons I advocate moving away from free web-only email services - so that you can back things up yourself.

The majority of email related problems I hear often include the words "I've lost everything". Either the email service was the only repository for that persons critical email and other information and it disappeared, or they weren't backing up what was on their own machine.

Make backing up a part of your solution from the beginning.

4. Start using your new email

This is the easy part. You're configured, you're backing up, go for it!

One important part of this is to let people know you have a new email address. Get them to start using that address, and most importantly, make sure that any email you send comes from that new address so that replies are automatically sent to the correct, new address.

There are services that claim to be able to forward your email automatically for you. Most require that the old account be kept active, they simply handle checking for mail there and then forwarding it on when it arrives at the old address. I have no experience with these services; I've always simply handled that manually. Seeing what arrives on the old account is a good way to see who hasn't updated their address book yet and a good excuse to send them a gentle reminder.

5. Move your old mail

This is the hard part.

You have a bunch of email and contact information in your old free web based email account. What you would like to do is simply download that information into your desktop mail program.

It's typically not that simple.

Email first: there's actually some hope here. There are some services which give you pop3 access to your free email accounts. Unfortunately many are not free, and all require that you divulge your login information to that old account. They then provide a POP3 interface. Connect to it, download everything in your mailbox, and you're done with email.

My favorite and preferred approach uses Thunderbird. The webmail extension allows you to configure pop3 access to your web-based email accounts. Then, like the services above, you simply download your email. (Yes, you could continue to use your web-based email account using this extension. Unfortunately it's technically against most of the email providers terms of service, and therefore not officially supported by any of them. In other words: it could break, and not get fixed for a bit.)

Contacts and address books are another matter.

I've not yet come across a reliable means of migrating your contacts from the web-based services to another email program. Most do not support exporting your contacts (but all support import, of course).

I've heard of occasional hacks using an instant messaging client tied to the email account to do some form of limited export that could then be used to jump start a new address book in another program. It's unclear how well these solutions work.

My only solution so far is to manually re-enter your address book in your new email program. It's painful, but the good news is that most of the email programs you might use do support both import and export, and you'll probably not have to suffer through this exercise again.

6. Close, delete or ignore your old mail

Which of these you actually do is kind of up to you, but almost as important as starting to use your new account is to stop using the old one. After a period of time, closing the account probably makes the most sense, though for most free accounts, if you ignore it long enough it'll go away on its own.

Article C3116 - August 13, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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12 Comments
Chris
August 13, 2007 7:40 PM

I used several services including: gmail.com, hotmail.com, yahoo.com, mail.com, email.com, 60gigs.com, and several other smaller mail services and I still come to this conclusion:

gmail is the best by far... Yes, it is still Beta, but from beginning till now, I have never had a "real" problem with it. The spam protection is better than most and the only problem I have seen is a little message informing me to reload the page in the next few minutes (usually works instantly) but thats expected for a beta email service and I have only got that message maybe 3 times in my entire experience with it, spanning multiple years...

Even better, using a program like Microsoft Outlook allows you to have a hard copy of all your previous emails saved on your machine which means, you are always protected in case the serves discontinues because you have your old information saved. Even your contacts are exported with Microsoft Outlook for most well known free email services including yahoo, hotmail, and msn. Even better, all the information (including contacts, emails, and calender) are saved in a single, easy to backup .pst file in case anything happens.

I have not tried Thunderbird, but I think I might. Only have heard good things about it.

P. quinones
August 16, 2007 9:50 AM

How did I lose my internet service on one account on my hme computer and not the others? I didn't see that referred to in the article. Did I miss it?

Fred
August 17, 2007 8:54 PM

I use Gmail as my main account with POP3 downloading. That way I can have the simplicity of a POP3 program, I have all my email 'backed up' on the net in Gmail's inbox, and I can access all past email from anywhere I am connected.
Seems foolproof to me :)

Michael Dawson
August 18, 2007 7:14 AM

Mozilla Thunderbird is an excellent choice for moving your e-mail from the web to your hard drive. Through the WebMail add-ons, you can in fact still use your old accounts and use them with this program. I currently use it for both my hotmail and gmail accounts, though if you choose to use this method, you should remember to ensure that the settings on the program do not delete the mail on the server so you have a backup in case anything happens.

vincent
September 3, 2007 7:35 AM

I've had my hotmail account for a long time, since before MSN asked you to pay for accessing your account in outlook express and outlook.
This means that I have full interaction between outlook 2007 (installed it recently) and my hotmail account.
And this functionality seems to be linked to the account itself, cos no matter what email program I use (assuming I installed the correct httpmail plugin), I can access my hotmail account.
I suppose this is true for all us "ye olde hotmail users", no?

Steve
September 16, 2008 12:49 PM

I didn't see anything that me how to simpley drag and drop a *.msg from yahoo to a client folder, not associated with Outlook, that I specify. I could do that on my old provider (bresnan.net) but have not been able to find out how to do so on yahoo. I don't have any old email at bresnan, the emails are all akready in project folders on 'C' drive associated with my clients. I can copy attachments from yahoo, but I need the entire *.msg on my hard drive.
Help!!!

Jan
December 6, 2008 5:16 AM

Hi Leo,
You have probable written the answer to my question and I have not seen it or I have confused it with something else ...
Because I have two e-mail accounts (pop3.free.fr & popmail.yahoo.uk) which I use comming into thunderbird)
I keep recieving messages from my 'free.fr' saying that my message box is full...
OK but I do not want to delete them untill, I have managed to move them from my thunderbird to my desktop. Is this possible?
and how do I movethem into a folder on my deskt˘p please.
Sorry if you have already explained this ... there were probably too many words for me :o).. I probably need an image or a step by step video!!
Best wishes
Jan

Dan
February 26, 2009 3:54 PM

I want to move my web-based email messages from various folders to Outlook Express on my hard drive. I've read what you have here, but I don't see HOW to simply download my messages. I know where my Outlook Express mail is stored, so HOW do I get these other messages merged into the OE folders I've set up there???

matt
January 16, 2010 4:50 AM

I have hundreds of my emails on gmail, i dont want to close the account i just want to move the emails onto my pc hard drive as a backup, when i have done that how do u delete all the emails from gmail. i find the web based email ok but i will want to delete mail from gmail after i periodically move it to my pc. hope that makes sense.
regs matt

Teri
November 7, 2012 11:23 PM

I transferred my e-mails from yahoo to thunderbird with no problems. It just took awhile to complete. My question is now that is complete how do I stop. I want to delete all of my E-mails in yahoo but not have it effect thunderbird. I am just using that to backup.

Mark J
November 8, 2012 2:13 AM

@Teri
If you delete your emails on Yahoo, they will be deleted in Thunderbird also. If you don't want to see them in your Yahoo inbox, you can create an archive folder in Yahoo and move them there. This archive will also be automatically created in Thunderbird and your archived files will appear in that folder. That's what I do.

Teri
November 8, 2012 12:26 PM

Thank you so much Mark for the quick response. The reason why I am doing this is to keep my E-mails on my lap top. I do not want them on my work computer or Hard Drive. If I just stop having my E-mails transferred to Thunderbird will my E-mails be safe. That is as long as I do not connect to yahoo again.

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