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Moving email from one machine to another is a snap when you're using Thunderbird as your email program. I'll show you how.

My laptop is having problems, and I want to copy off my email before it dies and move that to another machine. How do I do that? I use Thunderbird.

Full disclosure: That's a question I asked myself this morning.

After returning from a road trip my laptop started to act "funny". I realize that's not the best of technical terms, but that's about the most accurate I could come up with before further diagnosis.

It was running, and I wanted to start some potentially multi-hour diagnostic, so I needed to move my email to my desktop machine.

One of the reasons I love Thunderbird: this is really, really easy. Easier than most email programs I know.

The Secret Word: Profile

"Your profile folder encapsulates everything about your email ..."

Thunderbird uses what it calls "profiles" to locate all of the information associated with your email. Your profile folder encapsulates everything about your email: mail, mail folders, email accounts, contacts, installed extensions and so on.

Thus copying your Thunderbird based email from one machine is a simple process:

  • Close Thunderbird on the source machine (the machine on which you currently have your email).

  • Install Thunderbird on the destination machine (the machine on which you want to have your email).

  • Run it once on the destination machine, configure nothing, and exit.

  • Locate the profile folder on the destination machine.

  • Erase the contents of the profile folder on the destination machine.

  • Locate the profile folder on the source machine.

  • Copy the contents of the entire profile folder and all sub folders from the source machine to the destination.

  • Run Thunderbird on the destination machine.

That's all there is to it.

Get Thunderbird

I'm going to assume that you're running the latest version of Thunderbird, as I was.

Download and install the latest version of Thunderbird on the machine to which you want to move your email.

Run Thunderbird once and it'll prompt you to begin configuring your email. Cancel that. We do not want to configure anything. With that out of the way, close Thunderbird.

This step was necessary to cause Thunderbird to create the profile folder into which we're about to copy our information.

While you're at it, close Thunderbird on the source machine.

Finding Profiles

There's a support article on locating profiles that covers it for other operating systems, but in a nutshell here's what worked for me on Windows 7:

In the folder C:\Users\LeoN\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird (where "LeoN" is replaced with your own Windows login account), there exists a file "profiles.ini". That's a simple text file that you can examine with Notepad, or "Type" at the Windows Command prompt. Mine looked like this:

[General]
StartWithLastProfile=1

[Profile0]
Name=default
IsRelative=1
Path=Profiles\8h1k0c0z.default

What that tells us is that the full path to the folder we care about is:

C:\Users\LeoN\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird\Profiles\8h1k0c0z.default

Yours will be different, of course - it won't be "LeoN", and that "8h1k0c0z" will probably be something else.

It's in that folder that everything is stored. And I do mean everything.

Optional: Choose Your Own Location

Even though you don't need to do this I'm going to mention it because it's what I do to keep things a little clearer on my machine.

You can change the location of the profile folder by editing profiles.ini on the destination machine before you move.

On my machine I changed two lines:

IsRelative=0
Path=f:\doc\thunderbird

That tells Thunderbird that my profile is stored in f:\doc\thunderbird - a folder I created. On my machine "F:" is a encrypted TrueCrypt volume.

Moving Day

Regardless of whether you changed it to a folder of your own choosing or left it to whatever that first run of Thunderbird set it to, we start with a simple step.

IMPORTANT: this step is performed on the destination machine, the machine you're moving to, the machine that does not yet have your email on it.

Make sure that the profile folder on the destination machine is empty. That initial run of Thunderbird may have placed some information there that we simply do not need, and we don't want to confuse subsequent steps.

Now the heavy lifting.

Copy the complete contents of the profile folder on the source machine to the profile folder of the destination machine.

It doesn't matter how you do it; it could be over your network, using CD-ROMs or DVDs, using a USB thumbdrive or hard disk, or any other way you have of copying bits from one machine to another.

What does matter is this:

  • All folders and sub-folders in the profile folder are copied.

  • All files are copied.

In my case, I created a zip file of the entire profile folder contents on the source machine, copied that across my network to the destination machine, and then unzipped it place.

Believe it or not, you're done.

Run Thunderbird on the destination machine and you should find that all of your email, contacts, extensions and whatnot have all been transferred over.

I simply pressed "Get Mail" and picked up where I'd left off.

And my laptop is now running that hours-long hard disk diagnostic.

Article C4456 - September 24, 2010 « »

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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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16 Comments
J G
September 25, 2010 10:50 AM

The method described implies that both machines are running the same version of Thunderbird. I think there was a change in the way TB stored its addresses going from V2 to V3 so this method might not work if widely different versions of TB were involved.

Frank Golden
September 28, 2010 12:48 PM

Thunderbird is available from John Haller etal
as a PortableThunderbird version.
It is meant to run from a flash drive but can be installed to a convenient spot on a system HDD.

When installed on a system HDD no registry entries are made.

It is standalone.
Once installed a desktop shortcut is created to the PortableThunderbird.exe.

To move to a new machine just copy the entire folder containing Thunderbird to the new machine.

Make a shortcut to the .exe and you are done.

Something to consider for the future.

Quite a few of my programs are standalone for this reason.

I install them on a separate partition as well.

Leo's method should work for Thunderbird installed on a linux machine.

The location of the profile folder in many Linux distributions is a hidden folder in /home//.thunderbird

Frank Golden
September 28, 2010 12:51 PM

Sorry typo in my previous comment.
the location of the profile folder in Linux should read /home//.thunderbird

is of course your real username.

Frank Golden
September 28, 2010 12:57 PM

Ok the software here won't let me post the info I want correctly.
Lets try this again
The location of the profile folder in linux
is /home/user name/.thunderbird

I had intended on bracketing username to indicate
that the user substitute his\her real username.

The newsletter software insists on replacing the bracketted info with //.

Linde
September 28, 2010 2:18 PM

I do not use Thunderbird, yet, have studied the subject: Acording to the Mozilla sites you can backup and transfer with MozBackup. Does that not work?

It may. Given the simplicity of the process I've outlined above I've never felt the need.
Leo
29-Sep-2010

bill
September 28, 2010 2:35 PM

to move mail in t'bird use mozbackup. free program that works well.
http://mozbackup.jasnapaka.com/download.php

Gerry Skipper
September 28, 2010 4:22 PM

Yes Mozbackup is the way to go for backing up your emails as well as your whole profile. Not only in Thunderbird but also with Firefox. Saves all your bookmarks and even your add-ons. Much easier than trying to find you profile and back it up manually.

Bill Nelson
September 29, 2010 12:19 AM

I recently installed Firefox on our laptop while away from home, because I couldn't get IE8 to work and, when I rolled back to IE7, it wouldn't work either. Rather than fight it on vacation, I installed FF. When I got home, I installed FF on my desktop, as well. Before we left, I'd installed Thunderbird on both machines in place of Outlook Express. For both programs, I simply used "Good Sync" to sync the profiles using a USB thumb drive. It seems to have worked fine in both instances. I also use Good Sync to backup to an external hard drive. Now that I have that job setup, is there any advantage to using Mozbackup instead?

Karl Medisch
September 30, 2010 6:14 AM

"...using CD-ROMs or DVDs..."
Wouldn't using these to move the profile data change the file properties to "Read Only" and cause problems? I used that method some years back and had to remove the "Read Only" before Mozilla email was able to read the profile information.

Yes, read-only may be added, and would need to be removed first.
Leo
30-Sep-2010

Padma
October 30, 2010 4:23 AM

Hi, my google email account is reaching its limit and i would like to take a back up of all the emails onto my external hard disk rather than fill up the current space on my system. So how can i do it? Does thunderbird allow me to install it and access it from the external harddisk?

Carlos Coquet
October 31, 2010 2:01 AM

Actually, both FirfeFox and Thunderbird let one place its data anywhere one wants. One has to run either program from the "Run" box using the parameter -p as in
Firefox -p
Thunderbird -p
This lets one place the data in an easy place instead of some folder BURIED in some directory structure whose name Microsoft changes from time to time. Click "Create Profile", give it a name, click on "Choose Folder" . . .
Thus, a better answer would be to run Thunderbird with the "-p" parm in the destination machine, CHOOSE where to place the stuff, then copy all the stuff from the source machine to the destination one.
In fact, because it is difficult to "extricate" one's personal (important) data from under "Documents and Settings" or whatever name MS chose for "Windows du jour" (since a zillion different things are saved thereunder), it's not a bad idea to define a separate folder or drive in which to store one's REALLY importat, personal data.

Michael Horowitz
November 23, 2010 9:52 PM

Like Leo, I use Thunderbird and have for a long time. However, unlike Leo, I opt for the portable version of Thunderbird (see portableapps.com) rather than the normally installed version - dare I say the legacy version.

I often copy my email and it simply involves copying one folder, a folder that I named and placed. Seems the easier approach. No need to be bothered with sub-folders at all.

Leo's idea of keeping email in a TrueCrypt container is excellent. I do this when traveling and should do it at home too...

Steve Hunter
September 6, 2011 8:42 PM

An easier way to move your Thunderbird profile from one computer to a different computer is to use MozBackup, the backup tool for Firefox & Thunderbird.
Download and install Mozbackup (just Google the name and you'll soon find it).
Create a Thunderbird backup on Computer A noting where you saved it (I create a folder named 'Backup' on the C drive.
Go to Computer B; install Thunderbird & MozBackup
Run 'Restore Backup' from the Mozbackup file from Computer A (using USB memory stick or across your network, whichever you prefer) and it will copy across all your settings, emails etc.
Job done, plus you've got a simple to use email backup program installed on your computer, for regular use.

John Katkus
October 30, 2011 4:59 AM

The article has been read, but unfortunately I have a slightly different twist to this issue.
I was wondering if you can help me with a problem with my computer system. I had to rebuild my Windows 7 Ultimate computer and I am having an issue restoring the e-mail messages from Thunderbird 7.01. I am using Mozilla Thunderbird 7.01 to read the messages from sbcglobal.net as I do not like all the advertising and side-bars that are in sbcglobal.net
What happened is that when the re-build happened I did not know about a program called MozBackup that lets you backup all of your e-mail and addresses. After the system was rebuilt I restarted my e-mail with Thunderbird to read all of the new messages. This was done because 3 days had passed and I needed to read the new e-mail.
After I found out about MozBackup, I re-installed the old hard drive and was able to backup all of the e-mail messages. I then re-installed the new hard drive and backed up all of the e-mail messages. I have kept all of the backup files so if the sequence needs to be changed, that can be done.
I then restored the old e-mail messages as I needed the folders that were created. I would like to know if there is a way to combine the new e-mail messages with the old e-mail messages so they are all in one location. If I had to edit the combined list that would not be a problem. The goal is to get all of the e-mails in one location.
If there is another way to backup the e-mail files, I can still do that as I kept the old hard drives in case there were any issues with the new install of Windows 7.
Thanks for any help or insight that you could give for helping me with this issue.

Kitty
November 4, 2011 3:20 PM

I read the article, and will be printing it off, and really appreciate that info. I also tried to sign up for your email list but it will not accept my email addy since I didn't give my name. trouble is, you don't have a field to enter a name. Let me know if you can help. thanks, Kitty

My fault. If you refresh the page that should be fixed now. Sorry about that.
Leo
06-Nov-2011
Kitty
November 13, 2011 2:17 PM

cool, now, what about the thunderbird profile.ini? don't I want to copy that over to the new machine as well?

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