Three ways to backup your Thunderbird's mail

This article will present three ways of backing up the e-mails stored with Thunderbird. This could be needed for safety or to recover from a computer outage.

The examples will use Thunderbird 3 on Windows XP. But this should apply to any Thunderbird version. The files location may vary according to the OS you’re running.

Regular safety backup

In normal operation, your Windows installation works and you can access all of your files from your user’s session. To backup your Thunderbird’s data:

  • Start the Windows’ Explorer ;
  • Browse to C:Documents and Settings$USERApplication Data, replacing $USER with your username ;
  • Locate the directory named Thunderbird ;
  • Right-click on it and select “Send To”, then “Compressed Folder”.

Keep the archive safe. It would be used to restore your data. Such action should be done once a day, once a week or once a month ; depending on how much e-mail you receive. A simple method to determine your backup frequency is to ask yourself: if my computer crashes right now, which is the youngest e-mail I’d like to restore? If the answer is “yesterday”, then you should backup you mail every day. If the answer is “last week”, then a weekly backup should be enough. If you can deal with a loss of much more emails, a monthly backup would suffice.

We’ll see how to restore the emails in the last section of this article.

Emergency backup

Either because you keep getting BSOD™ or because a trojan keeps rebooting your Windows every 5 minutes, you may not be able to operate in your Windows’ session anymore. If all you can expect is a complete reinstallation, then you should try the following procedure to backup your e-mails:

  • Reboot your computer and stay tuned ;
  • When the screen is all black and before the first Microsoft Windows logo appears, hit the F8 key ;
  • Select the “Safe Mode” from the text menu ;
  • Log in as you would usually do ;
  • Acknowledge the “Safe Mode” warning ;
  • As described previously, browse to C:Documents and Settings$USERApplication Data, replacing $USER with the Windows’ username ;
  • Create a “Compressed Archive” from the Thunderbird folder ;
  • Insert a removable storage, like a USB stick, and copy (or move) the archive on it ;
  • Shut the workstation down and unplug the removable media.

You now own a backup of your e-mails on the external storage. This backup can be used to restore your data. See the last section of this article for more details.

Catastrophy backup

Sometimes, the pain is to big to the system and even the “Safe Mode” can’t be used. In such case, you have two options :

  • Open the computer, take the disk out and plug it onto another one ;
  • Start another system on the computer and access the disk from it ;

We are going to use the second method:

  • Find a way to download and burn a Linux live distribution. In our case, we’ll use Ubuntu 11.04 ;
  • When you have the Linux CD in hand, place it in your computer’s DVD tray and boot from it ;
  • From the boot menu, choose the “Try Ubuntu without installing” option ;
  • When booted, from the “Places” menu, select “Home Folder” ;
  • Locate the local Windows partition that should be mounted by Ubuntu. Mine was called “43 GB Filesystem” ;
  • Browse to Document and Settings/$USER/Application Data, where $USER is your Windows’ username ;
  • Right-click on the Thunderbird folder and select “Compress…” ;
  • Select an archive format. I choose “zip” ;
  • Select a location for the archive. I choose to store it on a USB key ;

When this is done, you can turn the computer off. The e-mail backup is located on the USB key.

Restoring Thunderbird’s data

Wether you are recovering from a regular backup or from a catastrophy, let’s say you have a clean Windows and Thunderbird installation:

  • Log in to your Windows session ;
  • Start the Windows’ Explorer and browse to C:Documents and Settings$USERApplication Data, replacing $USER with the Windows’ username ;
  • Grab your archive file and copy it to this directory ;
  • Right-click on the archive file and select “Extract all…” ;
  • Check that the extract path is C:Documents and Settings$USERApplication Data and click “Next” ;
  • Delete the archive file and start Thunderbird.

You now have a brand new instance of Thunderbird with all your e-mails, contacts and extensions.

The same procedure set could be used to migrate from Thunderbird on some OS to Thunderbird on some other OS (from Windows to Linux, from Linux to Mac OS X, from Mac OS X to NetBSD…). The only trouble I ever had was with some extensions that had to be reinstalled after the restoring phase. Everything else was back in business!

Happy backup. That’s All Folks!

Author: Joel Carnat

@work Technical Architect and SysAdmin ; @home OpenBSD and FOSS, Karate, Kobudō, Jōdō, Bodyweight workout, Photography & Music

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