Running Gmail in the cloud has some real benefits: You can get at your emails from a browser tab on any internet-connected device, you don’t need to install any additional software to access it, and all of your messages are safely backed up on Google’s servers, should something happen to your laptop or phone.

However, there might be times when you want local copies of your Gmail emails as well. Perhaps you’re expecting to be without regular internet access, or maybe you want to protect yourself in case Gmail on the web goes down. Maybe you just prefer the feel of a local email client.

You’ve got a couple of options for downloading your Gmail inbox and archive, which are useful in different ways. Note that following these steps won’t affect your emails in the cloud—they’ll remain where they are, unless you actively start deleting messages or decide to close your Google account.

Downloading Gmail emails to a local email app

If you use an email application running on your computer, like Outlook or Apple Mail, you can use it to get at your Gmail inbox through a standard protocol called IMAP (or Internet Messaging Access Protocol).

It means a selection of messages—usually from the last few weeks or months—are kept in sync with your local computer. Any changes made on the web are reflected in your local email client, and vice versa. Technically, it’s more syncing than downloading, but it does mean copies of recent emails will be stored on your computer as well as the web.

Screenshot of IMAP page on Gmail
First, enable IMAP in Gmail. Screenshot: Google

To make this work, first you have to enable IMAP from Gmail on the web:

  • Click the gear icon (top right), then See all settings.
  • Open the Forwarding and POP/IMAP tab, then select Enable IMAP.
  • Click Save Changes to confirm.

On the same page you’ll see options for how the syncing between your local email app and Gmail on the web is handled, which you can also tweak. Perhaps the most important one is how deleted emails are handled. When you delete a message in a local program such as Outlook, on the web version of Gmail you can choose to have the message archived, sent to the Trash folder, or instantly erased.

With IMAP enabled, you can then add your Gmail account to the email program on your computer. The process for this will vary depending on the program, and we can’t cover them all here—but the option to add a new email account should be fairly prominently displayed.

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Adding Gmail to the default Windows 11 email client. Screenshot: Microsoft

Gmail is such a well-known service that most email apps will just ask you for your Gmail address and username, and then be able to get connected that way. You don’t need to fill out a long series of configuration options, which was the case in the past.

For example, for the default Outlook email app that comes as part of Windows 11:

  • Click the gear icon (top right), then Accounts and Email accounts.
  • Select Add account, then enter your Gmail email address.
  • Click Continue, then follow the instructions to sign into your Google account.

After a few seconds, you’ll see that your Gmail account is added as a new option in the navigation pane on the left, with all of your Gmail labels represented as folders.

Downloading Gmail emails as an archive

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You can download your entire email archive from Google. Screenshot: Google

The other option for getting Gmail emails on your computer is to download them all as a complete archive. This is more suitable if you want to keep a backup somewhere safe, and don’t need regular access to your messages in an app.

Head to your Google account on the web, then click Data and privacy, and scroll down to find the Download your data option. Click that link, and you’ll see you can download information from all kinds of Google services, from your Chrome browsing history to the notes you’ve stored in Google Keep.

  • Click Deselect all, then select the Mail option.
  • Select All Mail data included if you want to pick and choose which messages are included in the download (messages assigned to a specific label, for example).
  • Click Next step, and you’ll be met with a series of options about how you want to get the download—you can get a link over email, or have it added to your Google Drive or another cloud storage service.
  • Select Create export, and you’ll receive an email when the download is ready.

On the options page, you can also choose to have the same export generated automatically, on a schedule—handy if you want to back up your Gmail account every so often, without having to remember to do it each time.

Bear in mind that if you’re using a Gmail account provided by an employer or other organization, rather than a personal one, you might not have the option to download an archive of your emails. If that’s the case, the Mail entry simply won’t appear when you head to the Download your data page.

The archive download puts your emails in a format called MBOX. Clients such as Apple Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird can open these files, as can Outlook with a plug-in. Note though that this is a static archive, suitable as a backup: If you open the file in a local program, the emails won’t be synced to and from the web.