Thunderbird Mail Backup

One of the things that initially drew me away from Outlook Express was how easy backing up Thunderbird is. Everything is in ONE PLACE! How easy is that? Read about creating a Thunderbird mail backup and restoring from it.

January 4, 2018

Before Thunderbird

Way back when I used to be an Outlook Express user, I had trouble more than once with backing up all my mail. I’m not sure what Microsoft’s newest built in mail client is, but if Office 365 is any indication, I’m sure it’s a mess. Because the process was such a mess, I went looking for another client. Lo and behold, my first Thunderbird mail backup was a flawless process.

Because back then I was using Windows 98 (the last version of Windows I personally owned and used regularly — anything newer I’ve used has been at work) I wiped my computer every eight or nine months. I had to. After running it for that long, plus all the installing and uninstalling software I’d do, the computer slowed down and crashed a lot. I couldn’t use it without screaming. Backing up normal data was a fairly often occurrence, but for these “wipes” I’d back up EVERYTHING, including the email program’s application data. Outlook Express was a pain in the ass for some reason. I think I was able to successfully backup and restore all of my email data ONCE. You might chalk it up to bonehead on my part, and you might be right. At any rate, I got sick of losing email, and decided to switch email clients.

Jumping ship

Mozilla Thunderbird was out there. It was a fairly new program at the time (a companion to Mozilla’s Firebird — now Firefox) and I tried it. I’d already tried Firebird, while my wife was keeping all of her bookmarks and history separate from mine by using the old Mozilla suite.

Thunderbird imported stuff from Outlook Express well, and I was able to move everything in a test from one computer to another. WOOT! Years later, the process hasn’t changed much; backing up Thunderbird is as easy now as backing up Thunderbird was a few years ago. Here’s what you need need to know…

In Linux, your data is going to be somewhere like /home/yourname/.thunderbird/  I’ve seen some distributions stick it in .mozilla-thunderbird. If I remember right, Ubuntu used to have it in the latter, but now it’s in .thunderbird. Regardless, it’s something like that.

Windows is different. In XP, Thunderbird profiles are found in C:\Documents and Settings\Your Name\Application Data. Now, you won’t even see Application Data if you haven’t got “show hidden files and folders” set. You do this by getting into any Explorer window and finding Tools, then Folder Options.

In Windows 7, it’s in an even more different place. Microsoft renamed the user directory structure in Vista, so you’ll find Thunderbird profile data here:

C:\Users\Your Name\AppData\Roaming\Thunderbird

in Vista , 7, 8, and 10. Now, there’s also a C:\Users\Your Name\AppData\Local\Thunderbird, but I didn’t see everything needed in there to do a backup and restore. I’m actually not sure what the difference between the Local and Roaming directories are in Windows. I didn’t need the Local directory’s contents during a test though. That’s right, I had to test. For you all, my loving audience, I defiled myself and used a Microsoft product. I’ve since sanitized myself and fumigated the house — I feel better now. 

What’s in that thar directory, anyway?

On a Linux box, you will see a couple of things. One is a profiles.ini file, and the other is an oddly named directory. Something like fsdgb5hx.default is what you ought to see. The profile.ini is just a text file, and in it is a line that goes like this:


This is important to note if you are going to be moving your profile from one operating system to another. In Linux, it’s like I just said. In Windows, it’s like this:

Path=Profiles/fsdgb5hx.default     <—- NOTE the preceding Profiles\ !

You have to change this appropriately when you’re creating a Thunderbird mail backup on one platform and restoring it to another. I run into is when someone is going to switch to Linux and is already using Thunderbird. You don’t HAVE to I suppose, because however you lay it out in the profiles.ini file is what Thunderbird will look for when it starts, but I’ve just found it’s best to stick with what I’d find in a regular Thunderbird install.

Restoring from a Thunderbird mail backup

So, you’ve got your profile data on a thumb drive, copied over a network, or whatever.  Now what?  Well, I usually fire up the new version of Thunderbird, and just cancel it out when it starts asking me for email usernames and such.  Then, I can go into the directories that were created and poke around to make sure nothing changed radically if I’m backing up from one version and restoring to a newer version.  Then I copy in my  fsdgb5hx.default folder (to wherever Thunderbird stuck in the new gibberish.default folder).  After that I either edit the profiles.ini file to reflect the changes, or copy in my old one.  Again, you might want to edit the new one, in case something has changed in a newer version.

If You Screw Up

Don’t worry about it.  As long as you grabbed the Thunderbird mail backup correctly in the first place, which should just be a simple copy or rsync, you’re golden. You can screw the restore up fifty times, and it won’t matter. Just delete the NEW Thunderbird folders, and pull in the old stuff again (or fire up Thunderbird the way I just explained)

There are Mozilla Forums if you need a hand, or you can feel free to contact me directly. I should be able to talk you through it in chat or with email.

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