Backup your Outlook mail and contacts

Business email and contacts are precious assets in the corporate world. Yet most executives do not even think about backing up this important data. Yes, there are other alternatives to mail on the desktop. For instance, high-end mobile phones such as the iconic Blackberry, can be synched with email systems and receive Push mail. You could also store your email in the cloud with services like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL and others. But this story is really for those who use POP3 email clients on a PC.

As a matter of policy one should always make backup copies of important data stored on the PC, and it includes email and address books. Viruses can play spoilsport; nobody escapes system crashes with data corruption. Of course, there are other reasons for backing up, for instance, you may want to transfer your downloaded messages and the address book to another device such as a laptop or smart phone.

There’s a compelling reason for backing up Outlook email too. Outlook data files have a file size limitation of 2GB. This limit can be increased through a registry tweak, although we don’t recommend it. So after a year or so of usage the message data files approach this file size limitation and Outlook starts complaining with warning messages. There’s a temporary workaround — the AutoArchive feature of Outlook. To configure and use it go to ‘Tools | Options’ and look within the ‘Other’ tab. But what happens when the archive file itself swells to a huge size? Then it’s time to consider making multiple archive files, perhaps one for each year.

This workshop is based on Microsoft Outlook 2003, but the concepts explained here are generally applicable to any other email client. Of course, exact storage locations of data files and file formats will differ, even among different versions of Microsoft Outlook. But the backup procedure is similar for other clients.

In this workshop we show different ways to backup Outlook email. Use the method that suits you. But before you jump in, it’s important to have a clear understanding about how Outlook email works, the data file formats, and management of data files.

Data file management

Outlook 2003 stores all email messages, contacts, calendars, notes, and tasks in .PST (Personal storage Table) data files. Older versions use the .OST format. Outlook Express uses .DBX files (one for each mail folder) and a .WAB file for address book data. In the case of Outlook 2003 you need to look for, and backup three crucial files: Outlook.pst, address.pst and archive.pst. But where are these files stored? By default these are stored in a folder named ‘Outlook’ that’s deep down in the ‘Documents and Settings’ folder.

One way to find the location of the data files is to use Windows Search. Click the Windows ‘Start’ button and select ‘Search’. In the search criteria box type ‘*.pst’. Within the search results window, widen the ‘In Folder’ column and you will see the full path in front of the data file. In our case it is: ‘C:\Documents and Settings\Administrator\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook’. Whew!

Tip: Simplify the long route to this location by creating a shortcut link to this folder on the Windows Desktop.


There are two other ways to find the location of the data files. To view the three Outlook data files from within Outlook, Click ‘File | Data File Management’. Widen the column titled ‘Filename’ by dragging its border to the right. Keep scrolling to the right by dragging the horizontal scroll button in the box and you’ll soon see the three Outlook data files named address.pst, archive.pst and Outlook.pst. Click ‘Open folder’ to see the location of these data files. To view the three Outlook data files from outside Outlook, use the ‘Mail’ utility in the Windows Control Panel.

Method-1: Copy the PST files

The simplest way to backup Outlook data files is to search for *.pst files. When these are listed in the search results window simply right-click on these and copy these to a USB pen drive using the ‘Send to’ option in the context menu. The limitation here is the capacity of the pen drive. If that’s the case then burn a DVD or CD with a copy of the PST files. Unless you use rewriteable optical media, you’d want to burn a CD/DVD only when porting mail from one PC to another.

If you later want to restore the contacts or messages you’ll need to copy these from the backup medium to the very same location (same folder) from where they were earlier copied. We’ve already told you how to find the folder where the Outlook data files are stored.

Method-2: Import and Export
Most email clients have an Import/Export option, typically found in the ‘File’ menu. So messages and contacts can be transferred between email clients and also Web-based email using this option. The conduit here is a file in a standard or universally acceptable format. In this case it’s a .CSV (comma separated values) file. A CSV file stores data in a structured, tabular format. A line in the CSV file corresponds to one record or row in the table. And each field in the table is separated by a comma. A unique record corresponds to one person’s contact details or one email message. Each record comprises of fields, for instance, Name, Phone, Address, email—in the case of an address book.

1. From the Outlook ‘File’ menu select ‘Import and Export’. The Import/Export wizard appears. Select the option ‘Export to a file’ and click ‘Next’.


2. Select the option ‘Comma separated values (DOS)’ and click ‘Next’.


3. The Outlook message folder structure is now shown. If you want to export the address book, then select ‘Contacts’ otherwise select ‘Inbox’ to export all messages in Inbox and sub-folders.


4. The name of the CSV export file and its default storage location are shown. At this point you may want to store the exported contacts or messages in another location/folder. Click the ‘Browse’ button and specify a new location (like the Desktop). Also notice that the default name of the export file is ‘Inbox.csv’. You can change this name to ‘Contacts.csv’ now, or rename it later. Click ‘Next’.


5. The list of actions about to be performed is shown. Click ‘Finish’ to complete the task. Minimize Outlook and look for the CSV file in the specified location. You’ll notice that this file is associated with Excel. Double-click on it and view its contents. Do not save changes when exiting Excel. To make a backup, copy this CSV file to a pen drive or to another computer.



6. If you want to see your contacts or messages on another computer, first copy the respective CSV files to the desktop of the other computer. Then start Outlook and click ‘File | Import and Export’. Select the option ‘Import from another program or file’ and click ‘Next’.


7. Select the option ‘Comma Separated Values (DOS)’ and click ‘Next’.


8. You’ll be asked what action is to be taken in case of duplicate items. Select ‘do not import duplicate items’. Then specify the location (Desktop) where you copied the CSV file and click ‘Next’.


9. The Outlook folder structure is shown. Depending on what you are importing select ‘Contacts’ or ‘Inbox’ as the destination folders and click ‘Next’.


10. The list of actions about to be performed is shown. Click ‘Finish’ to complete the task.


Method-3: Using third-party tools

We found a third-party tool called ABF Outlook Backup. The full version cost $40 (approx Rs 2,000). You can download a trial version from This handy utility saves and restores all Outlook email messages and folders, contacts, calendar and journal entries, tasks, notes, RSS feeds, Outlook settings (with passwords), mail accounts, message rules, junk email lists, signatures—even Internet Explorer favorites. That’s a full and complete backup. A program wizard makes using this tool very straightforward. If depend heavily on Outlook for business communications, to schedule and plan meetings and appointments, or just to organize yourself, then this tool is highly recommended and well worth the price.

All messages, contacts and settings are saved in one backup file. This tool lets you backup directly to a pen drive, external hard drive or CD/DVD (with its built-in CD/DVD burner).


Shut down Outlook before installing or using this tool. While installing ABF Outlook Backup you’ll be asked if you want to make a backup. Click ‘Next’.


Specify what needs to be backed up. We suggest that you backup everything. Click ‘Next’.

The registered version offers the option of creating a self-extracting backup file. Otherwise you will need AFB Outlook Backup program when restoring from the backup file. As a security measure you can also add a password. Note the backup file name and its storage location (change it if necessary). Type a description for the backup that indicates when you took the backup or what was backed up. Click ‘Next’.


A summary of the backup details is shown. Note the location of the backup file. Click ‘Next’ to start the backup. Depending on how many messages you have, the backup operation will take anywhere between 10 – 30 minutes. Once the backup is completed look for a .OB3 file in the My Documents folder, which is the default location. Copy this file to a CD/DVD for safe storage. If you want to restore all your email, contacts and settings then double-click on this file and specify what needs to be restored. The ABF Outlook Backup wizard will guide you through the restoration process. Be sure to close Outlook before attempting a restoration.


–By Brian Pereira

The writer is a certified Microsoft Outlook Specialist (Office 2003).


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