How to Fix: Sort and Archive Emails with Thunderbird Locally (or Remote)

Dennis Faas's picture

This article will explain how to keep your email inbox clean, and how to sort and store your email messages locally (or by remote) using Mozilla Thunderbird.

This article is the 6th article in a series of articles I've recently written on Thunderbird, including:

How to Fix: Sort and Archive Emails with Thunderbird Locally (or Remote)

In the last article, I explained how to view emails in a single Inbox if you have multiple email accounts.

To recap: if you want to view your emails using an email program - rather than having to login to gmail, hotmail, or yahoo's website, for example - you can use a program like Mozilla Thunderbird. To view emails locally, Thunderbird needs to connect to the remote mail server and retrieve a list of messages. When communicating with the remote server, Thunderbird uses both POP3 and IMAP protocols, though IMAP is used almost exclusively these days. IMAP stands for: Internet Message Access Protocol; it works by storing email messages on the email server, then downloads the list of messages (titles only) to the email client (Thunderbird). When a user selects a message to view, the message and any attachments are downloaded to the local machine.

Email Overload: Too Many Messages in the Inbox

Most users tend to keep all their messages stored in the email Inbox, without filtering or sorting their emails. If you're using Thunderbird and the IMAP protocol to connect to your favorite email service, this can be a problem.

For example, I had a user contact me recently, complaining that his Thunderbird was extremely slow. When I reviewed the problem (by connecting with him via my remote desktop service), I saw that he had about 5 or 6 email accounts and about 10,000 emails stored in his Inbox. Keeping in mind that the email server needs to sync the list of messages Thunderbird, this can take a great deal of time, especially on a slow Internet connection.

The best solution here would be to download messages off the email server and onto the local machine, so that there is less to sync. Another solution might be to move messages that are stored in the Inbox to another folder - perhaps an archive folder. That way, the email client won't be syncing messages in the Inbox constantly.

Sorting and Storing Messages Locally or by Remote

If you want to sort and store messages locally with Thunderbird, the easiest way to do this is to create a Local folder, then select the messages in your Inbox that you want to download to your local machine.

To do so:

  1. Launch Thunderbird if you have not done so already.
  2. Enable the Menu bar if you haven't done so already - the menu bar displays: File, Edit, View, Go, Messages, Events and Tasks, etc from the very top of the Thunderbird window. To do so: click the Menu button near the top right of the Thunderbird window, then click Options, then place a check mark beside "Menu Bar". You should now see the menu bar at the top.
  3. Ensure that your Folder View is enabled. The Folder View is displayed on the very left side of Thunderbird and shows all your email folders, such as: Inbox, Sent, Deleted, etc. If it is not enabled, you can enable it by clicking View -> Layout -> Folder Pane.
  4. On the Folder View (on the left side of the screen), scroll down to "Local Folders". Left click "Local Folders" to highlight it, then right click over top of the highlighted text and select "New Folder" from the dialogue menu. Name the folder something appropriate for your emails that you want to download to your machine. If you've got too many emails and you want to read them later, then call it "Inbox - to read later". If you've read the majority of emails in your Inbox and you want to simply store them on the machine, then call it "Inbox (Read)", or such.

    OPTIONAL: if you do not want to store your messages locally but instead want move them out of the Inbox and into another folder on the email server (so that it does not take forever to sync your Inbox), you can simply create a new folder remotely. To do so: left click to highlight your email account name in Thunderbird's Folder View, then right click over top of the highlighted text and select "New Folder". IMPORTANT: if you are viewing emails using a single Inbox (as per my article: How to Fix: Thunderbird: One Inbox, Multiple Accounts), do not create the new folder in your Inbox -> account name. Instead, scroll down the Folder View and you will see a heading with your account name - create the folder there. Name the folder accordingly - such as "Inbox (Read)" or "Inbox - to read later", or such.
  5. Now, go back to your email Inbox near the top of the Folder view. If you are viewing all emails as a single Inbox (as per my previous article: How to Fix: Thunderbird: One Inbox, Multiple Accounts), you can segment your Inbox by email provider by clicking on Inbox -> email address name.
  6. Your Inbox messages should now be displayed in the middle of the Thunderbird screen, under the headings: Subject, From, Date, etc. Click one of the messages with your mouse, just as if you were reading the email. Once that is done, press CTRL + A on the keyboard to "Select All" messages in your Inbox.
  7. All the messages in your Inbox should now be highlighted. Right click over top of any highlighted message, then select Move to -> Local Folders -> Inbox (Read) or whatever you named your folder in Step #4 above.

    OPTIONAL: if you are moving from the Inbox to a remote folder on the server (instead of downloading your messages locally), then do the following: right click over top of a highlighted message, then select Move to -> Account Name -> The folder you created in Step #4.
  8. At this point all your emails in the Inbox should be downloaded onto your machine OR moved to another folder on the remote server. If you need to move messages back to another folder, simply select the message(s), then drag and drop into the appropriate folder.

Archiving Messages using the "Archive" Feature

At this point I should mention that another great feature Thunderbird has is to archive your messages by year. This is yet another way to sort your emails if you have email overload. Note that archiving emails will only sort emails by year (not by year -> folder name), so if you would prefer to sort your emails differently, then you may not want to use the Archive feature. If you're simply archiving your Inbox and don't care how the emails are sorted (other than by year), then this feature will work great for you.

Also note - if you wish to have your emails archived locally (I.E.: downloaded onto your machine by year), you will need to edit your Account Settings in Thunderbird. To do so: click Tools -> Account Settings. The Account Settings window will appear; click your account you wish to edit, then select the "Copies & Folders" sub heading. Under the "Message Archives" heading, select "Local Folders" to store your messages locally when archiving.

To archive your messages, do the following:

  1. Go to the folder that contains messages you wish to archive. For example: Local Folders -> Inbox (Read).
  2. Highlight the messages you want to archive. You can do this a number of ways: (a) you can press CTRL + left click to select multiple messages, or (b) shift + left click over a range of messages, or (c) press CTRL + A to select all messages. If you have a ton of messages, then pressing CTRL + A is probably the best way to go.
  3. Right click over top of one of the highlighted messages, then select "Archive". The messages will now be moved to your "Archive" - whether it's stored remotely or locally.

I hope that helps. If you appreciate this article please consider donating to the site.

Additional 1-on-1 Support: From Dennis

If you need help dealing with your emails, whether it's setting up Thunderbird for the first time, or filtering your emails - I can help using my remote desktop support service. Simply contact me briefly describing your problem, and I'll get back to you as soon as possible.

Got a Computer Question or Problem? Ask Dennis!

I need more computer questions. If you have a computer question - or even a computer problem that needs fixing - please email me with your question so that I can write more articles like this one. I can't promise I'll respond to all the messages I receive (depending on the volume), but I'll do my best.

About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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