Thunderbird and Gmail

To configure Thunderbird to work with Gmail, first enable IMAP on your Gmail account. See Gmail’s instructions for help. (IMAP is enabled on new Gmail accounts by default.)

Next, select File > New > Existing Mail Account…. The “Mail Account Setup” dialog is displayed. After you provide your account information (real name, email address and password), Thunderbird will automatically configure your Gmail connection. Click Done, sign in with your Google account if prompted and that’s all! Thunderbird will download your existing messages and your Gmail will be ready to use.

Gmail’s particularities

Archiving messages

In order to be consistent with Gmail’s behavior, Thunderbird archives your message in the “All Mail” folder, and not in an “Archive” folder as it does for other accounts (as described in the Archived Messages article).

Gmail Archive settings

Note that the Archive options… button is disabled for Gmail accounts, as it is not necessary to define the archive granularity with Gmail.

Subscribing to folders and synchronizing messages

Understanding Gmail labels and Thunderbird folders

Gmail uses a special implementation of IMAP. In this implementation, Gmail labels become Thunderbird folders. When you apply a label to a message in Gmail, Thunderbird creates a folder with the same name as the label and stores the message in that folder. Similarly, if you move a message to a folder in Thunderbird, Gmail will create a label with the folder name and assign it to the message.

In the example shown below, the folders at the same level as the “[Gmail]” folder (“g+”, “Personal”, “Receipts”, “Travel” and “Work”) correspond to Gmail labels.

default gmail folders

There is also a set of special sub-folders for the “[Gmail]” folder:

  • All Mail: contains all of the messages in your Gmail account, including sent and archived messages. Any messages that you see in the inbox will also appear in the [Gmail]/All Mailfolder.
  • Drafts: contains draft messages.
  • Sent Mail: contains sent messages.
  • Spam: contains messages that were marked as spam (either by Gmail or Thunderbird).
  • Starred: contains messages that were starred (either by Gmail or Thunderbird).
  • Trash: contains deleted messages.
  • Important: contains messages that Gmail has flagged as “important”. (See Priority Inbox overview for more details about this Gmail feature.)

Note that a message can have multiple labels (for instance, “Personal”, “Travel”, “All Mail” and “Starred”). In this case, a single copy of this message will be downloaded, but it will be displayed in all the corresponding Thunderbird folders.

Subscribing to or unsubscribing from folders (labels)

You can configure which Gmail folders you want to display in Thunderbird. By default all Gmail folders are displayed, as described above. To configure folder display, right-click any folder and select Subscribe.

subscribe gmail folders

Uncheck any folders that you don’t want to display in Thunderbird. Messages will still be downloaded and available through the “All Mail” folder. They will also be included in search results. However, the Gmail label (Thunderbird folder) will not be displayed.

Synchronizing folders (labels)

If you want to see all your Gmail labels and messages in Thunderbird but prefer to avoid all the messages being downloaded to your system, you may want to tweak the synchronization settings. This allows you to define which folder should be synchronized. If you don’t synchronize a folder, the message header will still be displayed in Thunderbird, but the message content will only be downloaded when you click on the message header.

To change how messages are downloaded, set synchronization options for the account and for individual folders. (Tools > Account Settings…) See IMAP Synchronization for more information.

Useful Add-ons

  • If you want to sync your contacts between Thunderbird and Gmail, you should try either the Google Contacts or gContactSync add-ons.
  • If you want to sync your calendar between Lightning and Google Calendar, you should read Using Lightning with Google Calendar.
  • Flat Folder Tree is useful to show all the sub-folders of the [Gmail] IMAP’s folder at the same level than your other folders.
  • Gmail Buttons makes it easier to move messages to the Trash and Spam folders. Beta version also shows all Gmail labels for each message.