Google Apps IMAP – How to & Why Configure GMail IMAP?!

I like to think of myself as an “advanced” user of GMail and the entire Google Apps suite.  In the past, I’ve accessed my mail either via POP (in Outlook), or via the web-based interface (mail.google.com).  However, I noticed that keeping my Outlook inbox cleaned-up has become somewhat of a chore.  I decided to stop putting off a move to IMAP and finally look into setting up GMail IMAP on my laptop.

Why Configure GMail IMAP and/or Google Apps IMAP?

Much like POP, IMAP allows you to download messages from the Gmail or Google Apps servers into an email program (such as ThunderBird, Outlook, or Entourage) on your computer.  The difference is that IMAP offers two way communication between your computer and Google’s servers.  This means by setting up GMail IMAP (or Google Apps IMAP), any changes you make via the web, a computer, or mobile device is synchronized to your mail account and is reflected as such on the other devices.  For example, if you move an email from your Inbox to your “Work” folder in Outlook, it will show up as such in GMail or Google Apps the next time you log in via the web.  IMAP provides the best experience for anyone using multiple devices to send and receive mail.  It also provides the most stable experience, as I’ve personally experienced issues with POP double-downloading messages, “losing” messages, etc.  Since GMail and Google Apps IMAP provides synchronization, you know that everything is up-to-date.

Configure GMail IMAP and/or Google Apps IMAP:

Now that you know the reasons for setting up GMail IMAP, let’s look at how to configure it.   Regardless of whether you are using Google Apps or regular GMail, you’ll want to follow the same steps:

  1. Sign in to your GMail or Google Apps mail.
  2. Click the Gear icon in the upper right-hand corner and select Gmail Settings (GMail) or Settings (Google Apps).
  3. On the Settings screen, click on Forwarding and POP/IMAP.
  4. In the IMAP Access box, select Enable IMAP.
  5. Optionally, you can configure the IMAP settings to tune your experience.  However, for most folks you should accept the default settings.
  6. Click the Save Changes button to save any changes to your IMAP settings that you have made.

Your account will beready for use with IMAP from whatever client you choose to use.  Google has provided IMAP configuration instructions for a number of email clients, including (but not limited to):

Using GMail and Google Apps IMAP:

image of map on iPhone - not to be confused with Google Apps IMAP

This is NOT Google Apps IMAP! Get it? Haha!

Once you’ve configured your client to work with IMAP, you’ll notice the two way synchronization of events between your email client, mobile device, and the GMail website.  However, it is important to understand the minor quirky differences between how the GMail website works, and how the IMAP connected email client works:

Similar:

  • If you open a message on your email client, it marks the message as “read” in the GMail website.
  • If you flag a message on your email client, it applies a “star” to the message in GMail.
  • If you move a message to a different folder, it applies a “Label” based on the name of the folder in GMail.
  • If you move a message to a subfolder of a folder, it applies a nested “Label” in GMail.
  • If you create a folder in your email client, it creates a new label in GMail.
  • If you move a message to the [Gmail]/Spam folder in your email client, GMail reports the message as Spam.
  • If you move a message to the [Gmail]/Trash folder, Gmail moves the message to Trash.
  • If you send a message in your email client, GMail stores the message in your Sent Mail folder.

Different:

  • If you delete a message in your email client’s Inbox, Gmail removes the message from the Inbox.

Be sure to understand this.  If you delete a message in your IMAP email client, GMail simply removes the “Inbox” label from the message.  It DOES NOT move the message to your “Trash” folder.  In other words, you will not see the message in your “Inbox” on your IMAP email client, but the message is still visible in your “All Mail” folder in GMail.

  • If you delete a message from a folder in your email client, GMail removes the label associated with that folder.   Similar to the previous behavior, the email is still contained in GMail via the “All Mail” folder.
  • If you delete a message from the [Gmail]/Spam or [Gmail]/Trash folder, Gmail permanently deletes the message.

Be sure to understand this.  If you delete a message from those two folders, it is permanently gone.  Be careful when working with messages contained in these two folders.  Ultimately, the design of IMAP synchronization and your Google Apps IMAP settings should hopefully prevent you from accidentally deleting a message you wish to keep.

  • Do Not move spam messages to the “Junk E-mail” folder in Outlook, move them to the [Gmail] \ Spam folder.
  • Outlook has a built-in Search Folder for “Large Mail”, which will let you easily find messages with large attachments.

Additional Considerations:

A few quick reminders once you’ve finished setting up GMail IMAP:

  • IMAP doesn’t sync calendars.  If you’re using Microsoft Outlook, you’ll need to set up Google Calendar Sync.
  • IMAP doesn’t sync contacts.  Neither does Google Sync at the moment.  You’ll need a third-party tool such as SyncMyCal.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re still among the crowd of folks that prefers to use a full-featured email client such as Thunderbird, Outlook, or Apple Mail, you should consider connecting to Google Apps and GMail via IMAP.  Google Apps IMAP provides two-way synchronization of your mail items, allowing changes made via your email client to be reflected on your other email clients (mobile, web, etc), and vice-versa.  I made the switch for my own Outlook client (after putting it off for way too long).  What about you?  Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

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About Robert

An IT nerd with 10+ years of experience in almost *anything* windows (server and desktop), Citrix, Exchange, Google Apps, and WordPress. I like to dabble in just about anything IT related, and read blogs and tech books like crazy!

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