Migrating Outlook Messages from One Install to Another by Hand without an Archive

My computer recently crashed at work, which always makes for a very bad day.  Thankfully, I had backups of everything I needed.  Getting back on my feet should have been a matter of simply restoring everything once I had a new machine in-hand.

Everything went smoothly when restoring the backups to the new machine except restoring my local Outlook data.  I was running Office 2011 and hadn’t created an archive.  I assumed restoring the old data would just be a matter of setting the active identity of Outlook to the backup of the old computer’s Outlook identity using the Microsoft Database Utility.  However, the tool kept error-ing, saying the old identity was corrupt.

From what I could tell, my company’s IT department had installed a newer patch version of Office 2011 than the one I had on the old machine and the identity structure was no longer completely compatible.  It was also possible that my previous Office identity was indeed corrupt.  Either way, I thought I had completely lost all of my saved email.

However, I was able to pull the old email backup into the new Outlook identity by hand.  Here’s how I did it.

Disclaimer:  The following steps are not for the faint of heart. You could completely break your Office installation and/or lose data if you aren’t careful or don’t understand what you are doing. I take no responsibility if this doesn’t work well for you. Proceed with caution.

All I needed to do was:

  1. Create a new identity (happens automatically when you first start Outlook).
  2. Find the new identity’s directory under the Microsoft User Data directory in the Documents folder.
  3. Find the old identity’s directory under the Microsoft User Data directory in the backup directory.
  4. Make a new backup of the new identity’s directory just in case something goes sideways.
  5. Copy all of the email-related directories from the old identity’s directory to the new identity’s directory, replacing the existing versions of those directories.
  6. Open Outlook and verify that all of the old email messages are there.

I had to iterate on this process a few times, restoring from the new identity backup and excluding directories that appeared to cause Outlook to crash from those I copied to the new identity, until the email backup loaded in Outlook.  In my situation, the directories related to email attachments were causing Outlook to crash, so I had to settle with not copying those directories over and live with the fact that old attachments were lost.

This is not an ideal solution and a pretty brute-force approach for recovering data, but it got 90% of what I needed accomplished in less than 30 minutes.  That is certainly better than the alternative of losing all of my email simply because I didn’t export an archive.

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