Recovering Messages from Outlook Data Files

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Ready to learn how to recover important emails?
Source: Koom

Last year saw two major trends emerge: working from home and bringing a personal device to the workplace. But using a personal laptop can complicate email access  because client devices are often configured to move messages off the mail server. So, the emails get transferred to the device. But a problem with the device could lead to no email access. Wouldn’t logging in from another device work? Not always, especially if emails have been physically moved to the personal device’s storage. Essentially, they no longer exist on the cloud mail server. But you can still recover your emails!

Today, I’ll explain your options for recovering emails from Outlook. After discussing your options, I’ll share insight into the different file types to make your recovery process easier. 

Let’s first get started on basic options for Outlook email recovery. 

What Are Your Options?

If your device crashes and you lose access to emails, you have 3 main options to recover those emails. These options include leveraging your mail retention software, restoring a backup, or repairing the client.

1. Using Message Retention

Using extended message retention settings can work in a pinch. Some mandates require larger organizations to keep all email communications. Mail retention tools almost always allow select messages for export. Exporting helps in case the organization is subject to litigation; they’ll have a way of supplying the messages requested. While not ideal, you can use such a feature to recover lost emails.

2. Restoring a Backup

Another option is to simply restore messages from an exchange server backup. Of course, this assumes you have a backup. Additionally, some backup applications restore data at the mailbox level, not individual messages.

3. Repairing the Client

The third option is to repair the mail client. As one of the best options, I want to focus troubleshooting efforts on it. Here, I’m assuming you’re using Outlook. Read on to learn more about Outlook file types and how they can help you recover your lost emails.

Outlook File Types

Outlook supports two main types of data files, Personal Storage (PST) and Offline Storage Table (OST) files. Below, I’ll detail what these are, and how you can use them. 

PST Files

PST files act as a message repository for end users. For example, suppose an organization imposes a mailbox quota on users so they can only store a limited amount of mail in their mailbox. In that case, you might configure Outlook to move some messages to PST files. Here, the messages remain accessible to the user but don’t occupy space on the server. Another advantage of PST files is their portability. If you want to permanently keep copies of certain messages, you can create a PST file and copy it to a hard drive. 

OST Files

The second type of data file Outlook uses is an OST file. OST files are basically offline folder files. The OST file allows you access to pre-loaded emails even if you’re not connected to the internet. Any changes made while working offline (such as reading a message or composing a draft) get synchronized to the mail server the next time you are online. 

Now that you know what PST and OST Files are, I’ll dive right into the steps you can take to recover your messages using these two file types. 

How to Recover Emails From a PST File

If a PST file becomes damaged, your best option for recovering the data is to use ScanPST. The ScanPST is a built-in tool previously named the Inbox Repair Tool. The tool corrects structural problems in PST files.

To use the ScanPST tool, follow these steps:

  1. Detach the PST file from Outlook
  2. Navigate to C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\root\Office16. The file path may be different for older versions of Office. If you have installed the 32-bit version of Office, then the tool will be installed beneath the Program Files (x86) folder instead of the Program Files folder
  3. Double-click on the ScanPST.exe file
  4. Click the Browse button
  5. Select the PST file you want to repair
Screenshot of windows computer settings asking user to enter the name of the file they want to scan.
Enter the name of the file to scan.
  1. Click the Browse button and select the PST file you wish to repair
  2. Click the Start button
  3. Check to see if it has detected any errors. If so, select the Make a Backup of Scanned File Before Repairing check box
  4. Note the backup filename and location for easy reference 
  5. Click the Repair button
Screenshot of windows computer alerting the user of a successful scan and the number of errors found.
Microsoft outlook inbox repair tool

It’s good to backup the file before moving forward with a repair. However, not everyone takes backups as a habit. Suppose you have no internet connectivity. Let’s see how to recover data using an OST file. 

Recovering Data From an OST File

Most message data recovery efforts revolve around PST files. However, if Outlook becomes more damaged, chances are your computer will only have an OST file remaining. This OST file is a copy of most of your messages.

Recovering data from an OST file is usually a last resort because you can’t generally extract data from an orphaned OST file using native tools. It’s sometimes possible to reinstall Outlook and manually attach the orphaned OST file. In most cases, the only realistic course of action is to purchase a third-party OST to PST converter to extract data and copy it to a PST file.

I hope my explanations help you recover all your messages and emails from Outlook. Let’s recap and take a quick look at everything I’ve discussed so far. 

The Bottom Line

While devices are smart, hardware and software issues can occur. If you lose access to your messages, you don’t have to lose all hope. You can still recover your emails with a few easy ways. Apart from using message retention, restoring a backup, and repairing the client, you can also use Outlook’s PST and OST files. 

It’s usually best to keep messages stored centrally on a mail server. If you use PST files, you may use the ScanPST utility to fix corruption within the file. OST files can help if you aren’t connected to the internet because the file is essentially an offline folder of your most recently synced messages. Using a third-party OST to PST converter works if you prefer formatting PST files to begin with.

Got more questions? Learn more about Outlook email and message recovery in the FAQ and Resource sections below.


Wouldn’t it be easier to restore a backup than to repair a PST file?

Restoring a backup may be the easier option. However, it requires you to pick and choose from many individual messages. Repairing a PST file is often less time-consuming.

If I decide to restore a backup, how can I get the recovered messages to the user’s device?

Assuming you habitually download messages to a PST file, the best thing you can do is delete or detach and rename the existing PST file. This depends on the degree of damage. After, you can create a brand new PST file. Then, just restore the messages to your mailbox. Opening Outlook will download the messages to your PST files.

Can using the ScanPST file cause data loss?

The ScanPST file does carry the potential for data loss and can happen when working on a damaged PST file, making it hard to repair some file portions.

How can I minimize the potential for data loss when using the ScanPST tool?

You can never completely eliminate the possibility of data loss when using the ScanPST file. But you can still do some things to hedge your bets. First, detach the PST file from Outlook before taking any action. Second, make a backup copy of the PST file before you attempt to repair it.

What are the indicators you might need to run the ScanPST tool?

Experts recommend running the ScanPST file if Outlook cannot open your PST file. You may also need to use this tool if Outlook can’t open folders within a damaged PST file.


TechGenix: Article on Importing a PST file

Discover how to import a PST file into a mailbox.

TechGenix: Article on Converting a PST file

Read about the BitRecover tool to use to convert PST files to other formats.

TechGenix: Article on PST Repair Software

Learn about Remo PST Repair software.

Microsoft: Guide to Working with ScanPST

Find Microsoft’s documentation for the ScanPST tool.

Microsoft: Documentation on Outlook Data Files 

Learn the basics of using Outlook data files.

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