Manage inactive mailboxes in Office 365

Office 365 makes it possible for you to retain the contents of deleted mailboxes. This feature is called inactive mailboxes. Inactive mailboxes allow you to retain former employees’ email after they leave your organization. A mailbox becomes inactive when a Litigation Hold or an Office 365 retention policy (created in the Office 365 Security & Compliance Center) is applied to the mailbox before the corresponding Office 365 user account is deleted. The contents of an inactive mailbox are retained for the duration of the hold that was placed on the mailbox before it was made inactive. This allows administrators, compliance officers, and records managers to use Content Search in the Security & Compliance Center to search and export the contents of an inactive mailbox. Inactive mailboxes can't receive email and aren't displayed in your organization's shared address book or other lists.

Contents

Create an inactive mailbox

Managing inactive mailboxes

Note: We've postponed the July 1, 2017 deadline for creating new In-Place Holds to make a mailbox inactive. But later this year or early next year, you won't be able to create new In-Place Holds in Exchange Online. At that time, only Litigation Holds and Office 365 retention policies can be used to create an inactive mailbox. However, existing inactive mailboxes that are on In-Place Hold will still be supported, and you can continue to manage the In-Place Holds on inactive mailboxes. This includes changing the duration of an In-Place Hold and permanently deleting an inactive mailbox by removing the In-Place Hold.

Before you begin

  • To make a mailbox inactive, it must be assigned an Exchange Online Plan 2 license so that a Litigation Hold or an Office 365 retention policy can be applied to the mailbox before it's deleted. Exchange Online Plan 2 licenses are part of an Office 365 Enterprise E3 and E5 subscriptions. If a mailbox is assigned an Exchange Online Plan 1 license (which is part of an Office 365 Enterprise E1 subscription), you would have to assign it a separate Exchange Online Archiving license so that a hold can be applied to the mailbox before it's deleted. For more information, see Exchange Online Archiving.

  • The license associated with the deleted Exchange Online mailbox will be available after you delete the corresponding Office 365 user account. You can then assign that license to another user.

  • If a Litigation Hold or an Office 365 retention policy isn't applied to a mailbox before it's deleted, the contents of the mailbox won't be retained or discoverable. However, the deleted mailbox can be recovered within 30 days of deletion, but the mailbox and its contents will be permanently deleted after 30 days if it isn't recovered.

  • For more information about Litigation Hold, see In-Place Hold and Litigation Hold. For more information about Office 365 retention policies in the Security & Compliance Center, see Overview of retention policies in Office 365.

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Create an inactive mailbox

Making a mailbox inactive involves two steps: 1) placing the mailbox on Litigation Hold or applying an Office 365 retention policy to it, and 2) deleting the mailbox or corresponding Office 365 user account. After the mailbox is inactive, its contents are retained until the hold or retention policy is removed.

Step 1: Place a mailbox on Litigation Hold or apply an Office 365 retention policy

Placing a mailbox on Litigation Hold or applying an Office 365 retention policy retains the contents in the mailbox before it's deleted. Both types of holds will retain all mailbox content, including deleted items and original versions of modified items. Deleted and modified items are retained in the inactive mailbox for a specified period, or until you permanently delete the inactive mailbox by removing the hold or retention policy that's applied to the inactive mailbox.

If a hold is already placed on a mailbox, or if an Office 365 retention policy is already applied to a mailbox, then all you have to do is delete the corresponding Office 365 user account as explained in Step 2.

For step-by-step procedures for placing a mailbox on Litigation Hold or applying an Office 365 retention policy, see:

Note: For Litigation Holds and Office 365 retention policies, you can create an indefinite hold or on a time-based hold. In an indefinite hold, the contents of the inactive mailbox will be retained forever, or until the hold is removed or until the hold duration is changed. After the hold or retention policy is removed (assuming that the mailbox was deleted more than 30 days ago), the inactive mailbox will be marked for permanent deletion and the contents of the mailbox will no longer be retained or discoverable. In a time-based hold or Office 365 retention policy, you specify the duration of the hold. This duration is on a per-item basis and is calculated from the date a mailbox item was received or created. After the hold expires for a mailbox item, and that item moved to or is located in the Recoverable Items folder in the inactive mailbox, the item is permanently deleted (purged) from the inactive mailbox after the deleted item retention period expires.

Step 2: Delete the mailbox

After the mailbox is placed on hold or an Office 365 retention policy is applied to it, the next step is to delete the mailbox. The best way to delete a mailbox is to delete the corresponding Office 365 user account in the Office 365 admin center. For information about deleting Office 365 user accounts, see Delete a user from your organization.

Note: You can also delete the mailbox by using the Remove-Mailbox cmdlet in Exchange Online PowerShell. For more information, see Delete or restore user mailboxes in Exchange Online.

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Managing inactive mailboxes

The following sections describe what you can do after you create inactive mailboxes.

View a list of inactive mailboxes

Search and export the contents of an inactive mailbox

Change the hold duration for an inactive mailbox

Recover an inactive mailbox

Restore the contents of an inactive mailbox to another mailbox

Delete an inactive mailbox

 

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View a list of inactive mailboxes

To view a list of the inactive mailboxes in your organization:

  1. Go to https://protection.office.com/ and sign in using the credentials for an administrator account in your Office 365 organization.

  2. In the left pane of the Security & Compliance Center, click Data governance > Retention.

  3. On the Retention page, click More Navigation Bar ellipses , and then click Inactive mailboxes.

    On the Retention page, click More and then click Inactive mailboxes to display a list of inactive mailboxes

    The Inactive mailboxes page is displayed. Note the total number of inactive mailboxes in your organization is displayed.

    A list of all inactive mailboxes in your organization is displayed

Alternatively, you can run the following command in Exchange Online PowerShell to display the list of inactive mailboxes.

 Get-Mailbox -InactiveMailboxOnly | FT DisplayName,PrimarySMTPAddress,WhenSoftDeleted

You can click Export search results icon Export to view or download a CSV file that contains additional information about the inactive mailboxes in your organization.

You can also run the following command to export the list of inactive mailboxes and other information to a CSV file. In this example, the CSV file is created in the current directory.

Get-Mailbox -InactiveMailboxOnly | Select Displayname,PrimarySMTPAddress,DistinguishedName,ExchangeGuid,WhenSoftDeleted | Export-Csv InactiveMailboxes.csv -NoType

Note: It's possible that an inactive mailbox may have the same SMTP address as an active user mailbox. In this case, the value of the DistinguishedName or ExchangeGuid property can be used to uniquely identify an inactive mailbox.

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Search and export the contents of an inactive mailbox

You can access the contents of the inactive mailbox by using the Content Search tool in the Security & Compliance Center. When you search an inactive mailbox, you can create a keyword search query to search for specific items or you can return the entire contents of the inactive mailbox. You can preview the search results or export the search results to an Outlook Data (PST) file or as individual email messages. For step-by-step procedures for searching mailboxes and exporting search results, see the following topics:

Here are a few things to keep in mind when searching inactive mailboxes.

  • If a content search includes a user mailbox and that mailbox is then made inactive, the content search will continue to search the inactive mailbox when you re-run the search after it becomes inactive.

  • In some cases, a user may have an active mailbox and an inactive mailbox that have the same SMTP address. In this case, only the specific mailbox that you select as a location for a content search will be searched. In other words, if you add a user's mailbox to a search, you can't assume that both their active and inactive mailboxes will be searched; only the mailbox that you explicitly add to the search will be searched.

  • We strongly recommend that you avoid having an active mailbox and inactive mailbox with the same SMTP address. If you need to reuse the SMTP address that is currently assigned to an inactive mailbox, we recommend that you recover the inactive mailbox or restore the contents of an inactive mailbox to an active mailbox (or the archive of an active mailbox), and then delete the inactive mailbox.

Change the hold duration for an inactive mailbox

After a mailbox is made inactive, you can change the duration of the hold or the Office 365 retention policy applied to the inactive mailbox. For step-by-step procedures, see Change the hold duration for an inactive mailbox in Office 365.

Recover an inactive mailbox

If a former employee returns to your organization, or if a new employee is hired to take on the job responsibilities of the departed employee, you can recover the contents of the inactive mailbox. When you recover an inactive mailbox, the mailbox is converted to a new mailbox, the contents and folder structure of the inactive mailbox are retained, and the mailbox is linked to a new user account. After it's recovered, the inactive mailbox no longer exists. For step-by-step procedures and more information about happens when you recover an inactive mailbox, see Recover an inactive mailbox in Office 365.

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Restore the contents of an inactive mailbox to another mailbox

If another employee takes on the job responsibilities of a former employee, or if another person needs access to the contents of the inactive mailbox, you can restore (or merge) the contents of the inactive mailbox to an existing mailbox. When you restore an inactive mailbox, the contents are copied to another mailbox. The inactive mailbox is retained and remains an inactive mailbox. The inactive mailbox can still be searched using eDiscovery, its contents can be restored to another mailbox, or it can be recovered or deleted at a later date. For step-by-step procedures, see Restore an inactive mailbox in Office 365.

Delete an inactive mailbox

If you no longer need to retain the contents of an inactive mailbox, you can permanently delete the inactive mailbox by removing the hold or removing the Office 365 retention policy applied to the inactive mailbox. If the mailbox was deleted more than 30 days ago, the mailbox will be marked for permanent deletion after you remove the hold, and the mailbox will become non-recoverable. If the mailbox was deleted within the last 30 days, you can still recover the mailbox after removing the hold or retention policy. For step-by-step procedures for removing a hold or a Office 365 retention policy to permanently delete an inactive mailbox, see Delete an inactive mailbox in Office 365.

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