Need to find an old email somewhere in your Google Mail archive? Search for it! While you can set up elaborate hierarchies of labels and filters to manage your messages, Google's search features are so robust, many users are able to exclusively use the search function to find old emails. This article (and the video below) will share some different levels of search techniques that you can use to quickly sort through your old emails

Beginner Search

The basic search box in Google Mail is a quick and effective tool to find old emails. Even without using the advanced tactics below, nine times of ten the basic search box will get you what you're looking for. To perform a search click on the search field (or type / [forward slash] if you have keyboard shortcuts enabled), which will get you a flashing cursor in the search box. What should you type?

Good places to start are the names of people involved in the conversation, labels where you filed the email, the names of partner organizations, or anything else you can remember about the conversation. Google will search for your keyword in every message's subject line, body text, senders and recipients, and even in attached files! If you type in a search term that only appears in an attached file, Google will still find it. Here's an example: let's say a purchase appears on your credit card statement for a certain amount ($78.29), but you can't remember where the receipt is. Type in that dollar amount into Google Mail search, and you'll find your receipt (if it was emailed to you) pretty quickly, along with the CC statement it appeared on. Neat!

Google will also helpfully make suggestions based on your search history and the contents of your inbox. For instance, if you start typing someone's name, you'll see their email address pop up below the search box, which you can select:

If you start typing the name of a label, likewise, Google will start suggesting labels that you've enabled in Google Mail:

In my experience, a simple search will usually return the emails I'm looking for, but sometimes I need to get more specific. Let's move on to...

Intermediate Search: Search Box Options

If you want to get more granular in your search, the search box drop-down menu is the next stop. You can access these options by clicking the small arrow in the corner of the search box or, if you're into keyboard shortcuts, by pressing /, Tab, Enter.

These options work much like you'd expect. If you want to only search messages that have an attachment, click the 'Has attachment' checkbox. If you want to look for emails around a certain date, use the 'date within' field at the bottom. An important behavior of the advanced search box is that it will only search for messages that meet ALL of the criteria you specify. If you look for messages that are from a certain sender (say Manuel Nila), with a certain words in the subject line (Toast Recipe), with the attachment box checked, then Google will ONLY return messages that I received from Mani, that have the words "Toast" and "Recipe" in the subject line, and that have an attached file. If Mani sent me a toast recipe as inline text (instead of an attachment), this custom search won't find it. 

One last note about the search box. At the top of the search box panel, you get an option that reads: "Search: All Mail". This is actually a bit misleading. What Google will actually search for is any message that is in your Inbox, Archive, Sent Mail, Drafts, or any Label. It will not search through your Spam Folder or your Trash. In order to really search through ALL your mail, you'll need to expand the Search menu and select "Mail & Spam & Trash" from the list. Adding the search operator "in:anywhere" to your search, will have the same effect.

Advanced Search: Search Operators

For most users, most of the time, the search box or the expanded search box options will turn up the messages that they're looking for. Every now and again, however, you'll need to dig even deeper. The next options are the weapons of the true Search Ninja. While they do take a bit of practice to use well, the payoff (in terms of being able to find messages quickly) is huge. These keywords are called search operators (not to be confused with smooth operators) or boolean operators and we'll cover a few of them below.


If you type multiple search terms into a Google Mail search, Google will comb through your mail to find messages that contain all of the words you specify. Google doesn't care, however, what order those words appear in or whether they appear together. For instance, if I want to search my inbox for information about the Casper Snow Bus program, I get 44 results. None of the results shown actually have anything to do with the Casper Snow Bus program, they just happen to contain those words somewhere in the message or attachment:

If I want to specify to Google, "No, I need you to look for the words Casper, Snow, and Bus in that exact order," you can do that by putting your search in quotation marks. If I search for "casper snow bus", now I get a much shorter (and more relevant) set of results.

OR Searches

Sometimes you want Google to look for messages that match one of several criteria. For instance, maybe you're looking for all messages from a particular teacher OR that mention the name of that teacher's school group in the Subject line. You might try setting up your search like this:

This search will show you every message that's from this particular teacher AND mentions the name of the school group in the Subject line (in this example, I get seven messages). Any message that doesn't meet BOTH criteria won't be displayed. So how can I tweak my search so that Google looks for emails from this particular teacher OR mentions a particular school in the Subject line? By adding the word OR to my search, I'm looking for messages that meet either of my two criteria:

My new and improved search casts a much wider net, returning 84 messages (instead of the 7 I got the first time). Google will also recognize the pipe character ("|") in place of the OR operator. For instance, the search from:(person1 | person2) will give me all the messages that were sent by person1 OR person2:

If you're getting very narrow results with your given search and want to cast a wider net, the OR (or | character) is a great way to broaden your search.


Google is great at searching for emails with attachments, as we saw above in the Intermediate section. But what if you want to specify a special kind of file. Maybe you know that you're looking for an email with an attached Excel spreadsheet, or maybe it contains a PDF you want to read.  There's a search operator for that, and it's called filename. If you search for filename:??? where ??? is the 3-letter extension of the file you're looking for, Google will limit its search to just those kinds of files. Let's say we're looking for an attached excel spreadsheet and we know it contains the word 'Roster' Here's what that would look like:

Other common file extensions  include .doc or .docx (Word documents), .pdf (PDF files), .ppt or .pptx (PowerPoint Presentations), .pub (Microsoft Publisher files), .xls or .xlsx (Excel spreadsheets), jpg or png (image files). By bringing in the OR operator, we can construct some powerful searches. How about let's look for an attached Excel file that contains the number 78.29:

That's amazing! Google just went through all 17,000+ of my emails and found the one email I have that has an attached Excel file with the number 78.29 somewhere in the message or attachment. All in about two seconds.

Message Attributes

What if you want Google to just search through messages that are marked as Read? Or Unread? Or that you've marked with a star? You can, with the is: operator:

There are many other search operators you can learn about, but these four are among the most useful. You can read Google's full list of search operators for more information. Many of these same operators will work in Google Drive searches and Google internet searches.