Mail Location Settings


For an overview of Dovecot’s supported mailbox formats, see Mailbox Formats.

There are three different places where the mail location is looked up from:

  1. mail_location in dovecot.conf is used if nothing else overrides it.

  2. mail User Databases (userdb) overrides mail_location setting.

  3. location setting inside Namespaces overrides everything. Usually this should be used only for public and shared namespaces.


The format of the mailbox location specification is:

<mailbox-format> : <path> [ : <key> = <value> [ : <key2> = <value2> ... ] ]


  • mailbox-format is a tag identifying one of the formats described at Mailbox formats.

  • path is the path to a directory where the mail is stored. This must be an absolute path, not a relative path. Even if relative paths appear to work, this usage is deprecated and will likely stop working at some point. Do not use the home directory (see Home vs. mail directory).

  • key = value can appear zero or more times to set various optional parameters.

  • The colons and equals signs are literal and there are no spaces in an actual mailbox location specification.



This table is intended as an abstract list of what keys exist; see the individual mailbox format pages for further information on how to use these keys.

List of available keys:


Value Description


Location of Dovecot index files.

  • ITERINDEX: Perform mailbox listing using the INDEX directories instead of the mail root directories. Mainly useful when the INDEX storage is on a faster storage. It takes no value.

New in version v2.2.32.


Location of the INBOX path.


Directory layout to use:

  • Maildir++: The default used by Maildir.

  • fs: The default used by mbox and dbox.

  • index: Uses mailbox GUIDs as the directory names. The mapping between mailbox names and GUIDs exists in dovecot.list.index* files.


Automatically delete any \NoSelect mailboxes that have no children. These mailboxes are sometimes confusing to users. Also if a \NoSelect mailbox is attempted to be created with CREATE box/, it’s created as selectable mailbox instead. (LAYOUT=Maildir++ always behaves this same way.)

New in version v2.2.32.


Store mailbox names on disk using UTF-8 instead of modified UTF-7 (mUTF-7).


Specifies an escape character that is used for broken or otherwise inaccessible mailbox names. If mailbox name can’t be changed reversibly to UTF-8 and back, encode the problematic parts using <broken_char><hex> in the user-visible UTF-8 name. The broken_char itself also has to be encoded the same way. This can be useful with Imapc Mailbox Format to access mailbox names that aren’t valid mUTF-7 charset from remote servers, or if the remote server uses a different hierarchy separator and has folder names containing the local separator.

New in version v2.2.32.

Changed in version v2.3.14: Conflicting separators are also escaped.


Specifies the location of control files.


Specifies the location of volatile files. This includes lock files and potentially other files that don’t need to exist permanently. This is especially useful to avoid creating lock files to NFS or other remote filesystems.

New in version v2.2.32.


Specifies the filename used for storing subscriptions. The default is subscriptions. If you’re trying to avoid name collisions with a mailbox named subscriptions, then also consider setting MAILBOXDIR.


Specifies directory name under which all mailbox directories are stored. The default is empty unless otherwise described in the mailbox format pages.


Specifies the directory name used for mailbox, index, and control directory paths. See the individual mailbox format pages for further information. This key replaced the deprecated DIRNAME key.

New in version v2.2.8.


Specifies the alternate storage path.

Deprecated Keys


Replaced By

Value Description



Specifies the directory name used for mailbox directories, or in the case of mbox specifies the mailbox message file name.


DIRNAME is not used for index or control directories, while FULLDIRNAME is.

Deprecated since version v2.2.8.


You can use several variables in the mail_location setting. See Config Variables for a full list, but the most commonly used ones are:




Full username.


User part in user@domain; same as %u if there’s no domain.


Domain part in user@domain; empty if there’s no domain.

Directory Hashing

You can use three different kinds of hashes in Config Variables.

  • %N is MD5-based “new hash” which works similarly to %H except it gives more uniform results.

    • Example: %2.256N would return maximum 256 different hashes in range 00..ff.

  • %M returns a MD5 hash of the string as hex. This can be used for two level hashing by getting substrings of the MD5 hash.

    • Example: %1Mu/%2.1Mu/%u returns directories from 0/0/user to f/f/user.

  • %H returns a 32bit hash of the given string as hex.

    • This is the old, deprecated method. %N should be used instead.

Index Files

Index files are by default stored under the same directory as mails.

You may want to change the index file location if you’re using NFS or if you’re setting up Shared mailboxes.

You can change the index file location by adding :INDEX=<path> to mail_location. For example:

mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir:INDEX=/var/indexes/%u

The index directories are created automatically, but note that it requires that Dovecot has actually access to create the directories. Either make sure that the index root directory (/var/indexes in the above example) is writable to the logged in user, or create the user’s directory with proper permissions before the user logs in.

Index files can be disabled completely by appending :INDEX=MEMORY. This is not recommended for production use, as the index files will need to be generated on every access.

Private Index Files

New in version v2.2.

The recommended way to enable private flags for shared mailboxes is to create private indexes with :INDEXPVT=<path>. See Public Mailboxes for more information.


INBOX path can be specified to exist elsewhere than the rest of the mailboxes.


mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir:INBOX=~/Maildir/.INBOX


By default the mail_location setting is empty, which means that Dovecot attempts to locate automatically where your mails are. This is done by looking, in order, at:

  • ~/mdbox/

  • ~/sdbox/

  • ~/Maildir/

  • ~/mail/.imap/

  • ~/mail/inbox

  • ~/mail/mbox

  • ~/Mail/.imap/

  • ~/Mail/inbox

  • ~/Mail/mbox

For autodetection to work, one of the above locations has to be populated; when autodetection is active, Dovecot will not attempt to create a mail folder.


.imap is a directory, and inbox and mbox are files.

It’s usually a good idea to explicitly specify where the mails are, even if the autodetection happens to work, in particular to benefit from auto-creation of the folder for new users.

Custom Autodetection

If you need something besides the default autodetection, you can use Post-login scripting.



if [ -d $HOME/.maildir ]; then
   export MAIL=maildir:$HOME/.maildir
   export MAIL=mbox:$HOME/mail:INBOX=/var/mail/$USER

exec "$@"

Mailbox Autocreation

Autocreation is only triggered if mail_location is correctly set. You’ll see something like this if you enable debug logging (example for mbox mailbox format):

Debug: Namespace : /home/user/Mail doesn't exist yet, using default permissions
Debug: Namespace : Using permissions from /home/user/Mail: mode=0700 gid=default

and a Mail/.imap directory will be present once that process has concluded. This is the easiest way to ensure a freshly created user is correctly set up for access via Dovecot.

Home-less Users

Having a home directory for users is highly recommended. At a minimum, the Pigeonhole Sieve plugin requires a home directory to work. See Home Directories for Virtual Users for more reasons why it’s a good idea, and how to give Dovecot a home directory even if you don’t have a “real home directory”.

If you really don’t want to set any home directory, you can use something like:

mail_location = maildir:/home/%u/Maildir

Per-User Mail Locations

It’s possible to override the default mail_location for specific users by making the User Databases (userdb) return mail extra field.

Note that %h doesn’t work in the userdb queries or templates. ~/ gets expanded later, so use it instead.


Since a location specified within a Namespaces overrides mail_location, in case you specified that parameter you’ll have to override in in the user database, specifying namespace/inbox/location extra field instead of mail.


user_query = SELECT home, uid, gid, mail FROM users WHERE user = '%u'


user_attrs = homeDirectory=home, uidNumber=uid, gidNumber=gid, mailLocation=mail



Mixing Multiple Mailbox Formats

It’s possible to use different mailbox formats same user by configuring multiple namespaces. See Namespaces. Each mailbox format has to live in a different namespace. Mixing mailbox formats within the same namespace is not supported.

Custom Namespace Location

If you need to override namespace’s location, first give it a name (inbox in this example):

namespace inbox {

Then in the executable script use:


# do the lookup here

export USERDB_KEYS="$USERDB_KEYS namespace/inbox/location"
exec env "NAMESPACE/INBOX/LOCATION=$location" "$@"

See Also