Mbox Configuration

See mbox for a technical description of Dovecot’s implementation of the mbox format.

Mail Location Configuration

In many systems, the user’s mails are by default stored in /var/mail/username file. This file is called INBOX in IMAP world. Since IMAP supports multiple mailboxes, you’ll need to have a directory for them as well. Usually ~/mail is a good choice for this.

For an installation such as this, the mail location is specified with:

# %u is replaced with the username that logs in
mail_location = mbox:~/mail:INBOX=/var/mail/%u

It’s in no way a requirement to have the INBOX in /var/mail/ directory. In fact, this often just brings problems because Dovecot might not be able to write dotlock files to the directory (see below). You can avoid this completely by just keeping everything in ~/mail/:

# INBOX exists in ~/mail/inbox
mail_location = mbox:~/mail

Default mail_location Keys

For mbox, the default Keys are:


Default Value


<empty> (For mbox, this setting specifies the mailbox message file name)

Index Files

By default, index files are stored under an .imap/ directory.

See Index Files for an explanation of how to change the index path. Example:

mail_location = mbox:~/mail:INBOX=/var/mail/%u:INDEX=/var/indexes/%u


Make sure that all software accessing the mboxes are using the same locking methods in the same order. The order is important to prevent deadlocking. From Dovecot’s side you can change these from mbox_read_locks and mbox_write_locks settings.

See Locking for details on the various locking strategies.

See Mbox Locking for more information on locking strategies that may be used by other components of the mail delivery process.

/var/mail/ Dotlocks

Often mbox write locks include dotlock, which means that Dovecot needs to create a new <mbox>.lock file to the directory where the mbox file exists. If your INBOXes are in /var/mail/ directory, you may have to give Dovecot write access to the directory. There are two ways the /var/mail/ directory’s permissions have traditionally been set up:

  • World-writable with sticky bit set, allowing anyone to create new files but not overwrite or delete existing files owned by someone else (i.e. same as /tmp). You can do this with chmod a+rwxt /var/mail.

  • Directory owned by a mail group and the directory set to group-writable (mode=0770, group=mail)

You can give Dovecot access to mail group by setting:

mail_privileged_group = mail

NOTE: With Dovecot LDA the mail_privileged_group setting unfortunately doesn’t work, so you’ll have to use the sticky bit, disable dotlocking completely, or use LMTP server instead.

/var/mail/* Permissions

In some systems the /var/mail/$USER files have 0660 mode permissions. This causes Dovecot to try to preserve the file’s group, and if it doesn’t have permissions to do so, it’ll fail with an error like:

imap(user): Error: chown(/home/user/mail/.imap/INBOX, -1, 12(mail)) failed: Operation not permitted (egid=1000(user), group based on /var/mail/user)

There is rarely any real need for the files to have 0660 mode, so the best solution for this problem is to just change the mode to 0600:

chmod 0600 /var/mail/*

Only /var/mail/ mboxes

With POP3 it’s been traditional that users have their mails only in the /var/mail/ directory. IMAP however supports having multiple mailboxes, so each user has to have a private directory where the mailboxes are stored. Dovecot also needs a directory for its index files unless you disable them completely.

If you really want to use Dovecot as a plain POP3 server without index files, you can work around not having a per-user directory:

  • Set users’ home directory in userdb to some empty non-writable directory, for example /var/empty

  • Modify mail_location so that the mail root directory is also the empty directory and append :INDEX=MEMORY to it. For example: mail_location = mbox:/var/empty:INBOX=/var/mail/%u:INDEX=MEMORY

  • Note that if you have IMAP users, they’ll see /var/empty as the directory containing other mailboxes than INBOX. If the directory is writable, all the users will have their mailboxes shared.

Directory Layout

By default Dovecot uses filesystem layout under mbox. This means that mail is stored in mbox files under hierarchical directories, for example:




mbox file containing mail for INBOX


mbox file containing mail for mailbox “foo”


mbox file containing mail for mailbox “bar/baz”

One upshot of this is that it is not normally possible to have mailboxes which are subfolders of mailboxes containing messages.

As an alternative, it is possible to configure Dovecot to store all mailboxes in a single directory with hierarchical levels separated by a dot. This can be configured by adding :LAYOUT=maildir++ to the mail location. There are, however, some further considerations when doing this; see Mbox Child Folders Configuration for some examples.

Control Files

Under mbox format, Dovecot maintains the subscribed mailboxes list in a file .subscriptions which by default is stored in the mail location root. So in the example configuration this would be at ~/mail/.subscriptions.

If you want to put this somewhere else, you can change the directory in which the .subscriptions file is kept by using the CONTROL parameter. For example:

mail_location = mbox:~/mail:CONTROL=~/mail-control

would store the subscribed mailboxes list at ~/mail-control/.subscriptions.

One practical application of the CONTROL parameter is described at Mbox Child Folders Configuration.

Message Filename

By default, Dovecot stores messages for INBOX in an mbox file called “inbox”, and messages for all other mailboxes in an mbox file whose relative path is equivalent to the name of the mailbox. Under this scheme, it is not possible to have mailboxes which contain both messages and child mailboxes.

However, the behaviour (for mailboxes other than INBOX) can be changed using the DIRNAME parameter. If the DIRNAME parameter is specified with a particular value, then Dovecot will store messages in a file with a name of that value, in a directory with a name equivalent to the mailbox name.

There are, however, some further considerations when doing this; see Mbox Child Folders Configuration for an example.



Enable optimized mbox syncing?

For larger mbox files, it can take a long time to determine what has changed when the file is altered unexpectedly. Since the change in most cases consists solely of newly appended mail, Dovecot can operate more quickly if it starts off by simply reading the new messages, then falls back to reading the entire mbox file if something elsewhere in it isn’t as expected.

Dovecot assumes that external mbox file changes only mean that new messages were appended to it. Without this setting Dovecot re-reads the whole mbox file whenever it changes. There are various safeguards in place to make this setting safe even when other changes than appends were done to the mbox. The downside to this setting is that external message flag modifications may not be visible immediately.

When this setting is enabled, Dovecot tries to avoid re-reading the mbox every time something changes. Whenever the mbox changes (i.e. timestamp or size), Dovecot first checks if the mailbox’s size changed. If it didn’t, it most likely meant that only message flags were changed so it does a full mbox read to find it. If the mailbox shrunk, it means that mails were expunged and again Dovecot does a full sync. Usually however the only thing besides Dovecot that modifies the mbox is the LDA which appends new mails to the mbox. So if the mbox size was grown, Dovecot first checks if the last known message is still where it was last time. If it is, Dovecot reads only the newly added messages and goes into “dirty mode”. As long as Dovecot is in dirty mode, it can’t be certain that mails are where it expects them to be, so whenever accessing some mail, it first verifies that it really is the correct mail by finding its X-UID header. If the X-UID header is different, it fallbacks to a full sync to find the mail’s correct position. The dirty mode goes away after a full sync. If mbox_lazy_writes was enabled and the mail didn’t yet have an X-UID header, Dovecot uses the MD5 sum of a couple of headers to compare the mails.

  • Default: 2 mins

  • Values: Time

Override a lockfile after this amount of time if a dot-lock exists but the mailbox hasn’t been modified in any way.


If enabled, mbox headers (e.g., metadata updates, such as writing X-UID headers or flag changes) are not written until a full write sync is performed (triggered via IMAP EXPUNGE or CHECK commands and/or when the mailbox is closed). mbox rewrites can be costly, so this may avoid a lot of disk writes.

Enabling this setting is especially useful with POP3, in which clients often delete all mail messages.

One negative consequence of enabling this setting is that the changes aren’t immediately visible to other MUAs.

C-Client works the same way. The upside of this is that it reduces writes because multiple flag updates to same message can be grouped, and sometimes the writes don’t have to be done at all if the whole message is expunged. The downside is that other processes don’t notice the changes immediately (but other Dovecot processes do notice because the changes are in index files).

  • Default: 5 mins

  • Values: Time

The maximum time to wait for all locks to be released before aborting.

  • Default: apop3d

  • Values: String

The mail-header selection algorithm to use for MD5 POP3 UIDLs when the setting pop3_uidl_format = %m is applied.

See also


  • Default: 0

  • Values: Size

For mboxes smaller than this size, index files are not written.

If an index file already exists, it gets read but not updated.

The default should not be changed for most installations.

  • Default: fcntl

  • Values: dotlock, dotlock_try, fcntl, flock, lockf

Specify which locking method(s) to use for locking the mbox files during reading.

To use multiple values, separate them with spaces.

Descriptions of the locking methods can be found at Locking.


If enabled, Dovecot performs the optimizations from mbox_dirty_syncs also for the IMAP SELECT, EXAMINE, EXPUNGE, and CHECK commands.

If set, this option overrides mbox_dirty_syncs.

See also


  • Default: dotlock fcntl

  • Values: dotlock, dotlock_try, fcntl, flock, lockf

Specify which locking method(s) to use for locking the mbox files during writing.

To use multiple values, separate them with spaces.

Descriptions of the locking methods can be found at Locking.