View Only Unread Messages in a Gmail Inbox with 2 Simple Tricks

Jun 30, 2013 - 68 Comments

Gmail logo

Gmail is an excellent mail client, but one feature that has always felt missing was a simple sorting ability to view only the unread email messages residing in an inbox. It turns out you can show only the unread messages with Gmail though, you just have to use either a simple search operator to reveal only unread messages, or use a different Inbox sorting method that displays unread emails first regardless of the message age. Using either method is very simple, so pick whichever is best for your situation.

This tutorial will show you two different approaches to easily view and see unread messages in Gmail.

How to Show Only Unread Messages in the Gmail Inbox with Search

This uses a search function within Gmail, making it temporary, and it does not change how the inbox functions or sorts messages beyond this task:

  1. Log in to your as usual if you have not done so already
  2. Click into the Gmail Search box at the top of the webmail screen, and then type the following exactly:
  3. is:unread
    Show only unread email messages in Gmail inbox

  4. Hit Return to sort the inbox by unread messages in the gmail inbox

If you have multiple boxes and want to see unread messages in the inbox, a slight variation of the above trick would be this Gmail search operator:

label: inbox, label: unread

The Gmail inbox will be sorted to only display messages that haven’t been read yet, this search operator is practically instantaneous regardless of how giant (or small) your unread mail count is.

View unread email only in Gmail

Yes, this search tricks works on the web with any web browser, whether it’s Gmail in Chrome, Safari, Edge, Internet Explorer, FireFox, Opera, or whatever else, in addition to the common mobile Gmail apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android.

You can also use the “label:unread” search parameter if that is easier to remember or works better for your needs than “is:unread”

This is another significant advantage to webmail, since the task of sorting giant inboxes is handled by a remote server, it relieves the local machine of the disk and CPU intensive activity of sorting through potentially hundreds of thousands of past messages to find the 9000+ unread emails residing in the inbox. This screen shot example may be a bit extreme, but even my personal email has over 200+ unread messages at any given moment.

To reveal the normal inbox again with all read and unread messages together, either remove the search operator from the search box and hit return again, or just click the “Inbox” item from the left side menu.

Despite being such a simple feature, it doesn’t seem like common knowledge. I’ve been using Gmail for many years and didn’t know about this trick, and its as only in a passing conversation with a friend that I learned about it.

How to Change Gmail Inbox to Display Unread Email First

Another option goes beyond sorting and searching the inbox and actually prioritizes your Gmail inbox by message type, in this case, unread emails. With this enabled, all unread messages will appear on top of read messages, regardless of when either was sent. For example, an unread message from two weeks ago would appear above a read message from 10 minutes ago. Enabling this is really easy:

  • Go to Gmail Settings (Gear icon > Settings)
  • Choose the “Inbox” tab, then pull down the “Inbox type” menu and select “Unread First”

Show unread email first in Gmail

Unread messages will instantly sort to the top of the inbox, and the search operator will no longer be necessary unless you don’t want to see the read messages at all.

Either of these tricks are incredibly helpful for those of us who manage large inboxes, where new unread messages routinely get pushed off the front pages of the inbox, and inevitably end up buried several screens back with a bunch of already read mail. As we all know, once an email message ends up off the primary inbox screen, it’s pretty easy to forget about them, which only adds to the feeling of inbox overload when the unread count is reaching into the high numbers.

If Gmail is your primary email service too, don’t forget to set Gmail as the default web mail client for your web browser too.

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Posted by: Paul Horowitz in Tips & Tricks


» Comments RSS Feed

  1. Steph says:

    Brilliant tip – thank you!

  2. John says:

    Thank you VERY much. Google ought to employ you, if only for your persistence and capacity to give simple instructions.

  3. Michelle says:

    Thanks so much for this quick tip – nothing could be simpler than is:unread!

  4. Tom says:

    Great Article. One question would be how to show unread emails at the top but still stay in the “Default” Category Labels mode?


  5. Bill says:

    That just shows all unread messages. I send many unread to different boxes (Orders/Orders Generated/Payment Received etc) What I need is unread in the Inbox. Any tips?

  6. Mila says:

    Excellent tip ! thankyou .. I had been wondering how to solve the problem

  7. This didn’t quite solve my particular problem, as I wanted to see the unread emails in my “Primary” tab that were unread, but I figured it out and thought I’d share. :)

    Search for the following:
    in: category:primary is:unread

  8. M.K. Jibran says:

    Thanks, It’s really helpful.

  9. Amit says:

    1st option does not work

    2nd option does not get ??

  10. Rene says:

    Great tips. Thanks :)

  11. Richard says:

    I tried everything you mentioned, still show 8 unread email in my inbox.

  12. wsm4826 says:

    Sweet! Thanks for your help – searching manually is insanely cumbersome.

  13. Sameer says:

    Use this in search box: “is:unread in:inbox category:primary”

    This will give you only unread messages in “Primary” category.

    • whackyla says:

      Thanks! This worked beautifully.

      • Mimi says:

        This was the trick even over a full year later! Thank you and I hope to share this with my other friends who are “fishing” for the UNREAD!

        is:unread in:inbox category:primary


        Mimi :)

    • Gayathri says:

      Sameer, this tip was extremely helpful. I just got migrated to GMAIL and was struggling for help with this option. Thank you very much!!

  14. Namer says:

    enable keyboard shortcuts

    select all (including all messages)

    shift I

    select all (including all messages)



  15. Ashit Sahu says:

    Thank you brother… :-)

  16. Tom says:

    Now how do you “move” unread emails out of the Inbox? There’s an option to move to the Inbox except they’re already there. You can drag them to a different “label” but then they are marked as in the Inbox and in the other “label”.

    Why gmail has to do everything in a different way than has always worked just boggles my mind.

  17. sara says:

    This doesn’t work for me, because all my spam mail comes up as unread (even when I use the formula for just the inbox) so there are still hundreds of emails to sort through :(

    • DAVE says:

      This works for me… category:primary is:unread While in Gmail just type this into the Google Search bar…adjust primary to be social or what other tabs you have to organize your emails. This will only show the unread emails from that particular category in your inbox.

  18. charan says:

    Brilliant thank you!

  19. Cori says:

    I used to have the unread emails at the top of my inbox. And somehow I accidentally go rid of it. So I couldn’t remember how I did it and came across this article. But it doesn’t seem to work. Has the software changed. I see the setting gear, but nothing that works.

    • Odwalla says:

      Gmail is the same, you have to enable the features as described here. Also be sure to turn on the universal inbox and turn off the awful sorting thing that sticks messages into tabs like nobody wants. Do both.

  20. JohnF says:


    Is there any way to get a view in the gmail mobile app that shows only unread emails?

    Typing the search every time is very time consuming. In the desktop (online) version, I can setup a priority inbox to show unread first, starred next and everything else last… each in its own neat bucket.

    After a lot of mooching around I can still find no way to group the unread mails other than by searching , which is so easy to back out of, requiring me to redo the search.


  21. Nitin says:

    How to select all and delete all unread???
    I have 19000+ unread.

  22. Isaac Ngulube says:

    Thank you so much merry Christmas

  23. king ruhinda says:

    keep it up

  24. Sridhar says:

    Thank you Very much for this valuable suggestion, i was knocking each set of mail to delete.

  25. Alamu Korede says:

    THANKS .

  26. Alamu Korede says:


  27. Mandizvidza Taga says:

    so interesting thank you

  28. Amin says:

    Awesome! Just what I was looking for.

    Thanks a ton! :)

  29. Mr X says:

    Fantastic tip! I have long been frustrated by this.

  30. Betty says:

    Thank you that was helpful. I found my unread message

  31. Zanele says:

    I want to view my email that I have received on the 19 September 2016 from unisa.

  32. Zanele says:

    I want to view my email that has not been opened yet.

  33. Martin says:

    I cannot access my inboxe plz!

  34. Elias says:

    I have one problem and that is when I get in to my E-mail account am facing difficulty on how to view the messages that is in the inbox,please I need help.

  35. raja says:

    Thank u for help

  36. Radhe says:

    Thank you very much!

  37. David Querns says:

    Thank you!

  38. yusuf kabir says:

    Such is life

  39. Adam Usman Adam says:

    This Is The Simple Way To View Your Unread Msg

  40. JG says:

    Hey guys — this was driving me crazy for months until I finally cracked it. If you have phantom “unread” emails that you can’t find for the life of you, try putting this into the gmail search bar:

    “in: inbox: label:unread category:primary”

    Nailed it for me. Good luck!

  41. Sonu says:

    Thanks for the tip, is there a way to show unread items but exclude Inbox.

  42. Alta says:

    Good work!

    You cannot show ALL unread emails in inbox with the “Settings > Inbox > …”.
    It works ONLY if the emails are _not filtered to go to a folder/”label”.
    It will not show unread emails if they have a “label”.

    If you know of another way, please let us know.

  43. Harpreet says:

    I was annoyed with one of my stupid mails which show me 1 on the icon, just fixed it with your solution. It was amazing, thanks for your help and keep this work up. Thanks again

  44. thank you says:

    that was helpful. Good job

  45. Susie says:

    Somewhere in time, I have 82 emails in my “Primary” Inbox. When I use the methods from this article, it brings up the thousands of emails in all three categories of “Primary”, “Social”, and “Promotions”. Is there a way to narrow it down to those 82? It’s driving me bonkers! Thank you.

    • lakshmi says:

      Hi Susie!!
      This was the same problem bothering me. You can do it using the following

      label: inbox category:primary label:unread

  46. lakshmi says:

    label: inbox category:primary label:unread

  47. Tommy says:

    The fact that I had to look this up in order to do simple so basic disproves the point about Gmail being “an excellent mail client”.

  48. DD says:

    Very Nice!

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