How to back up important documents for emergencies
Last updated: January 1
During an emergency, your filing cabinet may not be the first place you'd run to. But, it often contains essential documents — including passports, marriage certificates, wills and insurance policies — that you don't want to lose if a disaster strikes.
Following these tips, however, can help ensure your essential documents are safe before an emergency even occurs.
1. Know which documents to protect
Start by locating all the records you want to protect — it's a potentially long list. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends organizing the following documents so you'll be ready in the event you need to evacuate your home:
- Personal records (birth, marriage, divorce, adoption and death certificates)
- Passports, driver's licenses and other personal identification documents
- Social Security cards
- Property leases, deeds, mortgage documents and other related records (home and auto titles, etc.)
- Financial documents (pay stubs, bank statements, retirement statements, tax returns and investment records)
- Insurance paperwork (auto and home policies, contact information for your providers and copies of insurance cards)
- Safe deposit box keys
- Debit card and credit card numbers
- Health-related documents (medical and dental records, prescriptions, copies of health insurance cards, health provider contact information)
2. Make a digital backup of your documents
Next, you'll want to scan each document to make digital copies. If you don't already own a scanner, you may need to rent or borrow one. Some office supply or shipping companies that offer computer access also offer scanning services. There are also document scanning apps available for smartphones.
You can store these digital copies on a USB flash drive or in the cloud. If you choose to store your backups on a USB flash drive, FEMA suggests storing the drive in a safe deposit box or other safe offsite location.
If you choose to store your document backups in the cloud, you can use popular services such as iCloud, OneDrive, Amazon Drive or Google Drive. These services let you store documents on a remote server network —what's known as "the cloud" —rather than the hard drive of your computer.
Of course, cloud services have their own vulnerabilities. If you choose this route, make sure to read the provider's terms and services carefully (can the service provider disclose any of your information, for instance?), know whether the provider stores the items you have uploaded to the cloud even after you delete them and take other precautions to make sure you're moving your documents safely to the cloud.
FEMA also recommends ensuring that your digital copies are password protected so that they can't be easily accessed in case of loss or theft.
3. Find a safe place to store your original documents
Store original documents in a secure place, such as with family or an offsite safe deposit box or in a flood/fire-resistant home safe, recommends FEMA. Before deciding where to store your documents, it may help to weigh the pros and cons of these options
For example, Better Homes and Gardens says that while a safe deposit box located in a bank is very secure —the boxes are typically stored in a locked, concrete vault and no one can be left unattended inside the vault —the disadvantage is that you can only access it when the bank is open.
A fire-resistant home safe with a rating from Underwriters Laboratories —a global not-for-profit organization that conducts safety and quality tests on a range of products —may protect your documents for up to four hours during a fire, according to Better Homes and Gardens. However, keep in mind that if the safe remains in an active fire or flood conditions for an extended period of time, your documents may still end up sustaining damage.
Don't wait until a disaster strikes to think about protecting your important documents. These precautions may help ensure that the papers and documents that are most important to you remain safe even in emergency situations.