Learn about retention labels

Microsoft 365 licensing guidance for security & compliance.

Across your organization, you probably have different types of content that require different actions taken on them in order to comply with industry regulations and internal policies. For example, you might have:

  • Tax forms that need to be retained for a minimum period of time.

  • Press materials that need to be permanently deleted when they reach a certain age.

  • Competitive research that needs to be both retained and then permanently deleted.

  • Work visas that must be marked as a record so that they can't be edited or deleted.

In all of these cases, retention labels can help you take the right actions on the right content. With retention labels, you can classify data across your organization for governance, and enforce retention rules based on that classification.

With retention labels, you can:

  • Enable people in your organization to apply a retention label manually to content in Outlook on the web, Outlook 2010 and later, OneDrive, SharePoint, and Microsoft 365 Groups. Users often know best what type of content they're working with, so they can classify it and have the appropriate policy applied.

  • Apply retention labels to content automatically if it matches specific conditions, such as when the content contains:

    • Specific types of sensitive information.

    • Specific keywords that match a query you create.

    • Pattern matches for a trainable classifier.

    The ability to apply retention labels to content automatically is important because:

    • You don't need to train your users on all of your classifications.

    • You don't need to rely on users to classify all content correctly.

    • Users no longer need to know about data governance policies - they can instead focus on their work.

  • Apply a default retention label to a document library, folder, or document set in SharePoint, so that all documents that are stored in that location inherit the default retention label.

Additionally, retention labels support records management for email and documents across Microsoft 365 apps and services. You can use a retention label to classify content as a record. When this happens, the label can't be changed or removed, and the content can't be edited or deleted.

There is no limit to the number of retention labels that are supported for a tenant. However, 10,000 is the maximum number of policies that are supported for a tenant and these include the policies that apply the labels (retention label policies and auto-apply retention policies), as well as retention policies.

How retention labels work with retention label policies

Making retention labels available to people in your organization so that they can classify content is a two-step process:

  1. Create the retention labels

  2. Publish the retention labels by using a retention label policy

Diagram of roles and tasks for labels

Retention labels are independent, reusable building blocks that are included in one or more retention label policies. The primary purpose of a retention label policy is to group a set of retention labels and specify the locations where you want those labels to appear.

Diagram of labels, label policies, and locations

  1. When you publish retention labels, they're included in a retention label policy. Retention label names are immutable, which means that they cannot be edited after they're created.

  2. A single retention label can be included in many retention label policies.

  3. A single location can also be included in many retention label policies.

  4. Retention label policies specify the locations to publish the retention labels.

Only one retention label at a time

It's important to know that content like an email or document can have only a single retention label assigned to it at a time:

  • For retention labels assigned manually by end users, people can remove or change the retention label that's assigned.

  • If content has an auto-apply label assigned, an auto-apply label can be replaced by a retention label assigned manually by an end user.

  • If content has a retention label assigned manually by an end user, an auto-apply label cannot replace the manually assigned retention label.

  • If there are multiple rules that assign an auto-apply label and content meets the conditions of multiple rules, the retention label for the oldest rule is assigned.

To understand how and why one retention label is applied rather than another, it's helpful to understand the difference between explicitly assign a label, and implicitly assigned a label:

  • Manually assigned labels are explicitly assigned
  • Automatically applied labels are implicitly assigned

An explicitly assigned retention label takes precedence over an implicitly assigned retention label. For more information, see the The principles of retention, or what takes precedence? section on this page.

Retention label policies and locations

Different types of retention labels can be published to different locations, depending on what the retention label does.

If the retention label is… Then the label policy can be applied to…
Published to end users
Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, Microsoft 365 Groups
Auto-applied based on sensitive information types
Exchange (all mailboxes only), SharePoint, OneDrive
Auto-applied based on a query
Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, Microsoft 365 Groups

In Exchange, auto-apply retention labels (for both queries and sensitive information types) are applied only to messages newly sent (data in transit), not to all items currently in the mailbox (data at rest). Also, auto-apply retention labels for sensitive information types can apply only to all mailboxes; you can't select the specific mailboxes.

Exchange public folders, Skype, and Teams channel messages and chats do not support retention labels.

How retention labels enforce retention

Retention labels can enforce the same retention actions that a retention policy can - retain and then delete, or retain-only, or delete-only. You can use retention labels to implement a sophisticated file plan that identifies specific files for different retention settings. For more information about how retention works, see Learn about retention policies.

In addition, a retention label has two retention options that are available only in a retention label and not in a retention policy. With a retention label, you can:

  • Trigger a disposition review at the end of the retention period, so that SharePoint and OneDrive documents must be reviewed before they can be deleted. For more information, see Disposition reviews.

  • Start the retention period from when the content was labeled, instead of the age of the content or when it was last modified. This option applies only to content in SharePoint sites and OneDrive accounts. For Exchange email, the retention period is always based on the date when the message was sent or received, no matter which option you choose here.

Retention settings with options specific to labels

Another important difference is that when you apply a retention label rather than a retention policy to files in SharePoint, and the label is configured to retain content, users can't delete the file while the retention period is enforced. Users can delete content when the same label is applied to files in OneDrive and to emails, unless the label marks the content as a record.

Where published retention labels can appear to end users

If your retention label will be assigned to content by end users, you can publish it to:

  • Outlook and Outlook on the web

  • OneDrive

  • SharePoint

  • Microsoft 365 groups (both the group site and group mailbox in Outlook on the web)

The sections that follow explain how labels appear in different apps to people in your organization.

Outlook

To label an item in the Outlook desktop client, select the item. On the Home tab on the ribbon, click Assign Policy, and then choose the retention label.

Assign Policy button

You can also right-click an item, click Assign Policy in the context menu, and then choose the retention label.

After the retention label is applied, you can view that retention label and what action it takes at the top of the item. If an email has a retention label applied that has an associated retention period, you can see at a glance when the email expires.

You can also apply retention labels to folders, in which case:

  • All items in the folder automatically get the same retention label, except for items that have had a retention label applied explicitly to them. Explicitly labeled items keep their existing retention label. For more information, see The principles of retention, or what takes precedence? section on this page.

  • If you change or remove the default retention label for a folder, the retention label's also changed or removed for all items in the folder, except items with explicitly assigned retention labels.

  • If you move an item with a default retention label from one folder to another folder with a different default retention label, the item gets the new default retention label.

  • If you move an item with a default retention label from one folder to another folder with no default retention label, the old default retention label is removed.

Outlook on the web

To label an item in Outlook on the web, right-click the item > Assign policy > choose the retention label.

Assign policy menu in Outlook on the web

After the retention label is applied, you can view that retention label and what action it takes at the top of the item. If an email is classified and has an associated retention period, you can know at a glance when the email will expire.

Label assigned to email in Outlook on the web

As with Outlook on the web, you can also apply retention labels to folders.

OneDrive and SharePoint

To label a document (including OneNote files) in OneDrive or SharePoint, select the item > in the upper-right corner, choose Open the details paneInformation pane icon > Apply retention label > choose the retention label.

You can also apply a retention label to a folder or document set, and you can set a default retention label for a document library.

Apply label list for an item in SharePoint

After a retention label is applied to an item, you can view it in the details pane when that item's selected.

Applied label shown in Details pane

For SharePoint, but not OneDrive, you can create a view of the library that contains the Labels column or Item is a Record column. This view lets you see at a glance the retention labels assigned to all items and which items are records. Note, however, that you can't filter the view by the Item is a Record column. For instructions how to add columns, see Show or hide columns in a list or library.

Microsoft 365 groups

When you publish retention labels to Microsoft 365 groups (formerly Office 365 groups), the retention labels appear in both the group site and group mailbox in Outlook on the web. The experience of applying a retention label to content is identical to that for email and documents.

To retain content for a Microsoft 365 group, use the Office 365 groups location. Even though a Microsoft 365 group has an Exchange mailbox, a retention policy that includes the entire Exchange location won't include content in Microsoft 365 group mailboxes.

In addition, it's not possible to use the Exchange location to include or exclude a specific group mailbox. Although the Exchange location initially allows a group mailbox to be selected, when you try to save the retention policy, you receive an error that "RemoteGroupMailbox" is not a valid selection for the Exchange location.

First, create and configure the sensitivity labels that you want to make available for apps and other services. For example, the labels you want users to see and apply from Office apps.

Then, create one or more label policies that contain the labels and policy settings that you configure. It's the label policy that publishes the labels and settings for your chosen users and locations.

Applying a retention label automatically based on conditions

One of the most powerful features of retention labels is the ability to apply them automatically to content that matches certain conditions. In this case, people in your organization don't need to apply the retention labels. Microsoft 365 does the work for them.

Diagram of roles and tasks for auto-apply labels

Auto-applying retention labels are powerful because:

  • You don't need to train your users on all of your classifications.

  • You don't need to rely on users to classify all content correctly.

  • Users no longer need to know about data governance policies - they can focus on their work.

You can choose to apply retention labels to content automatically when that content contains:

Choose condition page for auto-apply label

Tip

See Manage the lifecycle of SharePoint documents with retention labels for a detailed scenario about using managed properties in SharePoint to auto-apply retention labels and implement event-driven retention.

Applying a default retention label to all content in a SharePoint library, folder, or document set

In addition to enabling people to apply a retention label to individual documents, you can also apply a default retention label to a SharePoint library, folder, or document set, so that all documents in that location get the default retention label.

For a document library, this is done on the Library settings page for a document library. When you choose the default retention label, you can also choose to apply it to existing items in the library.

For example, if you have a tag for marketing materials, and you know a specific document library contains only that type of content, you can make the Marketing Materials tag the default for all documents in that library.

Apply label option on library Settings page

If you apply a default retention label to existing items in the library, folder, or document set:

  • All items in the library, folder, or document set automatically get the same retention label, except for items that have had a retention label applied explicitly to them (such as records). Explicitly labeled items keep their existing label. For more information, see the below section on The principles of retention, or what takes precedence.

  • If you change or remove the default retention label for a library, folder, or document set, the retention label is also changed or removed for all items in the library, folder, or document set, except items with explicit retention labels (such as records).

  • If you move an item with a default retention label from one site collection, library, folder, or document set to another site collection, library, folder, or document set that has a different label, the item keeps its existing default retention label, even if the new location has a different default retention label. If the item does not have a label before moving, it will take on the default retention label of the new location.

Records: If you apply a default record label to a library, folder, or document set, then a record label is applied to all the individual items within those locations. When you move a new item into a location with a record label, that item is labeled a record. However, if you change the default retention label to a label that doesn't declare content as a record, that action does not remove the record label from the individual items; those items retain their record label. Only a site collection admin can explicitly remove or change the retention label of record items.

For more information about retention labels that declare content as a record, see Learn about records.

Applying a retention label to email by using rules

In Outlook, you can create rules to apply a retention label or retention policy.

For example, you can create a rule that applies a specific retention label to all messages sent to or from a specific distribution group.

To create a rule, right-click an item > Rules > Create Rule > Advanced Options > Rules Wizard > apply retention policy.

Rules wizard with option to apply retention policies

Classifying content without applying any actions

When you create a retention label, you can do so without turning on any retention or other actions. In this case, you can use a retention label simply as a text label, without enforcing any actions.

For example, you can create a retention label named "Review later" with no actions, and then auto-apply that retention label to content with sensitive information types or queried content.

Label settings page with retention turned off

Using retention labels for records management

You can use retention labels to declare content as a record. This lets you implement a single, consistent records-management strategy across Microsoft 365. For more information, see Learn about records.

Using a retention label as a condition in a DLP policy

A retention label can enforce retention actions on content. In addition, you can use a retention label as a condition in a data loss prevention (DLP) policy, and the DLP policy can enforce other actions, such as restricting access, on content that contains a specific label.

For more information, see Using a retention label as a condition in a DLP policy.

The principles of retention, or what takes precedence?

It's possible or even likely that content might have several retention policies applied to it, each with a different action (retain, delete, or both) and retention period. What takes precedence? At the highest level, rest assured that content being retained by one policy can't be permanently deleted by another policy.

Diagram of the principles of retention

To understand how different labels with retention actions are applied to content, keep these principles of retention in mind:

  1. Retention wins over deletion. Suppose that one retention policy says to delete Exchange email after three years, but another retention policy says to retain Exchange email for five years and then delete it. Any content that reaches three years old will be deleted and hidden from the users' view, but still retained in the Recoverable Items folder until the content reaches five years old, when it will be permanently deleted.

  2. The longest retention period wins. If content's subject to multiple policies that retain content, it will be retained until the end of the longest retention period.

  3. Explicit inclusion wins over implicit inclusion. This means:

    1. If a retention label with retention settings is manually assigned by a user to an item, such as an Exchange email or OneDrive document, that retention label takes precedence over both a policy assigned at the site or mailbox level and a default retention label assigned by the document library. For example, if the explicit retention label says to retain for 10 years, but the retention policy assigned to the site says to retain for only five years, the retention label takes precedence. Auto-applied retention labels are considered implicit, not explicit, because they're applied automatically by Microsoft 365.

    2. If a retention policy includes a specific location, such as a specific user's mailbox or OneDrive account, that policy takes precedence over another retention policy that applies to all users' mailboxes or OneDrive accounts but doesn't specifically include that user's mailbox.

  4. The shortest deletion period wins. Similarly, if content's subject to multiple policies that delete content (with no retention), it will be deleted at the end of the shortest retention period.

Understand that the principles of retention work as a tie-breaking flow from top to bottom: If the rules applied by all policies or labels are the same at one level, the flow moves down to the next level to determine precedence for which rule is applied.

Finally, a retention policy or retention label cannot permanently delete any content that's on hold for eDiscovery. When the hold is released, the content again becomes eligible for the cleanup process described above.

Precedence for auto-labeling with trainable classifiers

All retention labels that are configured for trainable classifiers are evaluated simultaneously. If an item is detected by more than one trainable classifier, the following criteria is used to determine which retention label to apply:

  1. Retention labels configured for retain-only or retain and then delete have a higher priority over retention labels that are configured for delete-only.

  2. For retention labels that are configured for retain-only or retain and then delete, the retention label that is configured for the longest retention period wins.

  3. For retention labels that are configured for delete-only, the retention label that has been configured for the shortest period wins.

  4. Retention labels with the same action and the same period result in a retention label selection that is non-deterministic.

Monitor retention labels

After you publish or auto-apply your retention labels, you'll want to verify that they're being applied to content as you intended. To monitor your retention labels:

  • Label Activity Explorer. With the explorer (example in the next picture), you can quickly search and view retention label activity for all content across SharePoint and OneDrive over the past 30 days. For more information, see View label activity for documents.

  • Label analytics page. In the Microsoft 365 compliance center and Microsoft 365 security center, you can quickly view your top retention labels and where they're applied. You can also view all content with a specific retention label. For more information, see View label usage with label analytics.

  • Data governance reports. With these reports, you can quickly view retention label trends and activity for all content across Exchange, SharePoint, and OneDrive over the past 90 days. For more information, see View the data governance reports.

Label Activity Explorer

Using Content Search to find all content with a specific retention label applied to it

After retention labels are assigned to content, either by users or auto-applied, you can use content search to find all content that's classified with a specific retention label.

When you create a content search, choose the Compliance Tag condition, and then enter the complete retention label name or part of the label name and use a wildcard. For more information, see Keyword queries and search conditions for Content Search.

Compliance Tag condition

Use retention labels instead of older features

Retention labels can easily be made available to an entire organization and its content across Microsoft 365, including Exchange, SharePoint, OneDrive, and Microsoft 365 groups. If you need to retain or delete content, or manage records anywhere in Microsoft 365, we recommend that you use retention labels.

There are several other features that have previously been used to retain or delete content or to manage records in Microsoft 365. These features will continue to work side by side with retention labels. While there are instances where the implementation of retention labels differs from previous features, the evolution of retention labels will drive the future of records management across Microsoft 365. Therefore, moving forward, for data governance, we recommend that you use retention labels instead of the following older features.

Exchange Online

SharePoint and OneDrive