Learn about retention for SharePoint and OneDrive

Microsoft 365 licensing guidance for security & compliance.

The information in this article supplements Learn about retention because it has information that's specific to SharePoint and OneDrive.

For other workloads, see:

What's included for retention and deletion

All files stored in SharePoint or OneDrive sites can be retained by applying a retention policy or retention label.

The following files can be deleted:

  • When you use a retention policy: All files in document libraries, which include any automatically created SharePoint document libraries, such as Site Assets.

  • When you use retention labels: All files in all document libraries, and all files at the root level that aren't in a folder.

    When you use a KQL query with an auto-apply policy for a retention label, you can exclude document libraries by using the following entry: NOT(DocumentLink:"<URL to document library>")

How retention works for SharePoint and OneDrive

To support retention, SharePoint and OneDrive creates a Preservation Hold library if one doesn't exist. You can view this library on the Site contents page in the top-level site of the site collection. Most users can't view the Preservation Hold library because it's visible only to site collection administrators.

If somebody attempts to change or delete a document that's subject to retention settings, a check is made whether the content's been changed since the retention settings were applied. If this is the first change since the retention settings were applied, the content is copied to the Preservation Hold library, which allows the person to change or delete the original content. Any content in a site collection can be copied to the Preservation Hold library, independently from retention settings.

A timer job periodically cleans up the Preservation Hold library. This job compares all content in the Preservation Hold library to all queries used by the retention settings for that content. Content that is older than their configured retention period is deleted from the Preservation Hold library, and the original location if it is still there. This timer job runs every seven days, which means that it can take up to seven days for content to be deleted.

This behavior applies to content that exists when the retention settings were applied. In addition, for retention policies, any new content that's created or added to the site collection after it was included in the policy will be retained after deletion. However, new content isn't copied to the Preservation Hold library the first time it's edited, only when it's deleted. To retain all versions of a file, you must turn on versioning.

A user receives an error if they try to delete a library, list, folder, or site that's subject to a retention policy. A user can delete a folder if they first move or delete any files in the folder that are subject to the policy. Also, the Preservation Hold library is created at this stage, and not when you create a retention policy or apply a retention label. This means that to test retention, you must first edit or delete a document in a site that's subject to a retention policy or that has a retention label applied, and then browse to the Preservation Hold library to view the retained copy.

After retention settings are assigned to content in a OneDrive account or SharePoint site, the paths the content takes depend on whether the retention settings are to retain and delete, to retain only, or delete only.

When the retention setting are to retain and delete:

Diagram of content lifecycle in SharePoint and OneDrive

  1. If the content is modified or deleted during the retention period, a copy of the original content as it existed when the retention policy was assigned is created in the Preservation Hold library. There, the timer job identifies items whose retention period has expired. Those items are moved to the second-stage Recycle Bin, where they're permanently deleted at the end of 93 days. The second-stage Recycle Bin is not visible to end users (only the first-stage Recycle Bin is), but site collection admins can view and restore content from there.

    Note

    To help prevent inadvertent data loss, we no longer permanently delete content from the Preservation Hold library. Instead, we permanently delete content only from the Recycle Bin, so all content from the Preservation Hold library now goes through the second-stage Recycle Bin.

  2. If the content is not modified or deleted during the retention period, the timer job moves this content to the first-stage Recycle Bin at the end of the retention period. If a user deletes the content from there or empties this Recycle Bin (also known as purging), the document is moved to the second-stage Recycle Bin. A 93-day retention period spans both the first- and second-stage recycle bins. At the end of 93 days, the document is permanently deleted from wherever it resides, in either the first-stage or second-stage Recycle Bin. The Recycle Bin is not indexed and therefore unavailable for searching. As a result, an eDiscovery search can't find any Recycle Bin content on which to place a hold.

When the retention settings are retain-only, or delete-only, the contents paths are variations of retain and delete:

Content paths for retain-only retention settings

  1. If the content is modified or deleted during the retention period: A copy of the original document is created in the Preservation Hold library and retained until the end of the retention period, when the copy in the Preservation Hold library is moved to the second-stage Recycle Bin and is permanently deleted after 93 days.

  2. If the content is not modified or deleted during the retention period: Nothing happens before and after the retention period; the document remains in its original location.

Content paths for delete-only retention settings

  1. If the content is deleted during the configured period: The document is moved to first-stage Recycle Bin. If a user deletes the document from there or empties this Recycle Bin, the document is moved to the second-stage Recycle Bin. A 93-day retention period spans both the first-stage and second-stage recycle bins. At the end of 93 days, the document is permanently deleted from wherever it resides, in either the first-stage or second-stage Recycle Bin. If the content is modified during the configured period, it follows the same deletion path after the configured period.

  2. If the content is not deleted during the configured period: At the end of the configured period in the retention policy, the document is moved to the first-stage Recycle Bin. If a user deletes the document from there or empties this Recycle Bin (also known as purging), the document is moved to the second-stage Recycle Bin. A 93-day retention period spans both the first-stage and second-stage recycle bins. At the end of 93 days, the document is permanently deleted from wherever it resides, in either the first-stage or second-stage Recycle Bin. The Recycle Bin is not indexed and therefore unavailable for searching. As a result, an eDiscovery search can't find any Recycle Bin content on which to place a hold.

How retention works for OneNote content

When you apply a retention policy to a location that includes OneNote content, the different OneNote sections are actually different files. This means that each section will be individually retained and deleted, according to the retention settings you specify.

How retention works with document versions in a site collection

Versioning is a feature of all document libraries in SharePoint and OneDrive. By default, versioning retains a minimum of 500 major versions, though you can increase this limit. For more information, see Enable and configure versioning for a list or library and How versioning works in lists and libraries.

Retain-only settings retain all versions of a document in a SharePoint site collection or OneDrive account. When a document that is subject to a hold or retain-only retention settings is edited for the first time, a version of the original document is copied to the Preservation Hold library. When a document that is subject to a hold or retain-only settings is deleted, all versions are copied to the Preservation Hold library if versioning is enabled. Each version of a document in the Preservation Hold library exists as a separate item with its own retention period:

  • If the retention period is based on when the content was created, each version has the same expiration date as the original document. The original document and its versions all expire at the same time.

  • If the retention period is based on when the content was last modified, each version has its own expiration date based on when the original document was modified to create that version. The original documents and its versions expire independently of each other.

Note

The preserved versions of SharePoint and OneDrive documents are not searchable by eDiscovery tools.

For items that are subject to a retention policies (or a legal hold), the versioning limits for the document library are ignored until the retention period of the document is reached. In this scenario, old versions are not automatically purged and users are prevented from deleting versions.

That's not the case for retention labels when a retention policy isn't applied to the site. Instead, the versioning limits are honored so that older versions are automatically deleted to accommodate new versions, but users are still prevented from deleting versions.

When a user leaves the organization

SharePoint:

When a user leaves your organization, any content created by that user is not affected because SharePoint is considered a collaborative environment, unlike a user's mailbox or OneDrive account.

OneDrive:

If a user leaves your organization, any files that are subject to a retention policy or has a retention label will remain for the duration of the policy or label. During that time period, all sharing access continues to work. When the retention period expires, content moves into the Site Collection Recycle Bin and is not accessible to anyone except the admin. If a document is marked by a retention label as a record, the document will not be deleted until the retention period is over, after which time the content is permanently deleted.

Configuration guidance

If you're new to configuring retention in Microsoft 365, see Get started with retention policies and retention labels.

If you're ready to configure a retention policy or retention label for Exchange, see the following instructions: