How to Really Transfer Your Email Between Macs

June 5th, 2012

This is a common problem. A writer gets an assignment, but is limited to a specific word count. Too many words, and the editors will take a sharp knife to the manuscript and dispatch important paragraphs and sentences. The end result is that the article may become a shadow of the original version.

Now I won’t assume that’s what happened with a recent Macworld article, in which a reader asked how to transfer his email in Apple Mail from his old Mac to the new one. However, the instructions given were, I will say charitably out of respect to the author, very incomplete.

First and foremost, if you’re migrating from an old Mac to a new one, Apple’s Migration Assistant is the best possible tool. That way, your new Mac will have the same apps, email, and even system settings as the old one. It’s flexible enough to allow you to omit some of your stuff, which may be important if you’re migrating data from a desktop Mac to something from the MacBook family (such as a MacBook Air), where storage space may be limited.

Obviously, I can’t tell from the question whether the individual understood the choices. It’s the sort of question that invites a follow up to get additional information.

But if all you want to do is migrate email, the instructions in the Macworld piece represent only part of the solution, and not necessarily the best solution for some of you. Certainly not for me.

In the article, you are first shown how to migrate only your most recent messages, by having them all added to a Smart Mailbox with Apple Mail. You then archive the mailbox. This happens to be a useful solution if you’re mailboxes are inundated with loads of cruft that you’d be happy to dump at the earliest opportunity. But it’s the sort of solution that requires careful thought. After moving the recent messages, you may decide you need older ones to trace a financial transaction or business arrangement. I would recommend extreme caution before you delete a message. You can always transfer everything and make those decisions later, when you have the time to think them through. This is particularly true if your old Mac is going to be wiped clean and sold off. Unless a backup is available, you’re going to be out of luck if you delete the wrong messages.

Once you create your Smart Mailbox, the article suggests you use Mail’s Import feature to grab the contents. All well and good. But as I said, it’s only part of a solution, and maybe not the most flexible for many of you. Once again, Apple’s Migration Assistant is simplest way to grab the stuff from your old Mac. It even works if your old computer was a Windows PC with recent versions of OS X.

But if you plan to keep email in sync on a number of devices, say a Mac, a PC, an iPhone, an iPad, or even someone else’s smartphone or tablet, try to use an email system that supports IMAP. Short for “Internet message access protocol,” an IMAP email system stores your email on its own server or network of servers. By using IMAP in setting up your email on your computer, be it mobile or desktop, all your messages, incoming, outgoing, and even those placed in special folders, will be in sync. With IMAP, you won’t have to migrate anything when moving to a new Mac, for example. Just set up your email account, and map the four main folders to the ones used by your email service with the Use This Mailbox For feature. The four folders are Drafts, Sent, Trash and Junk.

In passing, the need to map those folders ensures that your email is always in sync with the server, that your Sent messages, for example, will be the same regardless of which device you use. Yes, it would be nice if the folder mapping nonsense was done automatically, and I don’t know why it’s not. But it only takes a few moments to accomplish after your email account is set up. You can even do it on an iOS device in your Account setup, under Advanced, which is located in the Mail, Contacts, Calendars settings. Depending on how many messages are stored on the server, it may take up to several hours to sync them all on your new computer. But you can let your new Mac do that and still get on with your business.

As to IMAP, unfortunately such free services as Hotmail and Yahoo! don’t support the system, and the same holds true for the email systems put in place by all ISPs I know about. Gmail and GMX do support IMAP, and I’d recommend that you consider these two alternatives if you require free. Pretty much all Web hosts have an IMAP option in their email offerings, or you can consider a dedicated business email provider, such as Polaris Mail.

If you must use POP email, where your messages are stored on your computer, you will have to consider the Macworld article or Migration Assistant alternative in moving your messages. But since you can get IMAP services free of charge, or at a very low cost, I’d recommend you switch your email to one of those systems. It’s a trivial process to send out changes of addresses, and messages can be moved in Mail from one account to another via a simple drag and drop routine.

I’m sure most of you have both a personal computer and smartphone (and possibly a tablet). If you care about having  your email stay current on all of these devices, IMAP is the best possible solution. You’ll get similar benefits with Microsoft Exchange and Open-XChange.

And in case you’re wondering, I keep messages on hand from as far back as 1999. Yes, I’m a bit of a pack rat I suppose, but every single one is readily available on both my desktop and mobile computers, thanks to IMAP.

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10 Responses to “How to Really Transfer Your Email Between Macs”

  1. Andrew says:

    IMAP is also not perfect. I am in the Army Reserve and we use an IMAP system for military mail. I have constant sync issues where messages that I delete somehow remain, while movements to subfolders sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

    I agree, POP is far worse, but for those who deal with A LOT of email, IMAP also has its problem.

    • @Andrew, That sounds to me like a problem with your email server, not with the system. There are good and bad implementations. With our email provider, Polaris Mail, it’s as close to perfect as it can be in syncing to a pair of Macs, an iPhone and an iPad.


  2. TaosJohn says:

    “As to IMAP, unfortunately such free services as Hotmail and Yahoo! don’t support the system, and the same holds true for the email systems put in place by all ISPs I know about. ”

    Man, do you ever need to get out more.

  3. Andrew says:


    Its not my server, its the US Army’s server, which means that there is not much I can do about it.

    For my personal and business accounts I use a Microsoft Small Business Server (just upgraded to the latest 2011 Standard version) which provides MS Exchange 2010. I know you don’t care for anything Microsoft, but I’ve had a great experience using Small Business Server since I adopted the 2003 version in 2006.

    In my opinion, there is no better mail server than MS Exchange, so long as you have a compatible client. Apple mail for OS X is so-so, while the iOS version is totally reliable. MS Outlook 2011 for Mac works very well with Exchange, and is now the standard in my office.

  4. gabriel says:

    MIgration Assistant will get the job done, but at the expense of bringing a TON of crud with it. If I had a dollar for every person I’ve helped with a new Mac that runs like garbage because they or a kid at an Apple Store ran migration assistant instead of taking a little more time/attention to do a **proper** manually migration I’d have enough for a new iPhone…but doing that requires you to understand your OS, files and how a Mac works under the hood. Something most don’t know. But the more machines you’ve used the crutch of migration assistant with, the more jankety things become. No, you did not get sold a lemon. The knowledgable people at Apple retail are all gone now is all…

    • @gabriel, For most people, Migration Assistant works just fine. It has for me over the years. On the other hand, if you have extensively modified your system with add-ons, I expect things might not transfer too well. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s why I mentioned different alternatives.


  5. Turner Bain says:

    I want my @mac address back. Unfortunately, I dropped it right before it was grandfathered in. Great big mistake. Is anybody at Apple reading this? I want my .mac. Mobileme was silly and cumbersome to use. Must have been designed by a washout from Redding.
    I know this article isn’t about email providers, but I would like information about them.
    After losing mac, I tried various providers and they all had problems. My gmail account works reasonably well, but it became ‘echo-ish’ working with Mail.
    I really like Mail and it was seamless with @mac. Yahoo, is well, Yahoo, and when I go to that site, it takes too many clicks to get to my inbox. After all, why else would I access Yahoo except to visit my email account. All the extras should remain just extras. Gmail has become annoying that way, pushing their other services on me.
    I decided on gmx for my personal mail. I have had sent emails simply disappear from both Mail and gmx. Scary. It takes itself too seriously with security sometimes and won’t go, but these episodes have been less frequent lately, even though yesterday it refused the password provided by Mail. Usually, I have to look up my generated password and fill it in, but I just clicked on cancel, and Mail in and out worked just fine.
    I would like to know of good, going to be in business for the duration, email providers, both free and premium. I am always warning people about using their internet provider’s email address for long term relationships, but they just look at me dumbly, and then want to know what to do when they do change services.

    • @Turner Bain, We presently use Polaris Mail ( It’s not expensive as business email systems go, and has been as reliable as any I’ve used. And Sent emails don’t disappear (remember to map the mailboxes in Mail as I explained in the article).


  6. Turner Bain says:

    I left out my method of using the email. I keep most folders on the email server. The ones on my Mac are for having an extra layer of security, such as letters from the bank, emailed invoices, etc. I do not have duplicately labeled folders on both sources. For example, Apple and aPPle. I have not migrated yet. I forgot what I did between the iMac, iBook, and Air. But I suppose it was because every thing was @mac server. It is easy enough to transfer folders between the server and the computer. I would put everything on gmx before closing out the older computer, and then decide which ones to drag into the new one. Seems not much trouble to me. Now that I have thought of it, I think I’ll save the information in Mail to finder folders and keep every thing @gmx.

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