How to Move Your Apple Mail to a New Mac

Easy tips for making the transfer faster

Moving your Apple Mail to a new Mac or a new clean install of the operating system may seem like a difficult task, but it only requires moving three items to the new destination.

Information in this article applies to Macs running OS X Lion (10.7) through macOS Catalina (10.15), as indicated.

The Problem With Migration Assistant

You have options for performing the move. By far, the easiest and most often suggested method is to use Apple's Migration Assistant. This method works well, but it has one drawback: Migration Assistant is an all-or-nothing process when it comes to moving data. It copies everything from one Mac to another. You may not be interested in transferring everything to your new Mac.

Moving Mail Manually

To move only your mail, transfer three items from your current Mac to a new one:

  • Mail Folder
  • Mail Preferences
  • KeyChain

After you transfer the files, launch Mail on your new system, and all of your emails, accounts, and rules will work just the way they did before the move.

Do a thorough backup and file clean up before you make the transfer. Then, you can transfer your files over a network, burn them to a CD or DVD, or copy them to a USB flash drive. If the new system is on the same Mac, you copy them from one partition to another.

Why Moving Apple Mail Makes Sense

Starting over with Mail on a new Mac doesn't make sense. You probably have years of data stored on your Mac. While some of it may be fluff, other information is important enough to keep on hand.

It might be easy to re-create your mail accounts on a new system, but it's not easy to start fresh with none of your older emails available, your Mail rules gone, and Mail asking for passwords that you have long since forgotten.

Back up Data Using Time Machine

Before you start moving files around, make a current backup of your mail. You can use a third-party application for this, but Time Machine is part of the Mac system and is easy to use.

Select Back Up Now from the Time Machine icon in the menu bar, or right-click Time Machine in the Dock and select Back Up Now.

The Back Up Now command in the Time Machine menu

If you don't have the Time Machine menu bar item, install it by opening System Preferences > Time Machine and placing a checkmark next to Show Time Machine in the menu bar.

Prepare and Copy Your Keychain Data

Apple's Keychain is one of the three items you move to the new Mac.

With Keychain, Apple Mail operates without asking you to supply all of your account passwords. If you only have one or two accounts in Mail, then you can skip this step, but if you have many Mail accounts, transferring Keychain makes using the new Mac easier.

Before you copy the Keychain files, it's a good idea to repair or verify the file to catch any possible errors. The method you use depends on your system version.

Repair the Keychain Files in OS X Yosemite and Earlier

If you're using OS X Yosemite or earlier, the Keychain Access app includes a first-aid tool that you can use to verify and repair all your Keychain files.

  1. Launch Keychain Access, located in Applications > Utilities.

    The Keychain Access app in macOS
  2. Select Keychain First Aid from the Keychain Access menu.

  3. Enter the username and password for your user account.

  4. Select Repair to verify the data and repair any problems. Click the Start button.

  5. Close the Keychain First Aid window when the process is complete and quit Keychain Access.

Verify the Integrity of the Keychain Files in OS X El Capitan or Later

If you're using ​OS X El Capitan or later, the Keychain Access app is missing the first-aid feature, so use the Disk Utility First Aid tool to verify and repair the startup drive that contains the Keychain files.

Copy the Keychain Files to the New Location

MacOS stores Keychain files in your Library folder. As of OS X Lion, the Library folder is hidden so that you can't accidentally make changes to important system files.

The hidden Library folder is easy to access and you can even make it permanently visible if you want.

  1. Open a Finder window by clicking the Finder icon in the Dock.

    Finder icon on the Mac Dock
  2. Go to your Home folder and select Library. Click the Keychains folder.

    The Keychains folder in macOS
  3. Copy the Keychains folder to the same location on your new Mac.

Clean up and Copy Your Mail Folder

Before you move your Apple Mail data, take some time to clean up your current Mail setup.

Apple Mail Cleanup

  1. Launch Apple Mail by clicking the Mail icon in the Dock. Select an inbox.

  2. Click Junk, and verify that all the messages in the folder are indeed junk emails.

    Each email account has its own Junk folder. If you have several providers, empty the Junk folder for each one.

    The Junk folder in Apple Mail
  3. Right-click each Junk folder and select Erase Junk Mail, followed by Erase.

    The Erase Junk Mail command

Copy Your Mail Files

The Mail files you need to copy are stored in the Library folder. This folder is hidden by default in macOS. If you haven't set the Library file to be visible previously, open it temporarily. From the desktop, hold down the Option key and click Go in the menu bar. Select Library in the expanded menu.

To copy your Mail files to a new Mac or system:

  1. Quit Mail if the application is running.

  2. Open a Finder window.

  3. In your Home folder, open the Library folder and locate the Mail folder.

    The Mail folder in macOS
  4. Copy the Mail folder to the same location on your new Mac or in your new system.

Copy Your Mail Preferences

The last thing you need to copy is your Mail preferences file:

  1. Quit Apple Mail if the application is running.

  2. Open a Finder window.

  3. Go to your Home folder and select Library > Preferences.

    The Preferences folder in macOS' Library
  4. Copy com.apple.mail.plist to the same location on your new Mac or new system.

    You might see files that seem similar, such as com.apple.mail.plist.lockfile. Don't copy them. The only file you need to copy is com.apple.mail.plist.

    The "com.apple.mail.plist" item in Preferences
  5. With all the necessary files copied to the new Mac or system, you can launch Apple Mail and have all of your emails in place, your Mail rules functioning, and all Mail accounts working.

Troubleshooting Keychain Issues

If something can go wrong, it usually will, and moving Keychains around can sometimes cause a problem. Fortunately, it's easy to correct.

When you try to copy the Keychain file to its new location on your new Mac or system, the copy might fail with a warning that one or more Keychain files ​are in use. This can happen if you have already used your new Mac or system, and in the process, it created its own Keychain files.

If you're using OS X Yosemite or later, you can use an alternative method of getting your new Mac or system to use your existing Keychain files. Instead of copying the files, make use of iCloud and its ability to sync Keychains between multiple Macs and iOS devices to achieve the same results.

If you're using OS X Mavericks or earlier, the process is a little more involved.

  1. Launch Keychain Access, located in Applications > Utilities on your new Mac or system.

  2. Select Keychain List from the Edit menu.

  3. Make a note of which Keychain files in the list have a checkmark next to their names.

  4. Uncheck any checked Keychain files.

  5. Copy the Keychain files to your new Mac or system.

  6. Reset the checkmarks in the Keychain list to the state you noted.

Troubleshooting Mail Issues

Occasionally, you may run into a problem when you first launch Apple Mail on your new Mac or system. The error message usually says that Mail doesn't have permission to access a specific file.

Make a note of which file is listed in the error message and then do the following:

  1. Quit Mail if it's running on the new Mac or system.

  2. Open a Finder window.

  3. Go to the file mentioned in the error message.

  4. Right-click the file and select Get Info.

  5. Expand Sharing & Permissions. Your username should be listed as having read and write access, but you may see unknown.

  6. Click the lock icon in the bottom right corner of the Get Info window.

  7. Enter your administrator username and password, and click OK.

  8. Click the plus sign (+).

  9. Choose your account from the list of users and click Select. The selected account is added to the Sharing & Permissions section.

  10. Select the Privileges item for the account you added.

  11. Choose Read & Write.

  12. If there's an entry with the name unknown, select it and click the minus sign (-) to delete the entry and close the window.

That should correct the problem. If Mail reports a similar error with another file, try adding your username to every file in the Mail folder.

Propagating Your Privileges

  1. Right-click the Mail folder, located in your Library folder, and select Get Info.

    The Get Info command in macOS
  2. Using the instructions in the previous section, add your username to the permissions list and set your permissions to Read & Write.

  3. Click the gear icon at the bottom of the Get Info window.

    The Settings gear in the Get Info window
  4. Select Apply to enclosed items.

  5. Close the window and try a rebuild.

How to Rebuild Apple Mail

Rebuilding your mailboxes forces Mail to reindex each message and update the list to accurately reflect the items your Mac is storing. The message index and the actual messages can sometimes get out of sync, usually as the result of a Mail crash or an unintended shutdown. The rebuild process corrects any underlying issues with the program.

If you use IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), the rebuilding process deletes any locally cached messages and attachments and then downloads fresh copies from the mail server. Rebuilding IMAP accounts can take quite a while; you may decide to forgo the rebuilding process for them.

  1. Select a mailbox by clicking its icon.

  2. Select Rebuild from the Mailbox menu.

    The Rebuild command in Mail
  3. When the rebuilding is complete, repeat the process for any other mailboxes.

Don't be alarmed if messages in a mailbox seem to disappear during the rebuilding process. When the rebuilding is complete, reselecting the mailbox reveals all the stored messages.

You can also try resetting user permissions if all else fails.