How to Move Your Apple Mail to a New Mac

Easy tips for making the transfer faster

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

There are a few ways to perform the move. By far the easiest, and the most often suggested method is to use Apple’s Migration Assistant. This method works well in most cases, but there’s one drawback to the Migration Assistant: Its approach is mostly all-or-nothing when it comes to moving data; you can select some basic categories, such as applications or user data, or just support files, and most of the time it works fine.

Why Moving Apple Mail Makes Sense

Where you can run into problems is when there’s something wrong with your Mac. You’re not sure what it is; maybe a corrupt preference file or a system component that’s a little wacky, and causes problems now and then. The last thing you want to do is copy a bad file to your new Mac or new install of macOS.

However, starting over completely doesn’t make sense, either. You may have years of data stored on your Mac. While some of it may be fluff, other pieces of information are important enough to keep on hand.

It might be easy to recreate your mail accounts on a new system, but it’s not easy to start off fresh with none of your older email available, your Mail rules gone, and Mail always asking for passwords that you might have long since forgotten.

With that in mind, here’s a simple way to move to a new location just the data Apple Mail needs. When you’re done, you should be able to fire up Mail on your new system and have all your emails, accounts, and rules working just the way they did before the move.

Transfer Your Apple Mail to a New Mac

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You'll need a few tools to perform the process of transferring your emails from Apple Mail:

  • A way to transfer files to the new location. You can transfer your files over a network, burn them to a CD or DVD, copy them to a USB flash drive, or, if the new system is on the same Mac, copy them from one partition to another. We won’t discuss the actual mechanism you use to perform the transfer, only which source files need to be copied, and where they need to be stored in your new installation.
  • Administrative access to your data. You might need to change the file privileges; however, this is probably unnecessary for most people.

Back up Data Using Time Machine

Before you start moving files around, make sure you have a current backup of your mail.

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

If you don't have the Time Machine menu bar item, you can install it like so:

  1. Click System Preferences in the Dock, or select System Preferences from the Apple menu.
  2. Click the Time Machine preference pane.
  3. Place a checkmark next to Show Time Machine status in the menu bar.
  4. Close System Preferences.

You can also create a backup using one of many third-party applications. Once you back up your data, you're ready to continue.

Copy Your Keychain Data When Moving Apple Mail

Before copying your Keychain files, make sure they are in good shape by running Keychain First Aid

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There are two folders and a file that need to be copied to your new Mac or your new system. You'll be copying data for both Apple Mail and Apple's Keychain application.

The Keychain data you copy will allow Apple Mail to operate without asking you to supply all of your account passwords. If you only have one or two accounts in Mail, then you can probably skip this step, but if you have many Mail accounts, this will make using the new Mac or system easier.

Before you copy the Keychain files, it's a good idea to repair the files to ensure the data within them is intact. If you're using OS X Yosemite or earlier, the Keychain Access app includes a handy first aid tool that you can use to verify and repair all of your keychain files.

If you're using ​OS X El Capitan or later, you'll find the Keychain Access app is missing the first aid feature, requiring you to use a different, and unfortunately less effective, method of ensuring your Keychain files are in good shape.

Repair Your Keychain Files (OS X Yosemite and Earlier)

  1. Launch Keychain Access, located in /Applications/Utilities.
  2. Select Keychain First Aid from the Keychain Access menu.
  3. Enter the username and password for the user account you're currently logged in with.
  4. You can perform just a Verify to see if anything is wrong, or you can select the Repair option to verify the data and repair any problems. Since you've already backed up your data (you did back up your data, right?), select Repair and click the Start button.
  5. Close the Keychain First Aid window when the process is complete, and then quit Keychain Access.

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

As mentioned above, the Keychain Access app lacks the basic first aid capabilities, a definite oversight by Apple. The best you can do until Apple provides a new Disk Utility First Aid tool is to verify/repair the startup drive that contains the Keychain files.

Once you've done that, return to these instructions.

Copy the Keychain Files to the New Location

The Keychain files are stored in your /Library folder. As of OS X Lion, the /Library folder is hidden so that you can’t accidentally make changes to important files used by the system.

Thankfully, the hidden /Library folder is easy to access and can even be made permanently visible, if you wish. Once your /Library folder is visible, return here and continue.

  1. Open a Finder window by clicking the Finder icon in the Dock.
  2. Navigate to <user>/Library, where <user> is the name of your home directory.
  3. Copy the Keychain folder to the same location on your new Mac or in your new system.

Copy Your Apple Mail Folder and Preferences to a New Mac

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Moving your Apple Mail data is a pretty simple task, but before you do, you may want to take a bit of time to clean up your current Mail setup.

Apple Mail Cleanup

  1. Launch Apple Mail by clicking the Mail icon in the Dock.
  2. Click Junk, and verify that all of the messages in the folder are indeed junk emails.
  3. Right-click Junk and select Erase Junk Mail..., followed by Erase.

Apple Mail Rebuild

Rebuilding your mailboxes forces Mail to re-index each message and update the message list to accurately reflect the messages stored on your Mac. 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 will correct any underlying issues with your mailboxes.

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

  1. Select a mailbox by clicking its icon.
  2. Select Rebuild from the Mailbox menu.
  3. Once the rebuild is done, repeat the process for each mailbox.

Don’t be alarmed if the messages within the mailbox seem to disappear during the rebuilding process. Once the rebuilding is complete, re-selecting the mailbox will reveal all of the stored messages.

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. Once the folder is visible, you can continue.

  1. Quit Apple Mail if the application is running.
  2. Open a Finder window.
  3. Navigate to your /Library folder.
  4. Copy the Mail folder to the same location on your new Mac or in your new system.

Copy Your Mail Preferences

  1. Quit Apple Mail if the application is running.
  2. Open a Finder window.
  3. Navigate to your /Library/Preferences folder.
  4. Copy com.apple.mail.plist to the same location on your new Mac or in your new system.

You might see files that seem similar, such as com.apple.mail.plist.lockfile. The only file you need to copy is com.apple.mail.plist.

That's it. With all the necessary files copied to the new Mac or system, you should be able to launch Apple Mail and have all of your emails in place, your Mail rules functioning, and all Mail accounts working.

How to Troubleshoot Keychain Issues

The easiest way to move your keychain files to a new Mac is with iCloud Keychain

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If something can go wrong, it usually will, and moving Keychains around can 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 ​is 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 Mavericks or earlier, you can use the following steps to work around the problem:

  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 check mark next to their name.
  4. Uncheck any checked Keychain files.
  5. Repeat the instructions in the Copy Your Keychain Data When Moving Apple Mail section above to copy the Keychain files to your new Mac or system.
  6. Reset the check marks in the Keychain list to the state you noted above.

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

How to Troubleshoot Mail Issues

After you transfer your mail data, the Mail app should display all of your mail messages

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Occasionally, you may run into a problem when you first launch Apple Mail on your new Mac or system. The error message will usually tell you that Mail doesn't have permission to access a file. The usual culprit is /Library/Mail/Envelope Index.

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

  1. Quit Apple Mail, if it’s running.
  2. Open a Finder window.
  3. Navigate 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. You might find that, because the account IDs between your old Mac and the new system are different, instead of seeing your username listed, you see unknown. 

To change the permissions, do the following:

  1. Click the lock icon in the bottom right corner of the Get Info window.
  2. Enter your administrator username and password, and click OK.
    1. You can reset this information if you don't know it.
  3. Click + (plus).
  4. Choose your account from the list of users, and click Select.
    1. The selected account will be added to the Sharing & Permissions section.
  5. Select the Privileges item for the account you added.
  6. Choose Read & Write.
  7. If there's an entry with the name unknown, select it and click the - (minus) sign to delete the entry.
  8. Close the Get Info window.

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

Propagating Your Privileges

  1. Right-click the Mail folder, located in your /Library folder.
  2. Using the instructions above, 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.
  4. Select Apply to enclosed items.
  5. Close the window and try rebuilding.

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