How to consolidate mail from multiple Macs using Apple Mail

Import messages from other machines into your master copy.

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The passage of time can mean the accumulation of Macs and email accounts. Many of us have been online now for long enough that we have stacked up digital detritus around us that’s sometimes split across old and new computers and offline drives. It may be frustrating when you want to—for example—search across email messages from several years ago, or even decades ago, and they aren’t readily available on your newest machine.

You can consolidate messages from multiple computers or backups of old ones without much fuss, though depending on the quantity of email, it might take some time. You can also pull in email from IMAP servers to store it locally to make sure it’s backed up as you wish and more readily searchable.

Consolidate mail from multiple computers

Apple has kept locally stored email used with Apple Mail in the same location for many years. That makes it easier to find and import.

Start by finding the mail folders on the Macs you want to copy email from. It’s almost always in the path /Users/accountname/Library/Mail. In the Finder, choose Go > Go to Folder and paste in ~/Library/Mail, then click Go. (This takes you to your currently logged in account’s Mail folder in the Library folder of your user directory.) You can also find these directories on Time Machine backups or other file archives, including mountable clones.

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The import list for Mail folders can sometimes be full of strange entries. Import them all and sort it out later to avoid losing messages.

Depending on how long you’ve used Apple Mail, you will see one or more folders labeled Vx, where x is a number from 1 to 7, like V2 or V6. These correspond to version releases of Mail. If you’ve updated to Mail across releases, you should only need to import mail from the highest-numbered V, like V6 in Mojave or V7 in Catalina.

Here’s how to perform an import:

  1. On each computer from which you want to copy mail, either share your entire drive or your user directory from the Sharing preferences File Sharing section. (You can also use Target Disk Mode to mount your copying-from Mac on the one to which you’re copying, or mount a drive with the desired Mail directory on it.)

  2. In Apple Mail on the machine you want to consolidate from, choose File > Import Mailboxes.

  3. Select Apple Mail and click Continue.

  4. Navigate to and select the appropriate folder to import, then click Choose.

  5. Mail shows a list of items to import, which can include recognizable folders and other items. You can leave them all selected and click Continue.

  6. Mail creates a new Import folder that contains all the imported mailboxes to sort through. These are stored on your Mac.

You should probably go through the imported email to see if any mail folders duplicated messages or there are odds bits or fragments that aren’t necessary or desirable to retain.

(You can import other messages in the standard Unix “mbox” format, which dates back decades and was the default format used by Eudora. It’s available in most email clients as a universal export format. Select the mbox option in step 3 above to import such mailboxes.)

Consolidate mail from IMAP

Email servers that support IMAP retain messages that you leave in place organized into folders you select or have set up. If you’ve maintained older accounts that you no longer receive email at or that you want to shut down, Apple makes it simple to transfer messages from the server to local storage via Apple Mail. (You can add accounts in Mail just for this purpose, too, and then delete or disable the account after copying over messages.)

Here’s how to copy these messages over:

  1. Create a new folder under the On My Mac section in the sidebar that you will use as a destination for the mailboxes.

  2. Scroll down to the mailbox list for the account you want to copy from in the sidebar. (If you don’t see the sidebar, click the Mailboxes button in the at left top just below the toolbar.)

  3. Select a mail folder or multiple and drag it to On My Mac folder.

  4. Apple Mail copies the contents.

For large mail folders, particularly ones with many messages or attachments, it could take some time—although, if the messages are cached locally, Mail copies them quickly.

Dragging mail folders copies the contents of the folder. You can then go back and delete the folder or select messages inside to delete. If you want to move messages, you have to select a folder, select the messages inside it, and then drag those into a folder in On My Mac. Mail then copies them to the destination and removes from the IMAP server.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Rajeev.

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