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How [not] to upgrade to Mail in 10.4


Thank you, Andy Warwick! I'm leaving the following article online, just so I remind myself how much time I wasted on this. However, the comment from Andy (#9 in the chain) pointed me to what I was doing wrong. So for anyone who hasn't imported their email yet, the trick to using the Mail for OS X import function is this: simply point it to your old user's Library/Mail folder, no deeper.

I still think Apple's language could have been clearer (see my #10 comment), but I retract the other nasty things I said about the import routine. When pointed at the correct folder (I just tested it), it worked like a charm. Good job, Mail team. Now how about making the import screen read simply "Please navigate to the previous Mail folder"?

This is a follow-up to my The Art and Science of OS X System Upgrades article. I'm (still) in the process of upgrading my main drive, having just finished migrating my email archives last night. Why did it take so long? User stupidity plus, in my opinion, some poor functionality in 10.4's Mail import routines.

As noted in the earlier article, I had chosen to do an upgrade install on my main drive, but to not automatically copy over my user's folder (due to all the cruft in it). It was this decision that ended up costing me many hours of email migration labor. Why, you might ask, did it take so long?

After I got 10.4 up and running, before doing much of anything else, I launched Mail and set up my two primary accounts, just so I could keep up with email while doing the rest of my work. Mail may have asked me about importing old email when I first launched it, but I don't think it did -- my ~/Library/Mail folder was empty, since I hadn't moved the old Mail folders over. Apparently if you allow the user information to migrate, Mail will automatically import your old Mail messages. Ah, I should be so lucky...

So I went merrily about my business, setting up my accounts. Once that was done, it was time to start the (very large) import. So I went to the File: Import menu option, selected Mail for Mac OS X, and then navigated down to the mailboxes in my 10.3 Mail folder. When I selected one and clicked Go, however, I was greeted with a message:

mail error

How odd, I thought, given that I was trying to import messages from the 10.3 version of Nothing I could do seemed to make this menu item function. Apparently, and this is what I consider to be very poor functionality, the "Mail for Mac OS X" import item is only useful if you have messages from another 10.4 version of Mail. If someone can prove me wrong, I'd love to hear about it -- even though I've spent the time now to finish the project.

Instead I had to use the Other import option, which required individually pointing to every single one of my archived mail folder -- I have over 60 folders, so this was a non-trivial task. Each time you run an import, Mail creates a new Import-X folder for you, where the "X" is an increasing number. Inside of that is a folder called mbox, which contains the imported messages. So for each of the 60+ folders, I had to do an import, rename the mbox folder, move the mbox folder to its new home, and then delete the Import folder (and, of course, wait for the import of each mailbox). Needless to say, it took a long time to do this. I spread it out over three evenings, probably spending about three or four hours on it in total. Now that it's done, hopefully someone will comment about some nifty workaround I could have used, and then we'll have a hint for the main site :). The only hint there now is basically to do what I did -- use Other to import old Mail messages.

I'm not sure why the Mail team didn't consider that people might wish to import their old messages at a time other than the first run of the new Mail; that seems like a glaring oversight to me. Ah well, at least it's done now. Time for PHP, MySQL, Geeklog, and the local copy of hints!


  1. Or, you could have just moved over your old Library/Mail folder. Not much "cruft" in ther, just your mail (which you presumably want). I also copied the mail plist, as I wasn't about to set up a dozen e-mail accounts again by hand, but that was my preference.

  2. Huh?

    I guess you were just very unlucky.

    I certainly got it to work when I upgraded to 10.4; I pointed the command at a CD (Finder) copy of my 10.3 Mail folder (~/Library/Mail/) and got a dialog listing all the mailboxes it contained, so I could simply tick the ones I wanted to import.

    Maybe you were pointing too deep (or not deep enough) into the folder structure? You have to select the enclosing folder, not the .mbox folder/file.

    Or you had a partial Mail folder without a critical index file?

    But it certainly worked first time for me...

    I just tried it again to be sure, and yep--there's the dialog.

    The only way I could recreate your error was to directly select an mbox file.

  3. I was selecting the folder containing the mbox file. The mbox file itself wasn't selectable. I'll try it again at home tonight; I don't have a 10.3 mailbox on my PowerBook.

    And relative to comment #1 -- yea, I know I *could have* moved the mailbox folder only. The problem was that I *forgot* to do so before I started the new Mail. And once I'd started it, there was no going back. Moving it after the fact made no difference.


  4. I did the same thing as Joshua, when I migrated my mail to Mail 2.0, even after I launched it and set up another mail box. Not sure were you are having the trouble at. I might be that you need the plist. *shrug* Maybe I was just lucky. It took a little finesse though, I do remember that. Had the same problem you are with transfering my address book, that was an afternoon I won't get back :)

  5. I did a clean instal when upgrading to Tiger from 10.2 and I've had nothing but trouble with Mail. I also opted to import mailboxes at a later time.

    Once I ran Mail and tried to import my old data it failed to correctly import all my messages. It created an Import Folder but the nested folders were all empty. Then when I quit and re-opened Mail the Import Folder was gone. What the?

    So then I decided to try making a new Mailbox from the Mailbox menu. However I always get a "Mailbox Creation Failed" dialog saying that it was unable to create a path to it. Any ideas?

    Anyway, I really needed to access some of the data in my old emails so I had to resort to opening the mbox files in TextEdit. How annoying!!!

  6. I too had no problems with 10.4's recognizing 10.3's files with the "Mail for Mac OS X" import option; however, the actual process was quite buggy, as when I first had it import them all (about 110 mailboxes), it simply created empty mailboxes for each thing, with no messages. After trial and error, doing about a dozen at a time was successful.

  7. Just tried it again -- and it definitely doesn't work for me. Exact steps taken:

    In Mail, choose File: Import Mailboxes, choose Mail for OS X, navigate to this folder:

    /Previous\ Systems.localized/Previous\ System\ 1/Users/robg/Library/Mail/Mailboxes/zz\ mailing\ lists/geeklog.mbox

    Click "Choose" with the geeklog.mbox folder highlighted (not any files inside of it), and I get the "no valid mailboxes" message. Inside of that folder, FYI, I can see:

    content_index, Info.plist, mbox, table_of_contents

    I checked permissions in the Finder, and they're fine. I even tried setting it to '777' just to see what would happen -- same result.

    Importing using Other works on that same folder. Very odd.


  8. I was playing with Mail 10.3's import facilities the other day (I had some old webmail emails saved as .txt files that I wanted imported) , and I found that it wouldn't let me select a single .mbox file specifically. Instead, you have to select the enclosing folder, and a window pops up with all the mboxes found inside of it and you use check boxes to decide which ones to import. Sooooo.... if you open all the mail packages in Finder, you can go through and put them into one folder and import them all at once. That will solve the problem of having a million "Imported (3)" folders.

  9. Rob.

    Try navigating to /Previous\ Systems.localized/Previous\ System\ 1/Users/robg/Library/Mail/, and have the "Mail" folder hilited; don't go any deeper than that...

    Let the import figure out what that folder contains (Mailboxes, etc.)

    That's what I did.

  10. Thank you, and argh! That was the problem. I guess I was just mis-interpreting this statement:

    "You will now be asked for the location of a folder containing mailboxes created by another copy of Mail for OS X."

    To me, that implied the folder immediately above the mailbox itself. Ah well. Lessons learned! I'm updating the article now with a big disclaimer and thank you.


  11. No problem. :)

    Guess you just haven't been exposed to the Mac OS for long enough to know the Mac way yet. LOL.

    (Knowing full well your Mac pedigree... but can't resist the sly dig at your 'doh!' moment.)

    Now, on the other hand, if you want to discuss the nightmare UI step-back that is burn folders and the lack of mounted blank CDs, be my guest.

  12. I retract what I said about just dropping your mail in place. At the same time, importing your mail may fail as well - lots of people are having problems:[email protected]@.68aed917

    I'm missing about 1,000 messages per mailbox. Mind you, they're all THERE in the "Messages" folder, but Mail refuses to show them. They tend to be the most recent 1,000 messages, too. :(

  13. Joshua Ochs experience with Mail loosing messages reminds me of when I tried to import messages after getting a new G5 with 10.3 pre-installed...only I did not realize they were missing until several months later after I had wiped clean the HD from the old computer and given it away.

  14. I had an old .mbox from Jaguar (!) days stashed in a corner of my harddrive that always showed up in Panther's Mail. When I upgraded to Tiger, I chose the little-mentioned "fourth" option (clone, clean install, migrate- see my comments in Rob's article on upgrading). The old .mbox didn't open in Tiger's Mail. However, armed with Andy's hint, I got it to work by dragging the old .mbox to ~Library/Mail/Mailboxes and then directing Mail's Import to this folder (~Mailboxes). In other words, this works without having a previous system folder- your new one will work too!

  15. Just to clarify the above hint- the path to direct Mail's Import function is just ~Library/Mail, NOT ~Library/Mail/Mailboxes, as I erroneously typed above (and as Andy correctly pointed out). The point is, it appears that any old .mbox can be dragged into your current user /Library/Mail/Mailbox folder and Tiger's Mail can "import" it from there. Note that Tiger's Mail won't open the old .mbox, even though it's in the proper folder, without first importing it. Hope this clears up any confusion.

  16. Joshua Ochs' experience reminds me of mine. I lost tons of messages the first time, after trying simply to copy over the old ~/Library/Mail folder *and* the relevant plist. My mistake was embarrassing: I'd accidentally copied another user's plist, and so Mail refused to find most of the messages (particularly in Sent and Inbox) since it couldn't match them with the accounts it recognised. So I wiped ~/library/mail and the plist, replaced them with the correct ones, and everything went like a dream. Moral of the story: make sure you copy the plist into preferences *first* as well as the ~/Library/Mail, and with luck you'll be OK.

  17. Sad postmortem - after trying everything (importing with "Mac OS X Mail", importing with "Other", importing to Entourage 2004 and then to Mail, re-importing from Panther, re-indexing from Tiger, fresh OS installs, disabling Spotlight, deleting extraneous index files and a whole lot of other things), nothing allowed Mail to see all of my messages. I finally reverted to my backup of 10.3.9 and simply lost all of the mail from the past week.

    This is sad, as I really liked a lot about Tiger, but it's the buggiest OS release I can recall (and my memory goes back to System 6.0.2).

    The thing that annoys me most is how this is all caused by what I see as a design flaw in Spotlight. Spotlight only returns filerefs as results (see Ars Technica for details). That's why Mail 2.0 must import and convert your mail - it has to turn the mbox files into individual files that Spotlight can see. This not only creates thousands of files, it puts extra strain on the disk directory, takes up more space, and breaks other programs that used mbox format (like pine, etc) and means anyone who wants to import Mail's mail must now deal with a new format. What annoys me about all of this is that had Spotlight used URL's instead (*Universal* Resource Locators) then it could still return references to files ("file:///blah"), and any program that wanted Spotlight to reach its internal data (such as Mail) could have returned a custom URL format (say, "applemail://63542" or something ugly but unique). This would have allowed programs to keep using whatever data format and structure they wanted, and all they'd have to do is make available a unique URL (format of their own choosing) for Spotlight to tell them to retrieve something. No, instead all application developers have to create thousands of tiny files JUST FOR SPOTLIGHT (see Mail, iCal, Address Book, etc). What an incredible waste! And in the meantime, my e-mail has become collateral damage.

  18. Rob, all of the above comments are labeled "1.", at least in IE6 on XP Pro (I'm at work- yuk).

  19. thanks for the info on how to import...worked like a champ the first time. I too had been having issues...and had "written off" all the mail in my old account as a result. You've saved a lot of history.


  20. After unsuccessfully attempting to transfer a bunch of 10.3.9 / Mail 1.3.11 (v622/623) e-mail messages using only Andy's hint (No. 9), I had success after dragging ~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes from the old Panther machine to the Tiger 10.4.3 / Mail 2.05 (746/746.2) one and then using David G.'s (Nos. 14 and 15) hint of importing the files into Mail by navigating to ~/Library/Mail (and not further).

    Note: The unsuccessful import attempts left behind a ~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes file 0 KB long that I first had to delete before Mail would do an import.

    So thanks for both hints!

  21. Hi Guys,

    Having read your tips a thousands times and tried even more times, I still have troubels importing old mailboxes into the mail 2.0..

    What I have tried (after initial setting up mail WITHOUT importing anything)

    1. deleting the existing mail folder in library completely
    2. copying my complete backed up mail folder (which I copied from my former computer)
    3. start mail, resulting in a new set up procedure.
    4. filled out details
    5. tried A - importing the mailboxes using the import os x mail import option IN the proces: with this method: boxes where visible, but nothing in
    tried B - not importing anything, just starting up > nothing happens.

    I also tried (like j heasly) copying mailboxed in the existing mail 2.0 and after that tried to import (hiliting the 'mail' folder, not deeper.. again al boxes visible, but nothing in..

    Can anyone please help ?

    thanks a lot !

  22. Same here
    everything empty. What a crap this is. Importing Library/Mail as written in nr. 9 results in empty mailboxes as does everything else. Mail 10.4 cannot even recognise the mail boxes from mail 10.3. great work apple.

  23. I've just been thru the same procedure, imported mail, and got a bunch of empty mailboxes. Then I tried it again, and selected a folder at the higher level - and it worked. The duplicate folders were in the wrong place, and I had to highlight all the messages and move them to the original, empty folders, which were in the right place (within Mail), and all was OK.

    I don't think the problem is with recognising the mailboxes from earlier versions, it's simply that you need to select the master Mail box (or even the library) rather than the individual mailboxes that you've set up, if that makes sense.

  24. argh stupid apple how I rue you sometimes!!!
    I am also having this problem; trying to import mail from os 10.2.8 mail app on my old computer onto my new laptop (os 10.4.4) ITS NOT WORKING! Even got it to look like it was importing sometimes; going thru my email list.. but then folders were empty, and mixed colors (grey and blue)


  25. I had got results previously by using Mailsmith as an intermediate.

    Take your pre 10.4 mailboxes, drop them into Mailsmith mailbox window.

    Then export from mailsmith into mbox format and import into 10.4.

    Now i've got two ibooks, one where this works, on the other only folders show and they disappear after restarting mail.

    It seems to be some permissions thing as I can't create new mailboxes either. Getting the error"Unable to create path ~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes/"

    Any ideas?



  26. I had the same problems of importing. I could import the old .mbox without problems but my imported folders always turned up as 0kb in size and no emails were in the imported folder. I found a very nice workaround that works for me and hopefully it will work for a few of you also.

    1. First you have to get this piece of software, Emailchemy. ($25 for the single user licence).

    That program converts your selected mbox email files and breakes each mbox into multiple .emlx files which is a more universal format of e-mail and can be read easily by Mail 2.0

    2. Second... you need to follow these instructions for importing the .emlx files into Mail 2.0

    This is the only way that works.. I am running a PowerMac G5 Dual 2.5 Ghz / MacOSX 10.4.6.

    Note: I am not a promoter of the Emailchemy software. You can use similar programs instead just as well, but this is the way it worked for me!

  27. Comment 20. works! IT WORKS! I can't believe how much TIME I've spent. Good thing I didn't buy any additional programs and waste MONEY as well! Thanks guys!

  28. Yep, Comment 20 is the way to do it.

    The blank file "Mailboxes" does seem to be the culprit.

    Mail is embarrassingly buggy - when I followed the instructions for Comment 20, everything worked, but a SECOND set of imported mailboxes showed up, too - all empty. I tried deleting them and nothing happened. I clicked on one, and the icon suddenly got larger. I clicked on all the icons and they all got larger. Quit Mail and they were gone. Yeesh.

  29. Partial re-hash: I needed to import Eudora AND old Mail mailboxes, and was having the problems described above. Then discovered I couldn't even create a new Mailbox; got the "Unable to create path ~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes" message every time I tried. A connection? As it turns out, yes.

    As long as there is a Zero kB ~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes FILE (rather than a folder), Mail cannot create Mailboxes for ANY purpose, including to import old mailboxes.

    The solution turns out to be very simple (thanks to you folks and MAB Blog):

    Quit Mail. Delete the Zero kB "Mailboxes" FILE (don't delete a folder with this name!) from the ~/Library/Mail folder. Launch Mail. Check to be sure a ~/Library/Mail/Mailboxes FOLDER now exists (it should).

    Now importing will work, and now you can create new Mailboxes. I have no idea what created the Zero kB file in the first place, but once it's gone, all is good.


  30. I have just moved to MAC from PC. And i´ve experienced various problems with e-mail. So finally what worked for me:
    1st: Install Outlook2Mac 2.0 in PC to export all messages from Microsoft Outlook 2007.
    2nd: i´ve tried in Mac Mail "File>Import>Other" and navigate up to the folder on the PC. But the message "No valid mbox files were found". So i transfered all the files from the PC to the Table (desktop) on MAC. Ive tried again the import and the same message goes again. So the solution is...
    3rd: You have to copy the folder "Mail" (that contains the mbox files) to the LIBRARY. And then on MAIL, import>older or other>Mail.
    You have to point to that folder.
    Ps.: sorry if someone above has posted the same information, but i tought it was important post information about migrating from pc to mac


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