Moving from Gmail to Gmail

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Gmail to gmail

Last week, I implemented something I’d been planning for a while: I moved from my @gmail email address to an email address.


My previous email — beekept — was harking back to the good old days of McBain band rehearsals, and an online nickname I accidentally gave myself for the liner notes. You see, the origin of ‘beekeeper’ was a mishearing of ‘beat-keeper’, which was to be my title on our first McBain recording (on casette!) I recall getting ridiculously excited when I thought the boys said ‘beekeeper’; it was kooky, irrelevant, and unexpected[1. All the hallmarks for a future-UI designer :P], so I thought it was awesome. I’ve more or less used it throughout my internet days for registrations and signups on millions of sites[2. Not really millions… dozens?], and I’m still using it, or variations of (@bkpr and @bkpr).

The unfortunate part of it is that when I began my email life in an internet café in North Melbourne, I tried for the beekeeper@hotmail address, but was surprised and a little annoyed that it was taken. I had to settle for beekeeper9 (can’t recall why). Years later, I signed up for Gmail and was again thwarted by a person swifter than I. I dislike numbers in email addresses — they look as if you’d lost some sort of naming race — so I settled on the past-tense version of beekeeper, beekept. It’s not even a word.

Realising that after my sabbatical ends, I’ll have to reassimilate into the workforce. The past year or so I’ve been selectively signing up for services and site with my actual name when I can get it, a logical variation of it when I can’t, and a fall back to bkpr or similar when absolutely necessary. Professional n shit.

The pinnacle of this transition is moving my email over to my own domain, which I’ve had for many years. Google Apps allows you to do this and still use their email system and online interface (which I’ve found to be really good, albeit not for novices, and pretty ugly). The unfortunate part of this is, for some reason — and despite Gmail allowing multiple email accounts feeding cleverly into one inbox — you cannot simply shift from one Gmail account to another without pain head- and heartaches…

Decisions, decisions

Reading myriad reports online mentally prepared me for task at hand, and required me to make some decisions.

How much of my previous email do I want to migrate?

I love that Gmail is searchable. I don’t have to think about which email I need to keep (archive) vs delete, at lease, not to the extent I had to before. With Gmail I simply decide if I should delete it (spam[3. Gmail seems to have insanely good spam filtering, so I rarely get a spam message in my inbox], unimportant messages etc), then everything else gets archived. It’s a low mental tax to sort my email in this way. Free Gmail gives me ~7GB of space so I can archive almost everything, and easily find it later.

But I didn’t want to bring across all my previous email. The probability of needing that email from 2008 about that thing was lower than the effort it would take for me to bring it all across to the new account.

I decided to keep all email from 2010 onwards, the rest be damned (well, the rest be searchable if I choose to log in to my previous account. Nowhere near as dramatic…).

Which of my previous emails do I want to migrate?

In addition to the date of previous emails, there are certain emails I wanted to bring over. Namely certain labels. Probably the main reason I use Gmail is the labelling system. You use labels instead of ‘folders’ to sort your email. The benefit of this is you can attach more than one label to a message, whereas with folders an message can only be placed into one folder.

I wanted to bring across all my client-labelled emails, regardless of how old they were. Same with my receipts-labelled emails (for tax purposes). And a few others.

What parts of my previous account do I want to bring over?

I wanted to bring across 95% of my old labels.
I wanted to bring across 95% of my old mail filters.
I wanted to bring across 95% of my contacts, but with the knowledge that they need a good going over and cleaning up at some point. I just didn’t want to do this part now.

How am I going to bring the things I want over?

Oh boy…

The pain

As mentioned before, for some reason Google does not provide an easy way to migrate from one Gmail account to another. And they do not allow changing an email address from one to another like you would do in a typical email client. I can understand the possible technical limitations to changing an email address which is so deeply embedded in Google’s ecosystem (and advertising agenda/s), but I can’t understand why they make it so difficult to bring everything across to another Gmail account. Especially since Google are so gung-ho about data liberation, and I’m not even moving away from Google.

Mail filters

Fortunately, you can export and import your mail filters via Gmail. This would be a real PITA to redo in a new account.

While Gmail filters are very detailed, allowing for super control of your incoming emails, there are a two issues with setting them up. Firstly, they can be quite technical depending on what you want them to do. For simple filters, the UI is not so bad, but when you want to add some ‘if’ statements, things can get a bit tricky. Secondly, the UI for your list of filters is bad. Broken even. Filters do not appear listed in any particular order, and I think they even move around in the list; a filter might be towards the top, then days laster might be near the bottom (but I could be wrong on that). I wish it was sorted at least by date modified (recent at the top) or date created as a last resort. You can imagine what a nightmare it’d be to have to recreate ~30 filters, some of which are quite technical.


You can also export/import your contacts and contact groups. This is less of a PITA to redo as you can import other, non-Google-exported contact formats into Gmail, but it’s nice to have the all-Gmail option.


Labels cannot be brought across in any way.
And this is a biggie. Labels are what make Gmail for me. After searching and searching I found no option. So I bit the bullet and manually created the labels and their custom colours in my new account. I have ~25 labels so it wasn’t so bad for me. For others, this could be very time consuming.


Google makes it easy to automatically forward new email from one account to another, even to non-Gmail accounts, but you cannot forward your old emails. Even with the help of mail filters, you cannot automatically forward your old emails. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to manually do it! This is crazy!

Bringing it all together

Here’s what I did. Despite reading about using Thunderbird and IMAP early on in the saga, I explored all the migration options that didn’t include a email client. I like the Gmail interface and all it’s imperfections, and the last thing I wanted to do was bring an email client (application) into the equation. It turns out, an email client like Thunderbird and IMAP can do much of the heavy lifting.

So I downloaded and installed Thunderbird. And just as the internet told me, transferring old emails more or less worked. However you need to do a couple things before you go ‘Thunderbird’:

  1. You must set up your mail filters in your new account
  2. You should[4. I’m not sure you need to do this step, as creating a folder in Thunderbird might create a label in Gmail.] create your labels in your new account

Once these are done, the process goes a little something like this:

Thunderbird (and other email clients) have an automatic ‘sync’ called IMAP (which keeps the mail on your computer up to date with the mail in Gmail. If you read an email on your computer, it’s marked as read on Gmail. If you delete and email in Gmail, it’s deleted on your computer. Basically, they mimic each other.)

You add your old and new Gmail accounts to Thunderbird. It automatically brings your labels in in the form of folders (remember this from before?). You Gmail label of ‘receipts’ is now a folder called ‘receipts’ in Thunderbird.

Once you can see all your folders, you can physically drag and drop (or copy) the emails from one to the other. For example: beekept/receipts/all-emails get moved to bartkowalski/receipts/all-emails. In theory you’ll these emails duplicated in identically named folders in different email accounts.

Then Thunderbird takes care of the rest; the heavy lifting. It will sync the newly copied ‘receipts’ emails up to your new account on Gmail’s servers. It takes quite some time to do this because it must download those email to your computer, make copies of the email files, and upload them to the new Gmail account. But it works.

And if you’ve done the two steps I mentioned earlier, your mail filters will apply any labels to incoming email as it comes in. That takes care of the labelling.

The way I migrated my 2010-era emails was to create a new label in my old Gmail account. I called it ‘fwd’. I searched for all email between 01/01/2010 and the present and added the ‘fwd’ label. This conveniently placed these emails into a folder called ‘fwd’ in my beekept account in Thunderbird. I then copied these into the ‘fwd’ folder in the new account in Thunderbird, where they were promptly eventually synced up to the new Gmail account.

In Gmail, I archived these emails, and removed the fwd label. Now they live in my archive, awaiting the day they need to be called upon.

The harsh truth

This whole process took several days, a full day to download and sync everything to and from Gmail. I’d not recommend you do it after a few beers, with kids around, on a tuesday evening. I’m glad everything seems to be working and the process is over.

The harsh truth is, if I was using an email client such as Apple Mail, Thunderbird, or even Microsoft Entourage or Outlook, I would have simply changed the details of my account. And that’s it. Quite literally, change my email address, and any passwords, hit save, and spent the next two days by the pool.

But I’m an idiot like that. And I like my labels.

Gmail icon designed by me (yay!), previously seen over here →