By Grant Jacobs 10/10/2017

This long suggestion might be useful to those trying to migrate email between other service providers and Gmail. It’s particularly meant for (and inspired by) New Zealanders still trying to get their email accounts with custom folders out of Vodafone’s email system before Vodafone’s deadline to abandon email.

[I rarely post how-to’s but this is one of a number of (thoroughly annoying) issues that have kept me from writing, so it seems somewhat justified…! If it’s not your thing you could always try one of the articles listed under Other articles at Code for life near the end of this piece!]

Many email clients allow you to file your email into custom folders. This is very helpful for managing lots of email, but a challenge when it comes to migrating the email to Gmail, as importing from Gmail will only read in the Inbox contents, but none of your custom folders…

For those with a laptop or desktop computer, one solution is to use Mozilla’s Thunderbird email client as a go-between. My process also covers that on Mac OS X Thunderbird by default stores your emails and contacts in places that you can’t easily get at them — not very helpful if you want to make a quick backup, or just need to get at them.

This process isn’t any use for those with an Apple tablet, sorry: there is no iOS version of Thunderbird.

I’ve explored with this a little, and come up with this as an overall process:

  1. If you have a lot mail in your Inbox, either tidy it up to make it smaller or create a new custom folder to hold all but a few of the most recent messages.
  2. Download and install Thunderbird.
  3. Link Thunderbird to your old email account.
  4. Reconfigure Thunderbird’s storing of your local copy of the account to places you can get at your email & contacts.
  5. Let Thunderbird know to bring in custom folders.
  6. Make local copies of each folder.
  7. Set up a Gmail account.
  8. Import the Inbox contents to Gmail directly from your old account.
  9. Drag-and-drop each local copy of your custom folders to the Gmail account to copy them to Gmail, with the folder name used as Gmail labels that group related emails.

My account builds one offered by a helpful soul on the Vodafone customer forums. (See comments by ‘yitz’.)

I do not include screen shots. I’m sorry about this, but this issue has already taken a lot of time away from the science communication writing projects I am working on, and I just don’t want to commit more time to this! Feel free to ask in the comments if you want pointers, and I’ll do my best.

A reason behind this fuss here in New Zealand is that for some types of accounts at Vodafone NZ, you can’t *export* email from them. In cases you can’t even save your mail to a local copy! You can *import* the Inbox into Gmail, from Gmail — but that won’t pull in any custom folders you set up. On the other hand Thunderbird on your desktop computer or laptop can be made to see all the folders, and can be used to move them to Gmail.

One possible advantage of using Thunderbird is that it’s available for all three of the main desktop OS platforms: Windows, Apple Mac OS, and Linux. It’s not available for iOS (for Apple tablets and iPhones). It’s possible you can migrate the emails using Apple’s Mail app; I haven’t tried it.

On the negative side, a quick survey of email options suggests platform-independent email is dying. I’ll offer thoughts on that in another article. Short version: this is not good.

Thunderbird on closer inspection looks to be a simplified, scaled-down project with a number of weaknesses and quirks. (The project seems to have abandoned or scaled back plans.) A number of things I’ve run into are undocumented, which is one reason this took so long to resolve and write – and why I’ve posted it here.

Using Thunderbird as your main email client might be OK if your needs are fairly simple, or if you can tolerate the quirks and limitations. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

So… here goes.

Tidy up your those inboxes!

First get into your email account and arrange things so your Inbox has some content, but not heaps. Perhaps a couple of dozen emails. You could file away some of the stuff to get it down to size. You might also just create a temporary “older inbox stuff” custom folder and move the older Inbox contents there.

Download and install Thunderbird

Then download and install Thunderbird onto your desktop machine or laptop. There is no iOS version.

On the Thunderbird website, you’ll be defaulted to the US English version. If you want British English or some other language, click on the versions and systems link.

Install Thunderbird.

Set up local directories to hold copies of your email accounts

Create a folder (in your user space) to store the email account profiles, mail, and attachments, say, ‘Thunderbird email’.

Create a folder for each email account, containing within it:



Local folders


Don’t forget to set these up inside a folder for each account. If you don’t, and you try to move them into a folder for the account later, Thunderbird will feel obliged to try re-download all the files! (You could try move the files on your disk, and try trick Thunderbird into thinking they were there all along, but I don’t recommend this.)

Tell Thunderbird where local folders are to be stored. Right-click “local folders”. Select “Settings”. At the bottom you’ll see a location for local files. Click the misleadingly named “Browse”. Select where you want local files stored for the first account you’re moving.

You’ll then need to restart Thunderbird (it’ll ask you to anyway).

Tell Thunderbird where to store attachments. Go to Thunderbird > Preferences > Attachments, and set the ‘Save files to’ location. This one at least correctly has ‘Choose’, not the silly ‘Browse’!

As for local folders you’ll notice another limitation of Thunderbird. To store attachments for more than one account in different local folders, you’re going to have to keep juggling the the attachments location, keeping track of which account you’re trying to save the attachment from. Really there should be a ‘local folders’ for each account, but as I was saying earlier Thunderbird looks to be a simplified product.

We don’t at this point set up the email profile, as there’s one profile for each email account: we need to first add the email account.

Add the new email account to Thunderbird

Select ‘Account Settings’ from Tools menu (last item in menu).

From the page that opens, select ‘Account Actions’ > ‘Add email account…’

Enter name (identity), email address, and password.

Wait while Thunderbird checks the account details.

Choose ‘IMAP (remote folders)’ as the account type. (Despite what it says, you can store files locally, you just have to copy them to local folders. With a POP3 account you can only store them locally; IMAP is generally recommended and more flexible. You’ll need it to upload accounts to other services, e.g. to Gmail later.)

Click ‘Done’.

In the case of some older email services Vodafone supports (supported…) you may get a warning from Thunderbird if they don’t support sensible security. Accept this. (When you move them to Gmail or whatever you’ll be using proper security.) In this case click ‘I understand the risks’, then ‘Done’.

Thunderbird should now set up your new account. Click away the option to set up yet another new account.

Now set the profile location for the new account. Right click email account, select settings, then server settings. At the bottom (you’ll probably need to scroll down) is ‘Local directory’. Click “Browse” next to it. You’ll want to restart Thunderbird to let it load up the account into the new location. (You’ll also probably want to delete the initial profile.)

I strongly suspect you’re best to do this in the order I’ve given. Changing the profile will force Thunderbird to start over with the remote server, so you want the other things in place first so that you only have to start over once.

Getting the folders set up in Thunderbird

Close and reopen Thunderbird. Click on the email account.

Pull down “Get all messages”. That will bring in all but your custom folders. This might take a little while if you have folders with a lot of emails: another reason I suggested to first reduce the amount of stuff in your Inbox!

Make Thunderbird aware you want all folders, i.e. including your custom folders. Right-click (control-click) the account name, select Settings (the last option), then Server settings > Advanced and turn off “show only subscribed folders”

Older help files on Thunderbird indicate this will then show you a list of folders that you can choose to subscribe to. That will not happen. In fact nothing at all will happen!

Click “OK” to make the new setting done, then ‘Cancel’ to quit changing settings.

Now quit Thunderbird. You may to do this several times, perhaps waiting for a while, but on opening it again, it’ll present all the custom folders (not giving you a chance to subscribe to any particular ones) and start loading up the messages headers for all of them. This will take a while, so wait up until it’s done.

Making a local copy of the email account

You’ll probably want to next copy the contents of the folders—all of them, including the “standard” folders—to local folders to save their contents since you’re moving off your original service.

This will leave you with a local copy of your email that can be backed up, and you might find this is a good way to manage your email in future.

Don’t forget to have a local folder for each new email account before you try copying them over to the ‘Local folders’ space. You want to be doing this copying once, it takes some time.

Each time you drag the folder name from the remote space, to “Local folders”, Thunderbird will create a new folder under the local folders, then initiate pulling all the email (but not their attachments) in the folder down to your local hard drive. That can take a little time if the folders contain more than a couple of dozen messages – best to have some coffee, cake, or whatever handy! Email servers aren’t really designed for bulk transfer of messages, and aren’t particular fast at it.

You’ll now want to manually save any attachments you filed away. Yes, you read right. Manually. One by one.

Before you try that a tip: bear mind in that the reason Thunderbird won’t copy attachments to local space “automatically” is that it considers them a (small) security risk – attachments can contain viruses. This should be OK for most people’s custom folders: that’s email you’ve already OK’d, sorted and filed away. Just avoid doing do this for anything containing spam (*don’t* copy the spam folder, for example, and be careful with new mail in the inbox).

Click on the each local folder in turn. Click on the attachments icon above this list of messages (it’s second from the left): that will sort by attachment or not. Make sure you’re at the top of the message list (you’re most likely at the bottom, having just read them in!), then click on each message in turn. The message will be displayed in a pane below the list of messages. At the bottom-right there will be a button to save the attachment, if there is on. Click that button, navigate to the folder holding the attachments for that account, and click Save (or Open as the case may be). You’ll find Thunderbird keeps the directory the same between usages, so as long as you’re dealing with the same email account, you don’t have to navigate to the attachments folder again.

Having gotten all your email stored locally, you now want to move them to Gmail.

Setting up your new Gmail account:

If it’s you’re first account, go to and sign up for an account.

If you already have a Gmail account, I suggest setting up one account for each email account you’re trying to move. (You can later juggle them about, but it’ll be a lot clearer to move to an empty account.) Click on the top-right circular icon representing your accounts. Click ‘Add Account’ and follow the instructions (Click ‘Create New Account’, etc).

If you’re travelling or overseas (as I am) and you’re facing Google’s dumbwittery that insists that only a mobile phone number and nothing else can verify a new account: good luck. Just my humble opinion and all that, but it’s a big fail on their part. They need to try learn what the real world is like for real users, not their ideal situation dreamed up in a cubicle or over a round table looking out over some fancy urban view, and to stop blaming the users because they weren’t able to meet ‘The Google Way’. The users are simply in the real world, where real world things happen, and Google has developed a strategy that only fits an idealised situation. They need to provide alternative means of verification, or to offer mobile phone verification as an option (i.e. something that can be turned off if need be).

Get your inbox into Gmail

To directly pull your inbox emails from your original email account to Gmail, click on gear wheel icon (top right-hand side), click ‘Settings’, then click ‘Accounts and Import’. From the page that pops up you can “Import mail and contacts”. (You can also “Check mail from other accounts”; that might be useful to bring in mail arriving from other places on an on-going basis, that not what you need if you’re closing the original account.)

Click “Import mail and contacts” and follow the instructions. Note that it’ll import anything sent to that account over the next 30 days, too — very useful, and it’s one of the reason I’m importing the inbox directly, rather than via Thunderbird.

This is also a reason I reduced the Inbox first, as mail transfers are quite slow! What we’re trying to do is get Gmail to keep an eye out for new mail, and to make sure we haven’t missed anything as the inbox is “live”. With any luck the reduced Inbox will only take a few minutes to be imported, and you’ll have set up Gmail to watch the account for the next month. We’ll do the bulk transfer of the rest of the email—in the custom foldes—ourselves using Thunderbird.

Getting your Thunderbird mail into Gmail.

To make Thunderbird aware of your Gmail account – see the first steps of ‘To add a new email account:’ from earlier:

Select ‘Account Settings’ from Tools menu (last item in menu).

From the page that opens, select ‘Account Actions’ > ‘Add email account…’

Enter name (identity), email address, and password.

Wait while Thunderbird checks the account details.

Choose ‘IMAP (remote folders)’ as the account type.

Click ‘Done’.

You’ll then get a window with a Gmail login, then asking you to allow Thunderbird to access/manage the Gmail account.

Once done click ‘Cancel’ to get rid of the accounts pane.

You won’t need to set up new local folders, as you’ll use the ones you have already set up.

Now you can start transferring files. Just each local custom folder to the Gmail account.

For folders with lots of messages this will take quite a while, longer than it took to download them. That’s just how it goes. Uploading is usually slower than downloading: most internet connections are asymmetric—faster at downloading than uploading. It’s what most users want. (Content generators, on the other hand, often want means to upload faster.)

You’ll get there… slowly! (I personally tackle this by having something else to do nearby at the same — reading a book, writing a blog post, etc. and pop back every now and then and see how it’s going.)

If it’s any consolation, the whole process has taken me several full days, partly as I explored a few options so you didn’t have to. For those with reasonably modest email accounts, a long evening might do it; those running their Vodafone NZ (original) accounts near their limit might take a few evenings.

Your folders will appear in Gmail with each folder as a new label name relating a group of emails. You don’t get “true” folders in Gmail, instead you get keywords that ‘tag’ emails in one large folder. In some respects it’s similar though, just viewing a large folder using filtering by keyword rather than a “physical” folder.

Tip: if you can’t see all the labels in Gmail in the left-hand pane, move your mouse over the labels you can see: it’ll move the chats widget down so that you can see more labels and scroll through them.

If you really overdo it in one day, you might just run up against one of Gmail’s limits. I doubt most people will though. You may find that transfers take a while to initiate.

Next you’ll want to get your original service provider (Vodafone NZ in this case) to redirect your email to your new Gmail account.

Finally, once you’re happy with the new account, you’ll want to let people know where they should send email.

For New Zealanders, you could rely on Vodafone NZ’s redirection, but I’d note carefully that while they say they’ll keep doing it as long as you are a Vodafone customer, this has a possible few wrinkles to my cautious eye:

If email is the only thing you pay Vodafone for, once you stop that the forwarding will stop too… ouch. What Vodafone haven’t done is offer forwarding for a set period of time regardless, as I think they ought to have done to do right by their customers.

From what I’ve seen, Vodafone haven’t made a formal promise to keep the redirection up forever either. With that in mind you’ll want to move on sometime, and there’s no time like the present right?

Other articles on Code for life

Fixing our genes (on gene editing and gene therapy; I’ve lots of this coming up!)

Kumara are transgenic (I’ve more on genetic engineering and ‘GMOs’ coming up, too!)

Logos for great scientists (representing famous scientists and their work with logos)

Filing research papers and web browsing: Zotero, Zotfile and Vivaldi (research tools for scientists and writers)

Reading winmail.dat files sent to Apple Mac users

From here to there: Installing a 16kb computer to modern tape media (computer geek fun, with a little bit of travel at the end)

Featured image

Antique US Mail letterbox, “both on display and still in use in the Smithsonian Institution Building.” Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.