Recover messages from a deleted mail account in Mail for macOS

Sometimes you make a rookie mistake, like shutting down a hosted email account before you—well, before I—download all the messages that are stored on the server and synced to my Macs and iOS devices via IMAP. I felt like a dope. I had already contacted the mail hosting company, which retains deleted accounts for seven days for just this reason, when I realized I should have a full backup cached on my iMac.

This Mac is always on and the Mail app is always running. The account I’d just deleted should be fully synced with the cached download in Mail, so long as I didn’t restart my Mac or even quit Mail. If you quit or restart, it’s hard to know exactly what cached content would be temporarily deleted by Mail or macOS.

If the email account is already offline, as mine was, the Mail app will balk when you try to copy or move messages within its interface. Instead, you have to find the cached and downloaded mailboxes in your home directory. (Did you delete the account and messages weren’t cached? If you have a Time Machine backup, you can recover mail from that via instructions in this column from last year.)

Mail uses long sequences of hexadecimal (base 16) numbers and dashes to identify accounts uniquely in the hidden Mail folder, which helps avoid overwriting and other problems. To figure out which folder corresponds to your account in the below instructions, open each folder in turn to see which mailboxes it contains.

mac911 mail library folderIDG

The V6 folder contains all the current email account’s mailboxes, including the one you just deleted.

In some cases, you’ll see all your mailboxes as separately named items with mailbox icons next to each. In my case (and possibly whenever an email account is disabled), you’ll only see INBOX or INBOX.mbox and need to open it—it acts like a folder—to see if it’s the account in question.

Here are the steps to follow:

  1. In the Finder, select Go > Go To Folder and enter exactly ~/Library/Mail
  2. In the folder that appears, you’ll see several folders. You’re looking for one called V6, although you may see older V plus number combinations for previous versions of Mail. Open the V6 folder.
  3. Hold down Option and drag all the mailboxes in the hexadecimally named folder you want to copy or the entire INBOX container somewhere else on your drive, so you’re not interacting with the originals.
  4. In Mail, select File > Import Mailboxes.
  5. Choose Apple Mail in the first Import screen and click Continue.
  6. Navigate to the location at which you copied the mailbox or mailboxes you want to import, and select one or more, then click Choose.
  7. Mail will import the messages and create a new entry under the On My Mac section called Imported Mail with the nested mailboxes.

You can leave the messages there, although they are now only accessible from that one Mac. If you want to make them available via IMAP in Mail for iOS or on other Macs, you can copy the messages are folders to an active email account elsewhere in the sidebar.

Note that you might be told my Mail that a message “can’t be downloaded” after performing this import, even though you can view its contents and it looks normal. Messages in the main inbox may be set so that Mail regards as them as not downloaded. While they can’t be moved, you can still view them and copy their contents, if not the entire message.

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