I recently helped an artist friend move an email address associated with her domain name from one host to another. These are the steps we took.
TL;DR — Moving email from one host to another is a pain. If you have to take it on yourself, take each step carefully and when in doubt, get in touch with your email hosting provider for advice.
⚠️ I wrote up these instructions as a self-help guide for my friend and decided to publish them here since I figured a lot of people might be in a similar boat. Turns out I was right, I get a lot of emails about moving email! However, if you want someone to manage an email move for you or provide one-on-one support for email, unfortunately I don’t offer this as a service. I’m not the right fit, my specialty is building websites, not managing email. If you don’t want to take it on yourself (which is fair!), you must get in touch with an IT person or systems administrator, not a web developer. If you’re not sure where to find one, ask around for recommendations or have a quick search online for local IT outfits that might fit the bill.
Sometimes when you’re moving to a different web hosting provider or domain registrar, you might have to also switch your email hosting. Larger businesses usually have systems administrators or IT teams that help with this sort of thing, but individuals and small businesses often have to tackle it themselves. This can be pretty stressful if you’re in the middle of important email conversations since a wrong step can bring your email down. It’s possible to do on your own though!
Manually moving an email address associated with a custom domain name from one host to another basically involves three steps: 1. Set up your email address with your new provider; 2. Repoint your email-related Domain Name Service (DNS) records; 3. Set up your new email address on your devices.
Further detail on each step below, including the optional fourth step of migrating your emails from your old email hosting to your new email hosting.
⚠️ Before getting started, you should have your login details and contract information handy for all of your existing relevant services including your web host and your domain registrar. If you want to manually move your emails from your old email address to your new email address, you must have your old address set up in an email client such as Apple Mail.
1. Set up your email address with your new provider
First you have to choose your new email host. Many shared web hosts and domain registrars provide email hosting as part of a hosting plan or domain registration. If that is the case, it may be worth using your web host or domain registrar for email hosting if cost is your utmost concern since the cost of email hosting may be baked in to your existing contract. Keep in mind hat the service you get probably isn’t going to be as high-quality as a dedicated email host.
If you have more extensive requirements — encryption, better spam filtering and phishing protection, more space, settings to reduce email spoofing, etc. — you may be better off with a specialist email hosting provider such as Gmail Business, Fastmail, and ProtonMail.
If you’re not sure who to go with, pick a few that seem worthwhile and then compare them on cost and features to choose the provider that’s right for you. For the purposes of these instructions, we’re going to assume you’re using your web host for email hosting.
Once you’ve selected your email host, you need to set up your email address. It’s best to follow your email host’s documentation to determine how to do this. If you are using your web host for email hosting, you can usually use your web hosting provider’s control panel to set up email addresses associated with your domain name.
If you want a new email address — firstname.lastname@example.org instead of email@example.com, for example — then ensure you set up your new email address as a mailbox and your old email address as a forwarder. This will ensure that you still get all of the mail sent to your old address.
Do not use a duplicate password, and ensure that it is as complex as you can manage. I cannot stress this enough. Email addresses are an Achilles’ heel of personal online security. If someone has access to your email, they can effectively access any online account that you have associated with that email address. Get a password manager like 1Password if you don’t have one already, future you will thank you.
Finally, save your new email login details. You will need these later for logging in on a browser or setting up your email in a mail client such as Apple Mail.
2. Repoint your email-related Domain Name Service (DNS) records
DNS records are sort of an address book for the internet. They tell other computers where to find your website, how to find the email hosting associated with your domain, and all sorts of other things. If a DNS record is wrong, there is a good chance that some aspect of your website or email won’t work correctly. Because of that, this step might be the scariest part. Hooking up DNS records incorrectly can break your website, email, and more, so it is important to take this step with caution.
Log in to your domain registrar and find the nameservers for your domain. The nameservers are the set of servers that host your DNS records. Nameservers are usually set to the domain registrar by default, but they can be changed to point at the web hosting provider. If you look at your nameservers, you should be able to tell whether your domain registrar, your web host, or some other provider is hosting your DNS records. Make a note of your DNS host.
Once you know your DNS host, log in to that service provider and review your existing DNS records. Try to identify all of the records you’ll need to change. This would include any MX records, and it may also include CNAME records that seem associated with email (related values might include “smtp”, “imap”, “mail”, and “webmail”) as well as any TXT records beginning with
Next, get your new email hosting provider’s DNS documentation open to determine which DNS records are required in order to point your domain at your new provider. If it isn’t clear which records are required, get in touch with the provider directly on a support channel to get a concise list.
Finally, update the required DNS records. You may also need to delete old records that are not required. For example if you have a TXT record beginning with
v=spf1 but your new email host does not support SPF, then you should delete this record. If you’re unsure, speak to your new email hosting provider. You do not want to accidentally change your A records or certain CNAME records since this could break aspects of your website.
DNS updates take time to propagate. This is because DNS information is cached (stored) in computers around the world to ensure that the connection is as speedy as possible. Expect the update to take a bit of time, potentially up to 24 hours depending on your DNS hosting provider and the time To live (TTL) value of each record.
When you think your DNS updates have taken effect, log in to your email address in the browser. If you aren’t sure which URL to use to do so, search for it in your email host’s documentation or get in touch with your email host. If your DNS updates have taken effect, you should be able to send yourself an email at that address from another account (for example, from a personal email address) and see it in your new inbox.
3. Set up your new email address on your devices
Setting up your new email address on your devices usually involves an email client such as Apple Mail or Mozilla Thunderbird. This is fairly straightforward, but there can be snags. These are the main tripping points I’ve encountered.
When you enter your login details for the first time, ensure that you use the correct credentials. You have to use your full new email address as the username and your new email address password, the old email address password will not work since that is on a different server.
Make sure you use the correct incoming (IMAP) and outgoing (SMTP) mail server names during setup. Some email clients such as Apple Mail will attempt to automatically detect the mail servers, but this usually only works if you’re using a big email provider such as Gmail for Business. If you’re not sure what your mail server names are, see your web host’s documentation or speak to their support team.
Once you have it set up, you should successfully be able to receive and send emails through your email client. Before getting started with your new email address though, you should double-check the mailbox mapping though to ensure that your folders sync correctly between your devices. For example, if you have your sent folder mapped to a folder on your laptop as opposed to a folder on the email server, your phone will not have access to those sent emails. In Apple Mail, you can find this info in the account settings under Mailbox Behaviors.
4. Migrate your emails from your old email to your new email (optional)
You don’t technically have to migrate your emails from your old email host to your new email host since you’ll still have access to the old emails as long as you keep your old hosting. That said, you’ll have to migrate them if you want to leave your old email host and want to keep those emails or if it bothers you to have email archives associated with the same email address in two different places.
Some providers such as Gmail for Business provide semi-automated migration tools, but they usually only offer migration from other widely-used email hosting providers. If your new email hosting provider doesn’t offer any automated tools, then this has to be done manually or by someone that feels comfortable automating migration by other means. Manual migration using an email client like Apple Mail is fine for a single email address, so that’s what I’ll cover below.
To migrate email in Apple Mail, I basically just use Command+a to select everything in a particular mailbox associated with the old email address and drag it to the corresponding mailbox associated with the new email address. I make sure my computer is plugged in when I do this since it can take a bit of power and time, and personally I use Amphetamine (a Mac app) to keep my computer awake. There is usually progress information towards the base of the Apple Mail window. When one mailbox is done, I move to the next. You want to ensure that you get every mailbox (sent, inbox, drafts, etc.).
When it looks like everything is settled and there is nothing left in any of the mailboxes associated with the old email address, I log in to the old email hosting provider in the browser to double-check. If everything is empty in-browser, then it’s all done. At that point, I remove the old email address from my email clients on my computer and phone.