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Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Suffering from chronic idiocy since 1977


Setting up IMAP in Apple Mail

Note: These instruc­tions still work under Mac OS X Leop­ard (10.5)

It has been brought to my atten­tion that a sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of peo­ple don’t know all the steps involved in prop­erly con­fig­ur­ing an IMAP account in Apple’s Mail.app. Though this has been cov­ered else­where I’m sure, I thought I’d share the steps in a quick-start way to help reduce the frus­tra­tion that results from assum­ing some things are done by default (know the basics already? skip to the last step »).

The Basics

Most of the IMAP setup process is iden­ti­cal to cre­at­ing a POP account. Within Mail.app:

  1. Go to Pref­er­ences (Mail → Pref­er­ences)
  2. On the Accounts tab, click the [+] at the bot­tom left to start the account setup process
  3. Change the Account Type to IMAP and fill in your details
  4. Set the Incom­ing Mail Server and Out­go­ing Mail Server details

Many peo­ple stop at this point and assume they are fin­ished. This is where prob­lems arise, and why I’m writ­ing this lit­tle tidbit.

IMAP Fold­ers

IMAP allows all mail (includ­ing your Sent, Drafts, Spam and Trash fold­ers, as well as cus­tom fold­ers) to live on the server. This is one of the main ben­e­fits of IMAP, since your account is iden­ti­cal whether access­ing your mail from any work­sta­tion or web­mail. The prob­lem is that hosts cre­ate dif­fer­ent sets of default fold­ers when you cre­ate a new account, and that Mail.app doesn’t auto­mat­i­cally con­nect the fold­ers on the server to its local func­tions (most impor­tantly, Sent mail and Drafts).

For exam­ple, Medi­aTem­ple only cre­ates your Inbox and Spam fold­ers; Dreamhost cre­ates your Inbox, Sent, Drafts and Trash fold­ers, but since Mail.app doesn’t auto­mat­i­cally assign those func­tions to the fold­ers on the server, it doesn’t actu­ally mat­ter in this case. This means if you don’t fol­low these next steps, you won’t have any sent mail or drafts saved any­where; this can be an annoy­ance or a major prob­lem, depend­ing on your spe­cific needs.

Cre­at­ing IMAP Folders

Cre­at­ing new fold­ers is simple:

  1. Control-click (or right-click if you have a multi-button mouse) on the Inbox for your account (if you have mul­ti­ple accounts within Mail.app, you’ll see sub-Inboxes in the left side­bar that have the names you’ve assigned each account), and select “New Mailbox…”
  2. In the result­ing dia­log, make sure that the cor­rect account is selected in the drop-down menu, and enter a name for the mail­box (e.g. “Sent” if you’re on MediaTemple).

The mail­box is cre­ated on the server, and Mail.app updates its folder list for that account. Do this as many times as you want, when­ever you need a new folder to help orga­nize your mes­sages (for our pur­poses, make sure your cre­ate what­ever function-related fold­ers are missing).

Set­ting Mail.app Straight

Now that you’ve made sure the fold­ers exist, in order for Mail.app to save your drafts or copies of your sent mes­sages it needs to know where to put them, so this final step is the most important:

  1. Click the folder name that matches the func­tion you want to assign (e.g. “Sent”) so it is high­lighted in the list
  2. Go to Mail­box → Use This Mail­box For → [func­tion name] (e.g. “Sent” again)

That’s all there is to it—your folder will dis­ap­pear from the list, and reap­pear as a sub-folder beneath the func­tion you spec­i­fied, with the same name as the account it’s con­nected to. So, if your account name is “My IMAP Account”, the “Sent” folder will now be located under “Sent → My IMAP Account” in the Mail.app sidebar.

Hope­fully this will ease some of the frus­tra­tion of set­ting up an IMAP account for the first time. After you’ve gone through the steps once, you’ll remem­ber them for the future and never be with­out your drafts and sent mes­sages again.

Update: Check out the com­ments below for some extra tips and tricks.

This item was posted by Dan Rubin on Saturday, April 21st, 2007.


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39 comments on “Setting up IMAP in Apple Mail”

  1. Posted by Oliver Charles on Saturday, April 21st, 2007.

    IMAP is a bril­liant idea, that I’ve some­how only just dis­cov­ered. It’s a GODSEND if you use mul­ti­ple computers.

    Good guide :)

  2. Posted by Adam Schilling on Sunday, April 22nd, 2007.

    Nice one, Dan.

    In the case of Media Tem­ple (and per­haps a few other IMAP ser­vice providers) you can also access (and sync) your cus­tom, cus­tom fold­ers (the ones that don’t cor­re­late to a spe­cific Mail function).

    Cre­ate a cus­tom folder (eg. Dad or Project X). Note that some peo­ple have found their first cus­tom folder needs to be cre­ated within their web­mail client first — Apple Mail seems to get the hang of things after that (may require relaunch).
    Go to Pref­er­ences (Mail → Pref­er­ences).
    Click the Accounts tab and select your IMAP account, on the left.
    Select the Advanced tab, on the right.
    Tick Auto­mat­i­cally syn­chro­nize changed mail­boxes.
    Set the IMAP Path Pre­fix* to INBOX
    Leave the Port / Authen­ti­ca­tion defaults (eg. 143 / Pass­word).
    Save your changes and note the addi­tion of a new ‘at’ sym­bol ( @ ) in your list of Mail fold­ers. It now con­tains (and should sync) your cus­tom, cus­tom folders.

    * Refer to your IMAP ser­vice provider if INBOX doesn’t do the trick. ;-)

  3. Posted by Steve on Sunday, April 22nd, 2007.

    Hey Dan–
    Thanks for the de-mystification… I’ve been using POP3 with Media Tem­ple and have wanted to con­vert to IMAP but have had a con­cern for what would hap­pen to my cur­rent POP fold­ers and orga­ni­za­tion on my Mac, etc. I also use a Treo reli­giously for send­ing and receiv­ing so I know that IMAP would help with keep­ing that synced with my Mac… Do you use a hand­held for mail as well? Did you con­vert to IMAP from POP3? Any issues or road blocks you expe­ri­enced along the con­ver­sion road?

  4. Posted by Dan Rubin on Sunday, April 22nd, 2007.

    @ Adam: Thanks for the tip, it’s a great add-on, I’m def­i­nitely going to make use of it myself :)

    @ Steve: From what I under­stand, the (mt) email accounts can be accessed via POP3 or IMAP, so you should be able to cre­ate a new IMAP account within Mail.app, using the same set­tings as your POP3 account, and then just copy (drag-n-drop) your local folder struc­ture into your IMAP inbox.

    I also access my IMAP account from my Treo650, which works like a charm.

  5. Posted by Jonathan E on Monday, April 23rd, 2007.

    Thanks for the tips Dan! I’ve been won­der­ing about how to get this work­ing prop­erly for a while now.

  6. Posted by Ian Lloyd on Monday, April 23rd, 2007.

    That was *very* timely, sir. I was hav­ing great dif­fi­culty work­ing out what I was doing wrong with some Imap accounts, despite hav­ing set it up numer­ous times before!



  7. Posted by Tom on Monday, April 23rd, 2007.

    While this def­i­nitely works, what about mul­ti­ple IMAP accounts? I still haven’t found a way to con­fig­ure mul­ti­ple Sent, Drafts, Junk fold­ers for each account.

  8. Posted by Dan Rubin on Monday, April 23rd, 2007.

    @Tom: If you mean con­fig­ur­ing a sep­a­rate Sent, Drafts, and Junk folder for each IMAP account, the process is the same (see the sub­head­ing “Cre­at­ing IMAP Fold­ers”). You cre­ate a new folder for each func­tion, within each IMAP account’s “Inbox” (which isn’t actu­ally called “Inbox”, but rather the name you assigned the account when you cre­ated it). Then just fol­low the process for each folder under each account (Mail.app does auto­mat­i­cally rec­og­nize which IMAP account it should asso­ciate with the function).

  9. Posted by Frank 'viperteq' Young on Monday, April 30th, 2007.

    This was a great tip Dan. But I’ve got an advanced sce­nario that I could use some help with:

    I cur­rently have my IMAP account hosted on Joyent’s Con­nec­tor appli­ca­tion. But I’ve decided that since I host all of my sites on Medi­aTem­ple, it would just be eas­ier to man­age every­thing from there (not to men­tion cheaper on the wal­let). So my ques­tion is this.…how do you trans­fer IMAP hosted email from one server to another? I don’t have root access to the Joyent server obvi­ously, but I do have root access to my Medi­aTem­ple server. Is there an easy to do this?

  10. Posted by Dan Rubin on Monday, April 30th, 2007.

    @Frank: That should be pretty sim­ple: leave your exist­ing IMAP account/inbox in Mail.app as-is, and cre­ate a new account with your (mt) set­tings, and a unique name.

    This should cre­ate a sec­ond inbox struc­ture in the left pane within Mail.app, and then you can just drag and drop the folders/messages from your Joyent account inbox into the (mt) inbox. The mes­sages will copy over (it may take a while depend­ing on how much mail you have to trans­fer) and you should be set.

  11. Posted by Frank 'viperteq' Young on Tuesday, May 1st, 2007.

    Dude, you rock!!!!

  12. Posted by Curtis Carmack on Tuesday, May 1st, 2007.

    Dan, This def­i­nitely helped. I may even move to Mail.app from Thun­der­bird if I can resolve my last issue. I have sev­eral aliases that I use from a sin­gle IMAP account. I also receive e-mail at these var­i­ous aliases/accounts into the same IMAP account. Cur­rently server-side rules dump the incom­ing e-mails into the appro­pri­ate fold­ers. How­ever, to get the out­go­ing e-mails into the right fold­ers, I bcc myself (using a set­ting in Thun­der­bird) and use a com­bi­na­tion of server rules and Thun­der­bird con­fig­u­ra­tion to make sure that I have the right sent mails in each of four sep­a­rate sub­fold­ers of the Sent folder. The server rules work fine with Mail.app, but the sub­fold­ers of the Sent folder are not rec­og­nized as con­tain­ing sent items, so they dis­play the “from” (me) but not the “to” iden­ti­ties in the mes­sage list. Any ideas on how to change this?

  13. Posted by Gregg Rudolph on Tuesday, May 1st, 2007.

    Thank you. I have been liv­ing with the Apple Mail IMAP prob­lem for weeks. Your solu­tion will make my life MUCH eas­ier! Much appreciated!

  14. Posted by Sam on Friday, May 4th, 2007.

    Thanks for this bit:
    “Tick Auto­mat­i­cally syn­chro­nize changed mail­boxes. Set the IMAP Path Pre­fix* to INBOX

    That info was absolutely cru­cial in get­ting fold­ers work­ing, before that, they weren’t work­ing prop­erly. Thanks!!

  15. Posted by Vale on Thursday, May 10th, 2007.

    Your site is very inter­est­ing! yeeah! Good work!

  16. Posted by iTristan on Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007.

    Great tuto­r­ial — so here’s one for ya.

    I’ve got a UW IMAP server we’re break­ing in for use by clients, I’m mak­ing myself the guinea pig by mov­ing one of our accounts onto it.

    Even with the IMAP Path Pre­fix set, Mail.app still reads about a half dozen server-use “mail­boxes” that are non­sense for real use. There include:

    and the list goes on. Suf­fice to say, the fact that the account is read­ing all these server-messages bloats my mail­box with irrel­e­vant crud.

    I can still cre­ate my own mail­boxes in here, but the oth­ers don’t leave.

    I have a feel­ing that this has to do with UW, but noth­ing I do changes the pres­ence of these utility-use mailboxes.

    Thoughts? Cheers

  17. Posted by Brandy on Saturday, June 9th, 2007.

    Dreamhost users may find this link use­ful: http://wiki.dreamhost.com/Mac_OS_X_Mail_10.4

  18. Posted by Jeff Hartman on Saturday, June 9th, 2007.

    Why do Dreamhost and medi­atem­ple like the Inbox as the root folder? Textdrive allows sub­fold­ers at the root of the mail­box where it is more con­ve­nient. I hap­pen use all 3 hosts at the moment. :(

  19. Posted by Colin Miller on Wednesday, July 11th, 2007.

    I have now set up my IMAP account with Apple Mail, fantastic!

    My main rea­son was so that I could use email on my mobile phone and it works great, how­ever SPAM is a real prob­lem as I get hun­dreds per day.

    Here is a fan­tas­tic work around that has reduced the SPAM on my mobile to almost zero

    Get hold of Spam­Sieve, its the best SPAM fil­ter OSX by far


    Dis­able the SPAM fil­ters in Apple Mail and use SpamSieve.

    Now here is the impor­tant thing…

    Set up Spam­Sieve to remove any SPAM from your IMAP folder and move into your SPAM folder on your local hard drive.

    Set up your email to check every minute or two min­utes, this then con­tin­ues to remove SPAM from your IMAP Inbox, keep­ing it squeeky clean.

    You may (on the odd occa­sion) hap­pen to check your email via mobile just prior to Spam­Sieve doing its its thing, but in gen­eral this workaround will make your mobile life a lot eas­ier… Thanks to IMAP!

  20. Posted by Steve on Thursday, July 19th, 2007.

    Hey Dan (or any­one else)-
    What app do you use on the Treo (if you’re not now on the iPhone…) I was using ver­samail and after it crashed twice with­out rea­son or warn­ing and no sup­port from Ver­i­zon or palm, I’m now on Snap­per­Mail. It doesn’t seem to sup­port IMAP per se but it does talk about folder syn­chro­niza­tion… just curi­ous what peo­ple are using on the Treo (700p).

  21. Posted by Scott on Wednesday, July 25th, 2007.

    I’m strug­gling to have IMAP mail boxes I’ve cre­ated with other clients appear in my MAC mail sys­tem. They’re there when I use Thun­der­bird. The big one is my “Read Mail” folder. Server is a Linux dbmail sys­tem that works with other clients. Ideas?
    Thanks to all in advance


  22. Posted by Micah on Thursday, July 26th, 2007.

    Thanks a bunch for this essay — so many tuto­ri­als online that just suck and don’t focus on how to have copies of your mes­sages! Right on!

  23. Posted by duus on Wednesday, August 29th, 2007.

    thanks. use­ful post & con­ver­sa­tion. “imax path” as “INBOX” made some accounts work that weren’t before…


  24. Posted by Nidia on Friday, August 31st, 2007.

    Hello! Just to notify you I rec­om­mended your blog for the Blog­Day that is today! Con­grat­u­la­tions and keep up the good work…!!!

  25. Posted by Dave on Wednesday, September 12th, 2007.

    Dan. Thanks for the arti­cle!
    It was dif­fi­cult to get this work­ing properly

  26. Posted by Nick on Saturday, September 22nd, 2007.

    Thanks for the tips Dan, a well thought out and com­pre­hen­sive tutorial.

  27. Posted by Randy on Monday, October 1st, 2007.

    I’ve been using IMAP for a long time but didn’t try the “Use This Mail­box For” step until yes­ter­day. Now that I’ve done this, my whole Mail.app has become mad­den­ingly slow. I have 4 accounts set up, and did this for both of the IMAP accounts. Now, no mat­ter which account I’m mov­ing between fold­ers in (the other two are Hot­mail accounts accessed via HTTP­mail), Mail.app takes 30–40 sec­onds to pop­u­late the list of emails. Any fixes for this? Or, how do I “undo” the “Use This Mail­box For” step (I only did it for Sent Mail so that they’d be avail­able from another com­puter even if I wrote the email from my own com­puter). It’s so slow that it’s not worth the sync!

  28. Posted by michel on Sunday, October 21st, 2007.

    man i can’t believe how badly apple sup­ports imap its just horrible

    worst of all in mail.app 3.0 they have messed it up even worse
    the use folder as option is no longer there so now in my fast­mail accounts i have both apple fold­ers and fast­mail folder for sent and drafts, just awful

    i like how easy mail is to set-up, but i hate the lim­ited functionality,

    back to mul­berry (http://www.mulberrymail.com/) for me, awfully com­pli­cated to set up, but at least once set up every­thing works as imap should work

  29. Posted by Julian Schrader on Tuesday, October 30th, 2007.

    @Michel: Of course the “use folder as” option is there in Mail.app 3.0! I just used it on my new Leop­ard installation…

    Thanks for this post — I had a prob­lem with Spam­Sieve: It’s using a local folder called “spam”. On the IMAP server (Medi­aTem­ple) was another “spam” folder, but they didn’t sync, so I deleted the local one and changed the “Spam­Sieve” rule in Mail.app to use the IMAP folder. Works great!

  30. Posted by Frank Tollenaar on Sunday, November 4th, 2007.

    Thanks man. I’ve been using IMAP for web-mail for ages, but never found a way to des­ig­nate my Inbox.sent as Sent-mailbox in Mail.app
    I kept search­ing in the pref­er­ences and context-menus (ctrl-click). Never thought it would be right up there in the main menu.

  31. Posted by Rene Rodriguez on Thursday, November 8th, 2007.


    Thanks for this post. I’ve been pulling my hair out try­ing to prop­erly set-up IMAP on my mul­ti­ple Macs. Argh. Your post, and some of the sub­se­quent com­ments from your bright read­er­ship, have helped clear up a few mysteries.

    I do have one ques­tion, that I hope you can answer (eh, promptly!):

    I have mul­ti­ple com­pany email account (rene@, info@, etc.), and in my pre-IMAP world, I had three fold­ers set-up (Clients, Free­lancers, and Ven­dors) at the same level as my inbox. I also had a few Smart­Fold­ers set-up.

    Now, to keep those sync’d, it’s my under­stand­ing that I’d have to recre­ate those fold­ers under a spe­cific email account (i.e., rene@). But my ‘Client’ folder will have 20 or 30 active clients (in sub­fold­ers), and I need to drop emails in to them from var­i­ous accounts (I’ve vac­il­lated between using rules for this and leav­ing them in my Inbox until I’ve dealt with them).

    How can I have the same folder struc­ture and sync w/IMAP?

    Your help is appreciated,


  32. Posted by Boris on Wednesday, June 25th, 2008.

    Thanks for the Mail­box -> Use mail­box for.… heads up… I’ve been look­ing for some­thing like this for a loooong time. You rock.

  33. Posted by javier on Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008.

    Can i delete one folder like “trash” “spam” “all” (pre defined fold­ers) in my IMAP account?.. if yes, HOW!?!?!?… Thanks!