How to migrate from Gmail to Google Apps for free and take your messages with you

Combine the power of Gmail and the ego-strokes of your own domain name with Google Apps, without losing any of your email, thanks to our handy guide

Flora Graham
7 min read

You've got your custom ride, your modded laptop, and enough piercings to put airport security on amber alert. So why languish in the grey-faced uniformity of a gmail.com email address? Time to move to Google Apps and finally do something with that domain name you bought in 2001 when you thought your band really might be going somewhere.

Gmail is a powerful online email beast that's replaced our desktop email clients thanks to its huge storage, smartly threaded conversations and availability on any computer connected to the Infobahn.

Before Google Apps came along, you could already use Gmail with your own domain, but it was a hack job. You could forward email from your domain -- nate@disturbingpetcamerashots.com, for example -- or get Gmail to pick it up automatically via POP3. Then you could set Gmail to send email on behalf of your domain address, but the fact that you're really using Gmail is always visible in your email headers. It looks slightly amateurish, and confuses our idiot friends who end up replying to the Gmail address rather than to our domain.

But now you can have your own little corner of Google's mail servers, with no need to forward or mask where things are coming from. And it's free! With our help, you can make sure that the 56,000 emails you already have in Gmail can be safely migrated over to your new Google Apps accounts like a herd of well-behaved buffalo.

The free, standard version of Google Apps offers the same amount of storage as Gmail -- 7GB -- but there's a limit of 100 email mailboxes. And since Google Apps is supposed to be more stable, not every new feature in Gmail is rolled out to it right away by default, although you can change this in the domain settings.

You can get lots more help on each step online, but this overview of the whole process will keep your email from ending up in the great trash bin in the sky. Go grab your domain from one of the millions of domain-name registrars, dust off your nerd hat, and join us on a magical journey of MX records. Click Continue to see where to start.

Step 1: Be sure you can edit the MX records of your domain name

You'll have to edit your domain's MX records point to Google's servers to get Google Apps to work, so make sure you can do that first.

MX records are addresses that point to your email server -- in this case, to Google's servers. When you send an email to a particular address, the MX record is a signpost that tells the email exactly where to go so that it will get delivered to your inbox -- like a postcode tells the postie where to drop your letters through your door.

If you're already hosting your domain with a hosting company, chances are that you can edit the MX records using its control panel. We'll tell you what to type in step 3.

But some hosts don't let you edit the MX records, or they want you to use IP addresses, when Google Apps only provides URLs. Or maybe you don't have a Web-hosting company at all and your domain is just floating around the Interwebs.

In this case, go to ugly-but-good Zoneedit and sign up for a free account. You can manage all the gory details of up to five domain names for free here. To use Zoneedit, you have to change the name servers of your domain name to Zoneedit name servers -- it will walk you through the steps when you add a new zone. As well as setting your email to be handled by Google Apps, you can point your Web site to your hosting company's servers or to a free Web site such as a Wordpress blog.

If you change your name servers to point to Zoneedit, or anywhere else, it can take a long while for the changes to go through. Use a whois service to make sure that your domain is using the right name servers before you continue, otherwise your changes won't have any effect and it'll all end in tears.

Step 2: Get the ball rolling at Google Apps

Sign up for the standard version of Google Apps -- it's free, and you can even buy a US-style domain name, such as .com or .net, if you haven't got one already. Once you're all logged in, you can start setting up that email.

You'll have to prove you own the domain, either by uploading an HTML file with a specific name to your Web site, or adding a CNAME record to your domain.

Uploading the HTML file is easiest, if you have a Web site that's up and running -- just create it, give it the name that Google Apps specifies when you sign up, and upload it by FTP.

If you don't have a Web site, just a domain name, you can add a CNAME record instead. Like the MX record we mentioned in step 1, a CNAME record is another 'postcode' that makes up the DNS record. Add it in your domain name's control panel and give it the name that Google Apps specifies when you sign up.

Google has lots more detail on this step on its help page. Either way, make sure it's up and working before you go on.

The key thing now is to avoid any downtime. Assuming that you're already using the email address you want, by forwarding it to Gmail, for example, you don't want to miss an important Viagra-related message. So the swap has to follow the right steps.

First, log in to Google Apps and set up a new user. If you want people to email you at ian@androidfanboi.com, set up the user 'ian'.

Test this before you go on to make sure the email for your new user is up and running. In Google Apps, the user account has a temporary email address that looks like ian@ androidfanboi.com.test-google-a.com. Be sure you can send and receive email from that account.

Next comes the hard part -- changing your MX records to point at the Google Apps servers. This is where things can get messy, so give yourself some breathing room by doing this in the evening or whenever you get less email.

Step 3: Hold your breath and change those MX records

Log in to Google Apps, and click 'activate email' -- or click 'add it now' if the email icon isn't already on your dashboard. It'll hit you with instructions on how to change the MX records for heaps of hosting companies, and these are also available on the Google Apps help page.

Right away, click 'I have completed these steps' at the bottom of the page -- that'll get Google Apps going, trying to confirm that everything is set up properly with your domain name's MX records. Then go back and actually do the steps. Pop over to your hosting company's, or Zoneedit's, control panel in another window and change the MX records to the ones Google Apps tells you.

Annoyingly, making changes to MX records can take a few hours to propagate. In our tests using Zoneedit, our email was up and running only a couple of minutes after we changed the MX records, but yours may take longer.

You'll have to keep your eye on your old Gmail account and your new Google Apps account for new mail until the switch is complete. Log into Gmail in one window and your Google Apps email in another -- but beware, they look almost identical. The email address is at the top of the page, so stay alert.

More help on this step is available from the Google Apps help page.

When you start getting email at your new Google Apps account, it's time to migrate those 56,000 emails over from Gmail.

Step 4: Move your old Gmail to your new Google Apps mailbox.

In your Gmail account, go to the settings and enable POP download.

In your sparkling new Google Apps email account, go to the settings and choose the accounts tab. Hey, what's that? A section to get mail from other accounts. Sweet!

Add your Gmail account and, thanks to the wonders of POP3, your messages will start getting pulled over into your Google Apps mailbox. You can even set it up so that those old messages skip the inbox. But be warned: your labels, filters and stars will all be lost in transit.

You may want to set up filters in your Google Apps email settings to re-label your messages. And definitely watch your spam folder, since some old messages could end up there thanks to your freshly minted Google Apps spam filters.

If you have lots of messages, this process can take days, since it will only move a few hundred messages at a time. But you can still access your old mail by logging into your Gmail account any time you want.

Once everything's up and running, you can start stretching your legs in Google Apps and setting up options like a custom home page. Then you can sit back and relax, ruling your virtual domain like a benevolent and much-loved dictator, safe in the knowledge that all your old Gmail is within your walled garden. Just pray that Google doesn't go down.