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Apple Mail, IMAP, and special folders

Note: everything below can be generally applied to most any IMAP mail application, including Outlook, Thunderbird, and the version of Mail included in iOS. Only the details vary. Unfortunately, no standards exist as to what IMAP special folders should be called, so every mail host and IMAP client does things a little differently.

When setting up an IMAP account with Apple Mail, it looks for folders on the server to be used for Sent, Drafts, Trash, and Junk. If it doesn’t find folders named similarly to those, it will create folders for those purposes.

If you’ve already got folders on the server that you want Apple Mail to use — for example Gmail puts its special folders inside the [Gmail] folder — you can uncheck the “Take Account Online” button when you complete the setup wizard, so that nothing happens. Then you can go into account preferences and under Mailbox Behaviors uncheck all the boxes.

Then take the account online, and it will only load up what folders are there without creating new ones. Then you can go back to account preferences and check the boxes — but now folders won’t automatically be created until they are needed.

But before that happens, you can click on each special folder on the server, and then in the Mailbox menu, choose the appropriate item under “Use This Mailbox For”. The special folder will disappear from the standard folder list, and will instead be the folder behind the items in the “Mailboxes” section at the top of the list.

And, if Mail did already create a folder of its own, it will appear in the folder list below, where you can delete it. Or if you deal with it later and have two Sent folders with stuff in them because you use both Mail and webmail, you can figure out which one is the default one your host uses, and drag everything from the one Mail made to that. Then use that one as the special Sent folder, and delete the now-empty one that Mail made.

The Junk folder may require an additional step. If you don’t have junk mail filtering enabled, then Mail will ignore your requests to use any folder as the Junk folder (an error notice explaining what’s going on would be useful here, fellas). But if you’ve already got your mail host (e.g. Gmail) filtering your spam for you, you may not want to use Mail’s less-accurate built-in filtering.

Here’s the trick to make it work: enable Junk Mail filtering, and make sure the option set is “Move it to the Junk mailbox”. Then in the main window, choose which folder you want to use for Junk mail as described above. It will move up top.

Then, return to account preferences, and under Junk Mail, change the option to Perform Custom Actions. Then click Advanced… and change the rule from “Message is Junk Mail” to something that will never be true, e.g. “Message Type is RSS Article” (if you don’t use Mail for RSS feeds), or “Date Sent is greater than 1000 days old”. Now you can have Mail recognize your mail host’s spam folder without actually doing its own filtering.

6 Comments
Diego September 20th, 2011

I tried your settings and it looks good! However, I don’t know how to have multiple accounts in Mail though.

If I send a message from my Work Gmail account, I’d like to have it show up in my Work Gmail’s Sent Messages folder (online). Same for my personal account.

Any help?

Giles October 11th, 2011

Great advice, thanks. Was struggling making the Junk mail folder appear, and this showed me how.

Kevin Holliday October 28th, 2011

This really helped. Thanks!

LT November 6th, 2011

‘But before that happens, you can click on each special folder on the server, and then in the Mailbox menu, choose the appropriate item under “Use This Mailbox For”.’

That was what I was looking for. And it wasn’t under the Right Click context menu.

Thanks.

Jim Robertson September 8th, 2012

I’ve read your post about special folders in Mail.app (Mac OS X 10.8 and iOS 5.1.1 are what I use) on the advice of my ISP’s tech support team. I had discovered that although my Mac applied the “special folder” and IMAP folder hierarchy appropriately for my sonic.net IMAP mail, on the iPad that was not the case. There, a generic “sent messages” folder which was in turn a subfolder of INBOX held my Sent messages. Even more curious, on the iPad2, they sorted by date, then by name of SENDER, rather than by name of intended recipient. In my attempts to fix that, one thing my isp suggested was to establish the “special folders” for INBOX, Drafts, Sent, and Trash in their webmail interface, then direct the iPad to point to these for that purpose. I didn’t seem able to make that happen, so I tried manually moving messages on the iPad from the “Sent Messages” folder it was using into a “Sent” folder I created, then deleting the “Sent Messages folder.

That’s created all KINDS of problems for me, one of them being that virtually all the messages I sent between Nov 11, 2011 (the day I switched from POP3 in Entourage 2008 to IMAP in Mac mail) don’t appear in any visible folder in the ISP’s webmail interface. I know the messages are there, because if I create a new IMAP account in Windows Outlook 2007, all those missing messages are present in a generic-iconed “Sent Messages” folder; however, a message created saved as a draft, and sent in the webmail interface ends up in the “special folder” “Sent” at least using the email interface my ISP recommends for Windows. Outlook 2007, but on the Mac those sent messages are routed to the generic “Sent Messages” subfolder.

When you say

“But before that happens, you can click on each special folder on the server, and then in the Mailbox menu, choose the appropriate item under “Use This Mailbox For”. The special folder will disappear from the standard folder list, and will instead be the folder behind the items in the “Mailboxes” section at the top of the list.”

How do I click on the “special folders” on the Server? Are you talking about Folder icons in Mail.app in Mac OS, or are you assuming I’ll select folder icons in the webmail interface, then somehow get my Mac client to point to them?

Thanks so much,
Jim Robertson

David November 2nd, 2012

Great advice and it now works but how do you revert it back to original settings?

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IvanExpert provides superior Mac, iPhone, and iPad support for small businesses and home users in New York City. We provide on-site help with a range of Apple computer and mobile issues.

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