How to Move Your User Data to a New Mac without Time Machine

Time Machine and Migration Assistant can be useful if you want to copy your entire setup from one computer to another. But if you’d prefer to clean house with a new machine and selectively move files without losing all of your user preferences, you can. You just need to know which files to move.

If you want to copy over absolutely everything, this probably isn’t the method for you – Migration Assistant will work a little better. But if you’re interested in capturing Preferences related to the OS, like Dock and trackpad settings, this should get you there.

Because you’ll be copying over the exact settings from your old Mac, you need to make sure your new Mac’s user is configured in the same way as your old user. The most important thing here is the account name, or short name, of your account. If you’re not sure what that is, look at the name of your home folder. That will be the same as your account name.

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Make sure that the account name for your user on the new Mac is exactly the same.

The easiest way to handle this process is over a USB drive. If you don’t have one, you can use a hard drive as well. You could even use network storage, but if we’re transferring a lot of data over WiFi, you won’t have much fun.

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It can be helpful when organizing your media to recreate the original file path. For example, if you have a file from /Users/alexander/Library/Preferences, you could put that in a folder with the exact same file path. That way you won’t misplace them on the new system. This is particularly important because preference files in the wrong place are useless.

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The content of your home folder obviously needs to make it over to your new Mac. Most users keep their files here, so copying over the content to your new Mac is a no-brainer.

Copy over everything but the Library folder. You can copy the files by dragging and dropping, just as you would with a normal directory. We will deal with your Library folder next.

Under macOS, user preferences can be stored in a couple of places. The canonical location is ~/Library/Preferences which is what macOS’s system application typically use.

To get there, find the Library folder inside your user folder.

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You can also choose “Go to folder…” in the Finder menu and then type in ~/Library/Preferences.

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Inside this folder, you’ll find a ton of Property Lists or PLISTs. These are the actual files that contain your preferences.

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There are two routes you can take here. The first is to copy over every file. However, if you don’t also copy over all the apps associated with those preferences, you’ll get a lot of junk.

It’s better to copy everything that starts with com.apple. These are the preferences that relate solely to macOS system programs, like the Dock and other Apple products like Final Cut Pro. This is my preferred method, and it grabs the most relevant stuff.

Whichever you choose, drag and drop your selected files into the correct folder on your transfer media.

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Copying applications is tricky. Not all applications put their files in the same place, so you’ll usually need to rummage through your system to make sure you’ve got everything. Because of this, I’d recommend a fresh install on the new system.

If you must copy an application manually, you should try to bring along the its files. We can re-purpose AppCleaner to help us find them all.

AppCleaner helps users uninstall applications by revealing all the files associated with a given app. It works by searching a few specific places for files that include the application’s name.

Search for an application’s files by dropping its icon onto the AppCleaner window.

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To view a file’s location in Finder, click the magnifying glass.

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Some files won’t be needed. You don’t need logs, crash reports, or anything stored in /var/. All these components will get rebuilt on the new system as needed. The files in ~Library/Application Support/ normally aren’t necessary either.

You probably won’t be able to copy larger apps like Photoshop. Programs like that litter your system with files, and it’s hard to get them all. There’s also licensing files you probably can’t access. You can export workspaces and keyboard shortcuts separately, and that’s normally what people want to preserve.

Once you have your transfer media loaded up, copy everything onto your new system and reboot. Test everything out, and make sure that you’ve copied over the stuff that’s most important to you before disposing of your old machine.

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