So, I recently decided to move away from Gmail as my email provider, and on to a new email address at a domain I control. I’ve had several friends mention to me that they’d like to know more about how I went about it. I thought I’d write up this post as a starting place for them and anyone else who might want to make this leap.
I’ve got some additional posts I’m working on addressing some other aspects of the transition, like why I did it (That post is now here), and how I decided on the provider I did, but this one will be focused on how I went about it. Some of this info will apply to any situation, but a lot of it will be specific to my situation and the choices I made. The whole process was easier than I expected and made me wish I’d done this a decade or so ago when I first started thinking about it.
The first step for me was figuring out what my best options were for a back-end email provider (the actual email servers that would be receiving and sending mail for me). I asked around about email providers and eventually settled on FastMail. I’ll write up a separate post about the other options I considered and why I decided to go with FastMail, but the short answer is that FastMail was very highly recommended by a number of people, and I like that they focus solely on email and things related to email. They offer some great features and they use open standards which means they should be compatible with pretty much any software I might care to use. They also have a lot of well written and detailed documentation that made it pretty straightforward to figure out how to do most of this.
After I’d decided on FastMail I started a free trail. You get 30 days to try it out and they don’t even ask for a credit card when you start the trail, so you don’t have to worry about getting charged if you don’t like it but forget to cancel. After the trail, FastMail isn’t free. But I was ready to be a customer rather than a product, at least for email, so that’s what I was looking for. They have several plans from $3/month to $9/month (all with a discount if you pay up front for a year or more). For me the $5/month plan was the right one, as that’s the first tier that lets you use your own domain name (and comes with enough storage for me to move all my other email over!).
I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to use my own domain during the free trial, as that feels like the sort of feature that would require a paid account. But there are actually only a few restrictions on trial accounts (you can only send 120 emails per day, you can’t create websites through FastMail (yes, a FastMail account even lets you set up and host a basic website through them), and you can’t create forwarding rules. Otherwise, the trial accounts act just like real paid accounts. They obviously want you to get a good feel for the service and think it’ll sell itself once you use it.
FastMail makes it pretty easy to use your own Domain with their service. First, you’ll need to purchase a domain. There are a lot of registrars out there that you can do this through. I’ve generally used Hover, and I’ve recently had a few people recommend Gandi too (in fact that’s the one FastMail links to in their help page on Domains). You can use most any registrar you’re comfortable with though. Then you tell FastMail what domain you want to use and set up your domain to route email to FastMail.
You can do this a few different ways. You can do it the old-fashioned way and update the MX records at your registrar to have mail routed to FastMail. This way probably makes the most sense if you already have the domain set up for other things like websites and such and don’t want to recreate those DNS records again.
But since I purchased this domain specifically for this purpose and hadn’t it up for anything else, yet I want with the even simpler way, which lets FastMail set all of that up for you. For this method you just change the DNS (or “name servers”) at your registrar to use FastMail’s DNS servers. Once that’s set up FastMail will take care of setting up everything else so that mail will get routed correctly. You can still use the domain for other things like websites etc., you just update the DNS records and such through FastMail to point to external web servers and such. As mentioned above you can also host a simple website at FastMail too.
The next step was to import email from my other email accounts and set up forwarding so that any new messages that came into those accounts would show up in my FastMail inbox. This will vary by provider a bit, but FastMail provides general instructions for migrating mail (and contacts and calendars), and more specific instructions for major providers.
Since the two accounts I was migrating mail from were both Gmail accounts I used the Gmail specific migration instructions. I used the importer tool FastMail provides and it went into my accounts and pulled in 15 years’ worth of email without much trouble at all. In fact, it was done much faster than I expected, taking only about a day or so.
Next is setting up forwarding, which will let any future messages that come in to your old mailbox be automatically sent to your new mail account, so you don’t miss anything. Here I do suggest varying a little bit from FastMail’s suggestions. They suggest running the import tool, waiting for it to finish and then setting up forwarding from your other account. However, I would suggest setting up the import to start and then turn on Forwarding right away, don’t wait for it to finish. I wasn’t quite sure how the importer tool would work, so I followed FastMail’s suggestion and found that I ended up with a number of emails that came in after the tool had started working that weren’t imported. It’s possible doing it this way will lead to a few duplicate messages, but that seems like less of an inconvenience to me than having to go back and figure out which messages need to be manually forwarded.
In my case, I don’t actually plan to shut down my old Gmail accounts (though I am encouraging people to email me at my new address, and I am updating my address with companies and such) I’ll just let them sit there forwarding any messages they receive. You might decide to do differently, but no matter what you’ll probably want some period of transition while you get the word out about your new email address, so I very much suggest setting up forwarding if you can.
Next up was transferring contacts. This was pretty straighforward. It just involved exporting my contacts from my Gmail account and then uploading them to FastMail.
Finally, it was time to set up all my devices to work with FastMail. I use the FastMail web interface at work, but at home and in my personal life I use the default iOS and Mac mail apps. I know people have other apps they like more, but for the moment the built-in mail apps work just fine for me and I know how to get around in them. I may decide to try out some other apps that handle mail differently in the future, and I know that FastMail will likely work with any of them too. (FastMail does offer its own app too).
Anyway, I’ve set up new email accounts before, so I was ready to go in and start entering various addresses and settings and such. Also, FastMail requires app-specific passwords so I knew I would have to take an extra step to set up additional passwords. But just like with their DNS options for setting up a domain for email, FastMail surprised me with a clever and simple way to get all of that set up without any fuss. They offer an “Automatic Configuration Tool” which lets you download a profile to your iOS device, which you then install, and it automatically configures your device to use your FastMail Mail, Calendars, and Contacts. All I had to do was tell it to generate a profile for my iPhone, then I scanned a QR code on the site, followed it and then said “yes” when my phone asked me if I wanted to download the profile, and then installed it from the settings app. Everything was configured for me right away. Easy. (Of course, if you’d rather do it manually, and/or don’t trust/like the idea of installing profiles and such, you can do it manually too). I did the same thing for my iPad and then when I was at home used a similar process for my Mac.
Once that was set up, I then went in and disabled mail and contacts for my other accounts, so I didn’t end up getting two copies of every email send to those accounts (one in the original Gmail account and then another copy when it was delivered to my new account). I went ahead and left Calendars for my primary Gmail account on in my iOS devices and my Mac because I’m part of a few shared Google Calendars, and I still want those to show up on all my devices, but I’m switching mail and contacts over to FastMail. (I have the FastMail calendar on too but may or may not actually use it).
And at that point I was done! Well except for sending out an email to my contacts letting them know about my new email address and updating my email address with all the company’s and services I use. But that has also provided me with an opportunity to evaluate which services I actually want to keep using and which I may want to close and delete my accounts with. It’s also been an opportunity to be more mindful about what newsletters I’m subscribed to and such. In many cases I’ve just decided to unsubscribe rather than update my email address. It’s been nice.
It may sound like a lot of work to do all of this but I probably only spent 2 or 3 hours from the time I decided to do this to being set up, and most of that time was spent deciding on a provider and then carefully reading the instructions and such before actually taking each step, just to be sure I did it right.
I’ll have at least one more post after this going over in more detail why I wanted to make this transition, and possibly some other follow up posts about things like why I picked FastMail and what other service I looked at. Please let me know if you have any questions, or suggestions! The above is a basic overview but there are no doubt lots of specifics I left out that might be helpful to anyone thinking about doing the same. The above is meant to be a starting place, not an exhaustive guide. I hope it can also be a starting place for conversations about this and other similar issues.
If, after reading all of that you want to do the same, and decide to use FastMail, you can use this referral link and you’ll get 10% off for the first year. (That includes buying multiple years up front). Full disclosure: I’ll also get at small credit on my account for anyone who signs up with that link and pays for a plan.