Migration Assistant: The Easy Way to Move Your Data to a New Mac

Migration Assistant iconThe anticipation of purchasing a new Mac is sometimes tempered by the realization that at some point, you’re going to have to move the data from your old Mac or PC to its new home on your new Mac.

Luckily for us Mac users, the Mac includes the Migration Assistant, an easy-to-use app that, with a bit of help from you, can move all the important data from your old Mac or Windows PC to that sparkling new Mac you just bought. It can perform this task using one of a number of ways to make the connection between old and new:

That should be enough choices to enable you to make a connection to transfer the information. To help you choose between the options, here’s a bit more detail.

(The Migration Assistant will close all open apps. Be sure to save any data before proceeding.)

Network Connection: Your new Mac, as well as the Mac or PC that contains the data you wish to transfer, must be on the same local network. The Migration Assistant only scans the local network, and won’t look beyond it for hosts to use as the source of the transfer.

The network connection method is probably the easiest to use, especially when you consider that your new Mac can automatically discover the network and make the appropriate connections needed. The only tip here is if your network requires a password, as most Wi-Fi networks do, be sure to have it handy when you first turn your new Mac on.

Thunderbolt and FireWire: The Mac has long supported a special means of connecting two Macs together, known as Target Disk Mode. When a Mac is booted up in Target Disk Mode (hold down the T key when you start your Mac), the OS isn’t loaded; instead, the Mac makes its startup drive available to the connected computer just as if it were an external drive.

Originally, Target Disk Mode made use of the FireWire ports that were common on older Macs. While FireWire is still supported, Thunderbolt, which offers a much faster connection, is a better choice for newer Macs.

In order for Target Disk Mode to operate, both computers need a set of FireWire ports or a set of Thunderbolt ports. It’s possible to use an adapter to connect a Mac with Thunderbolt ports to a Mac with FireWire ports, although for the cost of the adapter and the drop in connection speed, you’re probably better off just using the network method.

Time Machine: You can use your Time Machine backup as the source for copying data with the Migration Assistant. All that’s needed is the ability to connect the Time Machine drive to the new Mac. If your Time Machine drive is located in an external drive, this should be a simple process. You can also use a Time Capsule connected via the network.

External Drive: We already mentioned that the Migration Assistant can use a Time Machine backup drive when it’s connected to the new Mac, but it can also use any startup drive that’s connected to the new Mac.

This is especially handy for anyone who bought a new Mac because their old one had failed in some way; perhaps unable to boot. As long as the startup drive is in good shape, you could move the drive to an external enclosure and migrate the data from there.

If you need an empty external enclosure, you’ll find a wide selection of OWC External Enclosures available.

Preparing Your Old Mac
There are a few preliminary tasks to perform that will make using Migration Assistant easier and quicker. Start by making sure the Mac OS installed on the old Mac is up to date. You don’ t need to jump to an entirely new version of the Mac OS, but if you’re using OS X Mavericks, for example, make sure you’ve updated to the last version of Mavericks. You can update using the Mac App Store or download updates directly from the Apple support site.

If your old Mac is running a version of Mac OS that predates OS X Snow Leopard, you’ll need to first upgrade to Snow Leopard. You can purchase a DVD with OS X Snow Leopard from the Apple website.

If you use any third-party apps, check the developer’s web site and make sure the app is current, and that it’s compatible with the version of the Mac OS installed on your new Mac.

You may want to consider slimming down the data on the old Mac. Migration Assistant will move the bulk of the data over to your new Mac, but if you have an old app or three you no longer use, or that won’t be supported on your new Mac, you may want to consider removing them so as to speed up the data transfer.

Get Ready, Get Set, Go…
The Migration Assistant can take a while, so if a MacBook is involved in the data transfer, make sure it’s powered from a wall outlet and not the battery. No need to drain your Mac’s battery and force it into sleep during the data transfer.

The Migration Assistant is automatically available as an option when you first start up your new Mac. But don’t worry if you’ve already whizzed past the migration option. That’s the tack I usually take, because I want to make sure the new Mac is set up and working before I move my old data over. It also gives me the chance to create a pristine backup of the new Mac, so I can always return to the fresh-out-of-the-box state, should I need to.

The rest of this guide is going to assume you’re manually starting up the Migration Assistant, but if you’re picking this up from the Setup Assistant’s offer to run the Migration Assistant, you really won’t notice much difference.

(The Migration Assistant can transfer data from a number of sources including your old Mac, a Time Machine backup, an external drive, and even a Windows PC.)

Start by launching the Migration Assistant on your new Mac, located at /Applications/Utilities/.

The Migration Assistant will warn you that it needs to be the sole app running, and that it will quit all other apps on your Mac. Save any open documents, and then click the Continue button when ready.

Supply your administrator password at the prompt, and then click OK.

The Migration Assistant will ask how you wish to transfer your information. Your choices are:

  • From a Mac, Time Machine backup, or startup disk
  • From a Windows PC
  • To another Mac

In this guide, we’re going to assume you’re transferring from your old Mac, so choose the first option. If you’re using Target Disk Mode, make sure you’ve booted the old Mac while holding down the T key. If you’re using Time Machine or an external drive, make sure they’re powered on and connected to your Mac. When ready, click Continue.

The Migration Assistant will start searching for other devices that it can transfer data from. While it’s busy searching, let’s jump over to your old Mac.

Migration Assistant On an Old Mac
Launch the Migration Assistant on your old Mac. You’ll find it at /Applications/Utilities/.

Run through the same steps as above, until you get to the transfer choices.

Select To Another Mac, and then click Continue.

Return to your new Mac.

(Your Mac will display all the available sources that it’s capable of transferring information from.)

Migration Assistant On a New Mac
After a minute or so, your old Mac should appear as a choice for the source of migrating data. Select the old Mac from the list (more than likely, your old Mac will be the only item listed), and then click Continue.

The Migration Assistant will display a verification code. Go to the older Mac and make sure the same verification code is displayed. If so, click the Continue button on the old Mac.

If it’s not displayed, go back and make sure you selected the correct Mac to transfer information from.

At this point, the two Macs will start the preliminary transfer operation. The old Mac will send a list of users and the type of data they have stored on the old Mac.

On the new Mac, you should see the Migration Assistant displaying a number of items that can be transferred. They should include:

  • Applications
  • Each user account
  • Other files and folders
  • Computer and Network settings

You can place a checkmark next to the items you wish to have transferred. Some items have a disclosure triangle that allows you to select from subcategories of items to transfer. For instance, if you look in the user folder items, you’ll find that you can transfer the trash from your old Mac, something I choose not to do.

(You can use the disclosure triangles to refine your selection of information to transfer.)

About Conflicts
You may notice a yellow warning flag saying that some conflicts were detected. This usually occurs when one or more user accounts on the old Mac have the same name as a user account on the new Mac.

In older versions of Migration Assistant, you need to halt the process and correct the problem by renaming or deleting user accounts on the Macs.

Thankfully, the newer version of Migration Assistant can fix this issue for you. Go ahead and make your selections about which data will be copied over, then click the Continue button.

If there are any conflicts, a sheet will drop down, displaying ways to eliminate the conflicts. The solutions are either to delete the existing user account on the new Mac and replace it with the old one, or to keep both and give the old user account a new name. Make your choice and click Continue.

(Transfer times are usually quite long, though it depends on both the amount of data and the speed of the connection. This may be a good time for a lunch break.)

Finish Up the Transfer
The transfer will start. Be aware the Migration Assistant can take a long time, depending on the connection method and the size of the data that’s being transferred.

When the Migration Assistant has completed the transfer, your Mac will log off all users and present the normal login screen.


  • My problem when I did this last year is that the User files from the OLD Mac were copied into a new User folder. I guess this is a safeguard, but I wanted all (or almost all) of those files in the new primary User account on the NEW Mac. But I found that when I copied those files to the new User account, I did not have the privileges that I needed. So I had to change the privileges by entering my new user password to authorize the changes. That is VERY time consuming. I have a lot of files. Maybe there is a faster way, but I couldn’t find it.

  • The process is still NOT clear. When you use the word Mac, it should be OLD Mac or NEW Mac throughout the article. This is somewhat helpful, but should answer the question of whether the apps (free & paid for) will transfer too, e.g., Microsoft Word, Photoshop, etc. This will probably take forever via WiFi :)

    • again I STRONGLY encourage anyone with more than just a few applications to NOT transfer their applications with migration assistant… you can wreak havoc with your new operating system by transfering some applications without a proper clean install… and yeah it’s MUCH faster to transfer your data by putting the OLD mac in Disk Target Mode and transfering that way… OR attaching a time machine backup directly to your new mac… but if you DO insist on transfering yor aplications, yes they will generaly transfer but you may have to enter your serial number or authorize them again on the new machine…

  • This article is about a month late for me. I recently purchased a refurbished iMac from OWC and used Migration Assistant to move everything from my Mac Mini.

    The only issue I had with Migration Assistant, was that I had to update the macOS on the iMac. Migration Assistant finally worked after the update.

    I had to reauthorize/login most programs, but I figured on that. The only one that gave me any issues was Norton Security. The problem was that it identified the computer as being my Mac Mini, not my iMac (I had different names for each computer). I had to uninstall, then reinstall later in the day. Other than that, most programs played nice.

    I had never used Migration Assistant before, but it was nice to be able to move everything from one Mac to another.

  • Could use a tutorial starting from when the new mac is powered up & it begins by demanding all sorts of personal data & connecting to the App Store etc — and how to NOT personalize the machine or create a “footprint” in Apple’s corporate presence.

    Also how to start the new mac and partition its drive before Migrating.

  • When migrating, some 3rd party software will require re-authorization by entering the original activation code or whatever it uses. For me that included Microsoft Office and Parallels Desktop among others. It’s a good idea to have those handy before you start.

  • What you didn’t mention was that each Mac must be connected to separate monitors?
    Otherwise how would one go back and forth between each mac and view the options , instructions, choices and verification codes?

    • actually when you’re doing a migration, you’re putting the old mac in target disk mode so you are really only reading the hard drive of the old computer.. so the options, etc are really only on your new computer… HOWEVER, if you take my advice and re-install your applications on the new system, you’re right. It is almost mandatory that you have your old mac up and running and visible…. because you’ll need to enter serial numbers and configure things the way you had them before… most of your serial numbers, etc can be found in the ABOUT window when the program is open on your old mac… or you can use one of the serial number tracking apps to get them all in one place (I use Mac Product Key Finder)

  • Migration assistant is awesome BUT you can run into all kinds of issues that may cause you problems down the line if you migrate applications… for the cleanest and most likely problem free system on your new computer, consider actually doing the work of re-installing your applications… take it from someone who spent days later down the line trying to correct this problem after having a system that froze, wouldn’t shut down correctly and acted just plain weird… spend the time when you first migrate!