Transfer User Preferences and 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 just transfer user preferences to your new Mac, 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 want to transfer user preferences and data to a new macOS install, this should get you there. You just have to know which files you need and where to find them.

User preferences, if your curious, include all the different options you’ve used to configure your system, like Dock preferences, keyboard shortcuts, desktop backgrounds and more. You might use these procedure to “clone” an existing user to a new account on the same physical Mac, or you could transfer the user preferences to a brand new Mac install. Your choice.

Setting Up Your New Mac

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. Some macOS options and third-party applications reference your short name, and if it’s not the same, those references will be ineffective or buggy.

If you’re not sure what your short name, look at the name of your home folder. That will be the same as your account name.transfer user preferences short name

Before your transfer user preferences, make sure that the account name for your new account is exactly the same as your existing account.

Prepare Your Transfer Media

We’ll need an external storage medium to transfer user preferences and data to our new Mac. The easiest way to handle this process is over a USB flash drive, but an external hard drive will work just as well. You could even use network storage, but transferring 20 GB over Wi-Fi isn’t much fun. Make sure your drive is formatted as HFS+ and large enough to contain all the files you plan to copy over.

As we copy files, we should try to recreate the file path for those files. This will make it easier to place the files in the same location when we transfer them to our new user account, and avoid misplacing (and losing) preference files.

transfer user preferences same 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.

Transfer the Home Foldertransfer user preferences transfer home folder

Most users store their files in their home directory, so copying it to your new Mac is a no-brainer first step.

1. Create a user folder on your transfer media (/Users/alexander in this example).

2. Copy everything in the user’s home folder except the Library folder to your transfer media. You can copy the files by dragging and dropping, just as you would with a normal directory.

Transfer User Preferences

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, and that’s the directory most macOS system applications use.

1. Click Go to folder… in Finder’s Go menu.

transfer user preferences go to folder

2. Type in ~/Library/Preferences to navigate to the correct folder. We’re using the tilde here to represent the home directory (/Users/alexander in this example).

transfer user preferences go to folder 2

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

4. We need to copy these PLIST files to our transfer media. There are two paths we can take here:

Copy over every file. You’re guaranteed not to miss anything, but you’ll probably grab a lot of stuff that you don’t need, like PLISTs for applications you’re not transferring to the new user account. These files shouldn’t hurt anything, but the do clutter up your system unnecessarily.

OR

Copy everything that starts with com.apple. These are the preferences that relate solely to macOS system programs, like the Dock and Finder. This also includes the preferences for other Apple software products like Final Cut Pro and GarageBand. This is my preferred method, and it grabs the most relevant stuff.

Whichever route you choose, copy your selected files into the /Users/[username]/Library/Preferences directory on your transfer media (/Users/alexander/Library/Preferences in this example).

Transfer Applications (optional)

Copying applications is tricky, and I don’t typically recommend it. Some applications install in a pell-mell fashion, scattering files all around your system that are impossible to find. Worse still, applications will sometimes complete disregard copied preference files. It’s really best to just do a fresh install of your applications.

If you must copy an application manually, you should try to copy the application itself as well as any associated files. We can re-purpose AppCleaner to help us find files associated with a given application.

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.

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

2. AppCleaner will produce a list of files associated with that application. To reveal a file’s location in Finder, click the magnifying glass button.

3. Copy the appropriate files onto your transfer media, taking care to copy the files to the right directories. Also make sure to copy the actual application from the /Applications/ directory

It can be challenging to identify files you need and files you don’t need. Some files, like logs, crash reports, or anything stored in /var/, won’t be necessary for your new account. All these components will get rebuilt on the new system as needed. The files in ~Library/Application Support/ normally aren’t necessary either.

Pro tip: don’t try to copy professional-grade applications or applications with complex DRM (I’m looking at you, Adobe CC). 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. Fortunately, most professional applications allow you to copy user preferences like keyboard shortcuts and workspaces individually. Grab those, but don’t try to copy the whole application.

Finishing Up

Once you have your transfer media loaded up, copy everything onto your new system and reboot to transfer user preferences. If you’ve made your directory structure properly, you can just copy the root directories from your transfer media to your new Mac, and all the files will fall into their correct locations.


Alexander Fox

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