If macOS’s Migration Assistant fails, here are other ways to move accounts

This past Christmas, my kids received new Mac laptops. We managed to keep their previous computers working for seven years, but these new Macs will see my kids through to college and maybe beyond. New Macs meant that we had to move all their files from the older computers to the new ones.

The old machines both had macOS High Sierra installed, and the new ones have the current macOS, Mojave. Following Apple’s instructions, I started migration on both older systems to both newer ones. (It made for a lot of smiles and laughs as family members passed through the room with four Macs all chugging away at once.)

Both computers gave errors at the end of multi-hour migrations, though one pair of computers appeared to have fully transferred data. The other pair did not; it seemed to have transferred apps and system preferences, but left out the main user. This may have been due to that user having parental controls set, though Migration Assistant doesn’t warn of that being a problem, nor is there a mention in any support notes from Apple.

In my experience with Migration Assistant over the years, this kind of inexplicable problem has become ever rarer. I tried three different methods to shift that user directory over, and only the third (and very technical one) worked.

Delete and archive the account

The most obvious way to move the account was to use the Users & Groups preference pane’s option to remove an account, but archive its contents. First ensure you have a backup of the older computer. Then follow these steps on that computer. (Note that for later migration methods, you’ll return to use some of these steps, too.)

mac911 delete account archiveIDG

You can turn a user’s directory into a disk image by choosing to delete the user.

  1. Open the Users & Groups preference pane.
  2. Click the log and enter details for an administrative user.
  3. Select the account in the user list.
  4. Click the – (minus) sign.
  5. Make sure the first option is selected, Save the Home Folder in a Disk Image. Then click Delete User.
  6. This should prompt you to save the user’s directory, and then macOS will copy it to that disk image.
  7. Copy the disk image file via the network or an external drive to the newer Mac.
  8. Mount the disk image by double clicking it.
  9. Create a new folder in the Users directory with the name you want to use for the new account.
  10. Copy the entire contents of the disk image into that new directory. (You may have to authenticate copying in both steps 9 and 10.)
  11. When complete, eject the disk image.
  12. In Users & Groups, click + (plus) to create a new account. Make sure the Account Name is different from the folder you created in Users in step 9, as the Account Name is used to create the name of the folder in the Users directory.
  13. As described in this recent article, you “repoint” the home directory to the directory you just copied. (In brief, Control-click the new user name, click Choose to the right of Home Directory, and select that new directory. Click OK.)
  14. Now you need to fix permissions. In the Finder, select the new user’s folder in the Users directory and choose File > Get Info.
  15. Under Sharing & Permissions, click the lock icon and enter an administrative account’s password.
  16. Click the + sign and pick the just-created user that should become the owner of this directory and then click Select.
  17. Set that user to Read & Write under the Privilege column.
  18. Now select the gear icon and choose “Make account name the Owner.”
  19. Finally, select the gear icon and choose Apply to Enclosed Items and click OK. This may take a moment or several minutes.

Now you’re complete. I’d make sure fast-user switching was enabled (in Users & Groups > Login Options), and then attempt to log into the user you just changed the directory for. If you can’t log in, you may need to take one of the steps below.

For me, this option failed after step 6, with macOS refusing to delete and archive the account. I moved on to try to the next option.

Use Disk Utility to archive the user folder as a disk image

Disk Utility can create a disk image from a folder, and this seemed like the logical next step.