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How Do I Move My Address Book From One Provider to Another?

You’d think, after all this time, it would be easier.

Taking your contacts with you when moving from one platform to another is a clumsy process.
A person frustrated at a computer, with clear icons of multiple email providers like Gmail and Outlook on the screen. A CSV file icon is shown transferring between two email icons. .
(Image: DALL-E 3)
Question: Our current email address contact list is over 200 names. We want to change to another email provider. Is there any easy way to transfer the contact list from one account to another?

I can only say “maybe”, and I’m a little concerned about the word easy.

I’ve often considered contact portability to be one of computing’s deep, dark, and honestly embarrassing secrets. It should be easy to move those contacts from one service to another, right?

It’s not.

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TL;DR:

Transferring contacts

Transferring contacts can be frustrating. It typically involves exporting the contacts as a CSV file from the current provider and then importing that CSV file into the new provider. The process can cause some data loss because not all email services agree on what a contact should include. It’s not straightforward, but you can manage it if you’re careful.

Export + Import + Possible Data Loss

Realistically, the only way to move contacts from one account to another is to export your contacts from one account to a file on your computer and then import that file to the contacts of the other account.

Sometimes you just switch from online account access to a desktop email program without changing the actual account involved. You’re simply choosing a different way to access your contacts.

Either way, it’s not pretty.

Exporting contacts

Here’s how to export contacts from Outlook.com.

Export contacts option in Outlook.com.
Export contacts option in Outlook.com. Click for larger image. (Image: askleo.com)

To export Gmail contacts, go to contacts.google.com.

Exporting Google Contacts.
Exporting Google Contacts. Click for larger image. (Image: askleo.com)

Of course, if you’re not using one of those two online services, the location will be different. (In rare cases, it doesn’t even exist, in which case there is no way to export your contacts.)

The only “trick” to exporting is this: when given a choice, choose to export your contacts to a CSV file. If given a choice to customize that CSV for a specific destination (like Google’s export to “Google CSV” to be imported into a different Google account), choose that.

Importing contacts

The next step is to import the contacts you’ve just exported into the account you’re switching to.

In Outlook.com:

Outlook.com contact import
Outlook.com contact import. (Image: askleo.com)

And in Google Contacts:

Google Contacts import.
Click for larger image. (Image: askleo.com)

Once again, other interfaces have these options in other locations. Check the documentation for whichever you use.

Possible data loss

This is the ugly part.

One problem with contact lists and address books is that there’s no agreement about what they should contain. Email address, name, phone, address, and so on are obvious and common. But how many email addresses should each entry be allowed to have? How many phone numbers? Should a birthday be included? How about free-form notes? A place of employment? There are many other options.

Some interfaces include some of these and some include others. That’s great while you’re using that interface, but when moving contacts from one interface to another, not all address-book fields may come across.

I’m not aware of a great solution…

…but I do have an icky workaround.

Do this

Export your contacts from your old service or program. If there are multiple formats available, use the one that:

  • Isn’t specific to that service or program, and
  • Contains the most fields of information.

Typically, that means a “.csv” file, but you may need to experiment to see which will work best for you.

Then import it into your new email interface.

Save that .csv file forever. Should you ever need a piece of information that wasn’t imported, you can check to see if the CSV had it. (One other benefit of the .csv format is that it’s easily opened in spreadsheet programs like Excel or Google Sheets.)

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