Thunderbird with Subdirectories under IMAP

NOTE Thunderbird 3 and the current version of imap services at Waterloo do not have these issues any more

uw-imap limitations

Notes This documentation assumes we are
  • Using Thunderbird 1.5 or newer client (see Help Menu -> About) to check version
  • We are using uw-imap (That's University of Washington's IMAP)
  • Limitations of uw-imap:
    • uw-imap can only copy messages from one message folder to another (these so called folders are actually files in the Unix sense)
    • There are two types of "folders"
      • "folders that contain folders" - these are actually Unix directories
      • "folders that contain messages" (we'll call "message folders") - these are actually single Unix files that store all of the messages in them - also called mbox format
    • Messages can only be copied from one "message folder" to another - and NOT to a directory by itself!
    • Note because uw-imap forces you to keep track of which is which, I suggest using ".dir" suffix on "folders that contain folders" (Unix directories) to make navigation easier

Configuring Thunderbird to allow folders within folders under IMAP


  • Open Tools MENU and Open Account Settings
  • Click on Server Settings for your account
  • Pick the Advanced Button to the lower right
  • Turn OFF Server supports folders that contain sub-folders and messages (yes - no kidding!)
Server Advanced Subfolders

Making Folders (True Directories in the Unix sense)

  • Right Click on your IMAP account and pick New Folder
    make newfolder
  • Click on Folders Only and enter a name such as myfolder.dir - Click OK
    * myfolder:
    I strongly suggest using .dir as an extension

Making Message Folders (an object such as a Unix file that stores messages)

  • Right Click on your new folder such as myfolder.dir and Pick New Folder
  • Click on Messages Only and enter a name such as mymessages - Click OK

Making folders within folders True Directories in the Unix sense)

  • Right Click on your new folder (myfolder.dir) and pick New Folder
  • Click on Folders Only and enter a name such as mysubfolder.dir - Click OK
    I strongly suggest using .dir as an extension


  • Here is what the folder view looks like in Thunderbird for the folders and message folders we created

Important Notes about using Folders and Message Folders

  • You CANNOT copy messages to folder (a unix folder) you must make a message folder in the folder first
    (one that ONLY has messages)


Manually Creating Directories on the Mail Server

  • You can manually create directories on the Mail Server with a few "fairly easy" steps.


  • I assume you are using Thunderbird 1.5 and later as a client - previous versions cached directories used on the mail server and might fail to fully see the changes done on the mail server done with manual changes
  • I assume your mail directory on your mail server is under your home directory under Mail (it can me anything)
    • In Thunderbird you verify this by doing the following steps
      • Tools > Account Settings
      • Pick Server Settings under your account on the left
      • Pick the Advanced Button on lower right
      • Check to See where "IMAP server directory" points to - ideally it should say Mail or some non blank directory (otherwise mail will end under in your home directory!)


  • Close Thunderbird so it won't get confused by this next steps
  • Log into the machine hosting your email (ie SSH , xterm, telnet ...)
  • Change to your Mail folder (or the folder determined above)
  • Create directories and sub directories (as many levels deep as you wish) in this folder to hold messages by the categories you want - I strongly suggest using a ".dir" suffix - it will help later to distinguish between "real" Unix folders and your mail files.
  • Add all of these directories names (with full path relative to your home directory) to your .mailbox list file in your home directory
  • Open Thunderbird - you can now drag mail folders into the new Unix folders your created - these have the ".dir" suffix I suggested
    • (ie mail folders = a unix file that has your messages in them - but for reasons unknown to the rest of the world are called folders - sigh*)

-- MikeGore - 14 Feb 2006

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Topic revision: r10 - 2013-02-20 - DrewPilcher
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