How to migrate to a new Windows PC


Old PC, new PC. It’s great to get a new computer, but it’s not so great to realize that all your stuff is on the old one.

There are several ways to transfer your old computer’s data to your new PC. They fall into two main camps: transferring via cloud storage and transferring locally.

Tip: Before transferring all your data to your new PC, consider going through all your files, folders, and emails and weeding out the cruft. There’s a good chance you’ve got some ancient files and emails you no longer need. Is it really that important to keep all the 10-year-old presentations you created for a company you worked for two jobs back? Cleaning out your old data will make transferring your data to a new PC go more quickly, and in the future you won’t have to sift through old clutter to find the files you need.

Transfer files via cloud storage

The best and easiest way to transfer files is to use a cloud storage service as the waystation. Cloud storage works whether you are moving from a Windows 10 PC to a Windows 11 one, or from one Windows 11 PC to another. It even works if you are moving from a Macintosh to a Windows PC. Our article “The best way to transfer files to a new Windows PC or Mac” explains the ins and outs of migrating to a new computer via the cloud.

Transfer files locally to a new PC

That said, you may not be able to use the cloud to transfer your files — for instance, if the data-usage costs would be too high or you are not connected to the internet, or if your IT department won’t let you install the cloud account on both the old and new PCs.

And you might want to transfer more than just files from your old computer to your new one. This story includes methods for migrating files and apps, as well as browser bookmarks; one method can transfer some system settings as well.

Happily, most methods of transferring files locally from an old computer to a new Windows PC work whether you’re moving from a Windows PC to a Windows PC or from a Mac to a Windows PC.

Direct file transfer via an external drive

You can connect an external hard drive, SD card, or thumb drive to your old PC, copy your files to it, then eject that device from the old computer, plug it into the new PC and copy the files to that new PC. The trick here (besides having enough storage capacity on your transfer drive) is to have your files and folders organized well enough so you get them all.

We recommend that you use the same folder organization on your new PC as on your old computer, at least to start. Once your migration is complete, you should consider storing your files on the cloud for easier access, as the article “The best way to transfer files to a new Windows PC or Mac” explains.

Tip: If you are transferring files from a Mac to a PC, the external hard drive must be formatted as MS-DOS, not NTFS or APFS. SD cards and thumb drives use the same FAT32 format on both macOS and Windows, so if your files fit on those storage devices, that’s often easier than using a hard drive.

Note: Digitally rights-managed files like purchased music usually won’t work once copied. The best way to transfer these is to re-download them from the service where you bought them. Such re-downloads are typically free.

As for email, if you use a cloud-based mail services such as Gmail or the cloud-based version of Outlook, you don’t need to transfer any mail files. However, if you use client-based email software (like the client version of Outlook), you’ve got some work ahead of you.

Direct file transfer will not move your locally stored email files to the new PC. Windows stores these files in fairly arcane places, and copying them to a new PC often doesn’t work because of how they are tied to the email application’s OS settings. We recommend you make sure all your emails are stored in your email server so they can just sync to the email client on your new PC. The Microsoft Outlook client supports several servers, not just Microsoft’s Exchange and Microsoft 365 typically used in business.

Note: IT retention policies may limit how far back emails are stored on the server, so you may have local emails you can’t transfer that way. In that case, Microsoft Outlook does let you import the local PST files to a Windows PC from the Outlook app on another Windows PC or Mac; Microsoft has provided export instructions and separate import instructions.

Different client versions of Outlook have different maximum size limits for .PST files that can be transferred from one computer to another. So if you’re planning move .PST files, read this Microsoft article to find out those limits and get advice on ways you might be able to reduce the size of .PST files before trying to transfer them.

Local contacts and calendar entries likewise are very difficult to directly transfer from one computer to another, and it is best to make sure they are stored on a server, such as Exchange, Microsoft 365, Google Workspace/Gmail/Google Calendar, or iCloud, so they will sync to your contacts and calendar apps on your new PC. Your contacts and calendar apps may have an export feature that you can try. (You can often export individual contacts as a VCF file, for example.) These days, few contacts and calendar apps are not server-based, so chances are very high your contacts and calendar entries are stored somewhere they can be synced from into Outlook.

Transfer via a File History backup

Windows 10 and 11 have a built-in backup utility that lets you restore a PC’s folder and files — but not settings or applications. You can use the Windows backup feature to restore files from an old PC to a new one. Windows calls this facility File History.

To use File History in Windows 10 or 11, type file history into the Windows search bar and click File History. That launches File History in Control Panel. You’ll see any external drives attached to your PC. Select the drive you want to use and click Turn on. Your files will be copied to the drive.

Using File History from Control Panel in Windows 11.


To exclude folders from the backup, select Exclude folders, click Add, and choose the folders you want to exclude.

To copy the backed up files to your new PC, plug the drive into it, repeat the above steps, and click Restore personal files.

For more detailed instructions, see “How to use File History in Windows 10 and 11.”

Transfer with a USB data-transfer cable

One of the simplest ways to move files from your old PC to a new one is to use a USB data-transfer cable. You can’t use just any USB cable; it needs to be one specially designed to transfer data. When you plug the cables in, they often automatically install the drivers they need. They also come with file-transfer software that tends to be bare-bones but does the trick.

You can easily find the cables online. If you’re transferring files between two PCs that have USB-C ports, check out this PCWorld article with recommendations for the best ones.

Transfer locally over Wi-Fi or LAN

If you’d like, you can ditch cables completely, and move your files from your old PC to your new PC via Wi-Fi or a LAN. To do it, the PC with your files and the PC to which you want to transfer them need to be on the same Wi-Fi or Ethernet network.

To do it, you need to turn on network discovery and file sharing on both the PCs. In Windows 11, select Settings > Network & Internet > Advanced network settings > Advanced sharing settings, and turn on the toggles for Network Discovery and File and printer sharing.

In Windows 10, select Settings > Network & Internet > Network and Sharing Center. That will launch the Control Panel. In Control Panel, select Change advanced sharing settings from the right side of the screen, and from the screen that appears, in the Network Discovery section, select Turn on network discovery, and in the File and Printer sharing section, select Turn on file and printer sharing.

You can now drag and drop files and folders from your old PC to your new one using Windows Explorer. Click Network in File Explorer, find the new PC to which you want to transfer files and folders, and copy them to it.

Note that transferring files this way can be flaky — you may have problems with your PCs showing up on the network. Setting it up takes only a few minutes, though, and if it doesn’t work you can always use another method in this story to transfer the files. (For troubleshooting help, you may want to use the advice in PCWorld’s article “Windows 11: How to set up a local network.”)

Transfer via file-transfer software

If you want more hand-holding in your file transfer, you can buy and use a utility like Laplink’s $60 PCmover Professional, which has been around for decades. It works over your network (either Wi-Fi or Ethernet) or via Laplink’s Ethernet or USB cables (these cost extra). It lets you choose which files and folders to transfer, and will transfer your settings, bookmarks, and applications too. You can migrate from old Windows versions to later Windows versions, as well as between the same versions. (One exception: you cannot migrate from Windows XP to Windows XP.)

Note: You need administrator privileges in Windows to use all of PCmover’s capabilities.

Before you transfer any applications via a utility like PCmover, sign out of or deactivate any apps on your old computer. Most software these days is tied to an online account that limits the number of active installations or has digital rights management to prevent piracy via copying. You don’t want the transfer to be seen as a piracy attempt or as an additional installation that counts against any limit you may have.

Another option is EhlerTech’s USMTGUI, a graphical front end to Microsoft’s command-line User State Migration Tool, which works with Windows 7 through 10. The Pro version adds support for migrating from (but not to) Windows XP and Vista. USMTGUI (like USMT) transfers only settings and associated data like emails, not applications. The home version pricing starts at $10, and the corporate license pricing starts at $200.

Transfer and set up apps on your new PC

Regardless of the transfer method you use, you almost certainly will have apps to reinstall, depending on what IT did for you in preparing your new computer. (PCmover Professional will transfer most apps; its documentation describes its limitations.)

On your new PC, re-download the apps you need and sign in as required. You’ll find some apps on the Microsoft Store in Windows 10 or 11, while others you’ll need to download from the software vendor’s website. If you’re moving from macOS to Windows, some apps won’t be available for installation in Windows, but most macOS business apps come in both versions and most software manufacturers (but not all!) let you use the same license on either platform.

In most cases, you’ll need to set up your applications’ preferences on the new computer, so set aside the time to do that.

Transfer browser bookmarks to your new PC

You also will want to transfer your bookmarks from your old computer’s browser to your new computer’s browser. There are three methods: direct syncing between the same browser, syncing between macOS’s Safari and certain Windows browsers, and exporting a browser’s bookmark files to import into a different browser. The first two methods keep the browsers in sync, whereas the third method is a manual approach for when you are moving to a new computer (or browser) and won’t use the old computer (or browser) anymore.

Chrome, Firefox, and Edge all sync bookmarks across all your devices if they are all signed into the same account. Just enable syncing in each browser on each device you use. To be clear, you can sync only to the same browser, such as from Chrome to Chrome.

Apple’s Safari is not available for Windows (or Android), but you can sync between Apple’s Safari and a supported Windows browser (Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer) if iCloud is installed in Windows and signed in to the same account as the Mac or iOS device running Safari. Note: iCloud syncing is not available for education users with managed Apple IDs.

For situations where your browser is not signed into the same account as your old computer, the major browsers all have a facility to export and import bookmarks via files:

  • Google Chrome: To export bookmarks, click the vertical three-dot icon at the top right of your browser window, then select Bookmarks and lists > Bookmark Manager from the menu that appears. Click the three-dot icon to the right of the search bar and select Export bookmarks. To import bookmarks, follow the same procedure but choose Import bookmarks instead of Export Bookmarks.
  • Mozilla Firefox: To export bookmarks, click the Menu button (three horizontal lines) on the top right of the screen, then select Bookmarks and click Manage bookmarks at the bottom of the screen. Select Import and Backup from the top of the screen that appears and choose Export Bookmarks to HTML. To import bookmarks, follow the same procedure but choose Import Bookmarks from HTML instead of Export Bookmarks to HTML.
  • Apple Safari: To export bookmarks from this macOS browser for import into a Windows browser, choose the File menu > Bookmarks > Export.
  • Microsoft Edge (Chromium version): In both Windows and macOS, click the Favorites button (the star icon), then choose Manage favorites to open the Favorites window, select the desired bookmarks folder to export, click the horizontal three-dot icon at the top right of the browser window, and choose Export favorites. To import bookmarks, follow the same procedure but choose Import favorites instead of Export favorites.
  • Microsoft Edge (legacy version): To export bookmarks from this discontinued browser that was  pre-installed in Windows 10 versions prior to 20H2, click the three-dot icon to open the General window, click Import or Export to open the Import export window, scroll down until you see Export your favorites and reading list to an HTML file, select Favorites to export your bookmarks, then click Export to file. To import bookmarks, follow the same procedure but click Import from file instead of Export to file.
  • Internet Explorer: To export bookmarks from this discontinued Windows browser, click the Favorites button (star icon), choose Import and Export from its menu, select the Export to a file option, click Next >, select Favorites to export bookmarks (and optionally Feed and Cookies to export them), click Next >, choose the bookmarks folder to export, click Next >, set the export location, and click Export. To import bookmarks, follow the same procedure but select the Import from a file.

What to do after transferring your files and apps to the new PC

When everything is transferred, be sure to take these steps to protect your data:

  • Sign out of all your accounts on the old computer. This includes Microsoft, Google, iCloud, iTunes, browser sync, shopping, cloud storage accounts, and others. You don’t want to exceed any maximums on computers that can be signed in, and you don’t want the next owner to be able to use your accounts, especially any that may connect to credit and debit cards.
  • Consider wiping/reformatting the old computer, but check with IT first, in case they need to keep it as is for some period of time for regulatory or HR policy reasons.
  • Back up your new PC. Don’t forget to establish a regular backup routine on your new Windows computer, whether it’s through File History, image backup software, or the new Windows Backup facility in Windows 11.

When everything is transferred, be sure to sign out of all your accounts, such as Microsoft, Google, iCloud, iTunes, browser sync, shopping, and cloud storage accounts, on the old computer. You don’t want to exceed any maximums on computers that can be signed in, and you don’t want the next owner to be able to use your accounts, especially any that may connect to credit and debit cards. You might even consider wiping/reformatting the old computer, but check with IT first, in case they need to keep it as is for some period of time for regulatory or HR policy reasons.

This article was originally published in November 2020 and updated in May 2024.

Further reading:

Previous Story

Goodbye, Gemini: A sanity-saving Google Search switch

Next Story

Windows Recall — a ‘privacy nightmare’?