Use advanced search in Apple Mail to find emails you want

Have you ever been unable to find an email in the Apple Mail app? You know you received an email, but you just can’t find it. Here’s how to improve Mail searches and find emails you need.

Sometimes you can remember receiving an email a while back and you need to read it again or refer to its contents, but scanning through the inbox does not reveal it. You try searching, but can you remember the sender’s name? You try a few keyword searches, but they don’t find the email you are looking for, or they produce so many results that you still can’t find the email.

What you need is a more powerful search function that is better at finding the emails you want. Search in Apple Mail is actually quite powerful and you don’t need a better search, you just need to learn a few tricks to improve your searches. Let’s take a look at searching in Apple Mail on the Mac.

Exclude the Bin and Junk from Mail searches

Mail can search everywhere and this includes the Bin and Junk mail folders. Sometimes this is useful and an email you need may have been mistaken for junk or maybe you accidentally deleted it. However, including the Bin and Junk is not always desirable and it means that search results are full of emails you don’t want.

Apple Mail settings showing search options.
Choose whether to search the Bin and Junk
  1. Go to the Mail menu.
  2. Click Settings.
  3. Select the General tab.
  4. Clear the checkboxes next to Bin and Junk at the bottom.

Of course, if you think you might have accidentally deleted an email and want to search for it, tick the Bin checkbox. It is up to you.

Search Mail using AND, OR and NOT

Type a single word into the Mail search box and all emails containing that word are listed. Add another word and Mail finds emails containing both words. They can be in any order and searching for birthday party and party birthday produces the same results. If the order is important, use quotes like “birthday party”, which returns emails with the exact match “birthday party”, but not “Have a party on your birthday.”

Search Apple Mail for messages.
Use AND, OR and NOT in Apple Mail searches.
  • AND: Search for birthday AND party and only emails containing both words are displayed. Actually, AND is not needed because it is assumed. Search for something, like event and if you do not see the result you want, add another word before or after it like weekend event. AND is assumed so both words must be present. Continue to add more words to narrow the search results until you get what you want.
  • OR: Insert OR between words in the search box to find emails containing one word or the other, or both. Search for birthday OR party and emails containing either word or both are displayed.
  • NOT: Sometimes this works and other times it does not. My search for birthday NOT party, did not return emails containing birthday, but not party. However, a search for event NOT weekend correvtly produced results containing emails about events, but not events at the weekend. Try using NOT, it may or may not work.

Use a Smart Mailbox

The search function in Apple Mail is convenient and you just have to click the magnifying glass icon and enter a word or two to search for. However, it is not as powerful as a Smart Mailbox.

A Smart Mailbox is like a saved search and it is best used for searches you often repeat. A one-off search that you will never repeat can be used if you can’t find an email using the regular search, but it is best to use Smart Mailboxes for searches you know you will need again.

Include or exclude mailboxes in searches

One practical use for Smart Mailboxes is to search only certain mailboxes or certain email accounts. A search in Mail’s toolbar searches all mailboxes in all accounts and it can return so many results you cannot find the email you are looking for. A Smart Mailbox can search one email account or mailbox, like a specific inbox. Let’s look at an example.

Click New Smart Mailbox on the Mailbox menu in Apple Mail. A small window appears and it contains a single rule with From and Contains.

Click From and on the menu are two useful items: Message is in mailbox and Message is not in mailbox. Choose Message is in mailbox to limit a search to just one mailbox.

Creating a Smart Mailbox in Apple Mail
Limit a Smart Mailbox to a single mailbox or account in Apple Mail

Rules enable you to search only emails that are in a certain location like the inbox of a specific mail account. For example, I can limit a search to only the Inbox of, or I can search only emails from and so on.

Mailboxes can also be excluded from searches, so you can search everywhere except a specific mailbox. The Smart Mailbox has checkboxes to exclude the Bin and Sent mailboxes. We saw earlier how to exclude the Junk folder too.

By selecting Message is not in Mailbox, you can exclude any mailboxes you don’t want to search. Any number of mailboxes can be included or excluded in the search by adding rules. Click the plus button on the right and create another rule that either includes or excludes another mailbox.

Create rules to define a Smart Mailbox in Apple Mail.
Use multiple rules in an Apple Mail Smart Mailbox

Near the top of the Smart Mailbox window is an option to use any or all, which work like AND and OR. You could create a rule that searches for an email in one email inbox or another. Just add rules and make the results apply to all rules or any of them.

When you are happy with the search criteria, click OK and the Smart Mailbox is added to the sidebar in the Mail app. Click it to see the results of the search.

Smart Mailboxes make it easier to narrow down searches to show only the emails you want and to avoid too many results. Smart Mailboxes are saved, so you can use them again.

Ctrl+click a Smart Mailbox in the side bar for a menu with options to edit it or delete it. It can be useful to set up a Smart Mailbox to include or exclude mailboxes and then just change the search term to make it search for what you want, like a keyword or sender.

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