If you know what GAFYD stands for and have felt that signing up for a free account years ago was a mistake, you know you are in trouble right now. Those accounts are shutting down. The time has come to either pay up or move out, and you should decide what to do ASAP. It took me weeks of active effort to move my and my family’s data out of GAFYD and put it back into Google consumer accounts and other non-Google services.
This post is essentially a recollection of my lab notes on what I did. The text is long and haphazard due to the many things to cover. I’ll start with a brief explanation of what GAFYD was, what’s happening now, and what’s wrong with it. After that, I’ll sketch what my new setup is and how I succeeded in moving some of the more complex services. Here is the outline:
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What is and what’s up with GAFYD?
GAFYD, or Google Apps for your Domain, is the old name for what’s currently known as
G Suite Google Workspace. In essence, this feature allows your Google account identifier (an email address) to be an address under your own DNS domain. Google has allowed this for a while already without GAFYD, but the key difference is that GAFYD allows your GMail account to be such an email address as well.
When GAFYD launched in 2006, it included a free tier with support for up to 5 users. This was the perfect choice for a family—because you could use addresses like
firstname.lastname@example.org—and, if I recall correctly, was advertised as such. Many people took that path, including myself in 2010 with a domain for my blog and later in 2012 with the
meroh.net domain for the family when my first kid was born.
Unfortunately, GAFYD’s free offering was dropped a bit later in 2012. Since then, Google kept old free accounts intact through the many product renames that GAFYD went through. But like the many products that Google has dropped, I think we all knew that this benefit would disappear. A telltale was that GAFYD accounts looked like consumer accounts when they really weren’t and they had some annoying limitations for personal usage. For example: Google lost me as a potential Google Music paid customer when I couldn’t sign up for a family plan and they showed me the finger again when I tried to set up a Nest.
What we GAFYD free users feared is finally happening. At the beginning of the year, Google announced that it would be updating—a Google-internal euphemism for deprecating—Google Workspace by turning all grandfathered free accounts into paid ones. To be honest, there is not much wrong with that. Google is under no obligation to offer Google Workspace for free to anyone for any reason, and they had given us almost 10 extra years of free service when they could just have shut this off in 2012.
The problem, however, is that these GAFYD family domains have encroached people’s lives. Even if you wanted to “escape” these accounts—as users have tried in the past and as I had been meaning to do for years—there was and still is no easy way out. Yes, you can use Google Takeout to export your data but then… what? There is no way to import the Takeout export into another (consumer) account and some parts of your data—Google Play purchases, for example—are simply lost.
Of course, this is only a “problem” if you don’t want to keep/pay for Google Workspace. If you are happy with this service and its current offering, by all means pay and enjoy. But I, like many others, would be perfectly happy to drop our custom domain and fall back to a consumer account. I don’t want Google Workspace for my family and being forced into it feels like extortion.
When Google announced their intentions in January to terminate the free GAFYD offering, they did not provide any recourse for people to easily move out. It was either pay up or close your account and deal with any losses. If we look at the Upgrade from G Suite legacy free edition FAQ (emphasis mine):
To maintain your services and accounts, review the information below and upgrade by May 1, 2022. Upgrading to a Google Workspace subscription is a seamless transition for all customers currently on the G Suite legacy free edition. Select the Flexible payment plan when you upgrade to a Business edition and use your new subscription at no cost until at least July 1, 2022.
Things have changed slightly since the huge backslash that the original announcement prompted. The FAQ now contains the following as well (emphasis mine here too):
If I don’t want to upgrade to a paid subscription, can I keep or transfer my data?
In the coming months, we’ll provide an option for you to move your non-Google Workspace paid content and most of your data to a no-cost option. This new option won’t include premium features like custom email or multi-account management. You’ll be able to evaluate this option prior to July 1, 2022 and prior to account suspension. We’ll update this article with details in the coming months.
Great; there will be a migration option. But… this feels to come straight from the evil department? First of all: how could Google not anticipate the huge backslash they would cause considering that it was mostly tech enthusiasts who first signed up for GAFYD? How come they didn’t think of an off-boarding plan upfront? Google has gone through dozens of turndowns for years and it’s unbelievable that they haven’t yet learned this lesson. Offering a way out from the get go would have gone a really long way towards making this a non-issue. I’d have simply “downgraded” my account and moved on.
Also note that the dates above don’t line up. You have to take action before May 1st but then have until July 1st to move out? Hmm, how is that going to work? Or: will it work at all? It has been years since
Google employees users have asked for tools to move out of GAFYD so I don’t have a ton of confidence that a functional offering will be built in just a few months.
I am certainly not going to wait and risk it. I wasn’t going to wait in January when I read the first announcement and I am not going to see what happens. You shouldn’t wait either: as mentioned earlier, it took me various weeks of hands-on work to free my and my family’s data. Plus imagine what will happen if you lose access to your primary email account for just a few days… Better take action while you are not in a rush.
Key problem: Online identity
Moving from a
@gmail.com email address to an address under my own domain was a great move when I did it back in 2012. Using a custom email address is what allows one to remain provider-agnostic and, in theory, change providers with ease. But this is only in theory because it works for email only.
The key mistake and most problematic aspect of using GAFYD for a family is that the domain email address is your Google account, not just GMail—and Google offers tons of services. This means that you cannot simply create a consumer GMail account, move your mail, use a forwarding service for your domain address, and call it a day. No: you must transition all of your data and content from the many services behind your GAFYD account to the consumer account.
This is a pain for Google-owned services and can be very problematic with third-party services. If you have used the Sign in with Google feature across the web, your Google account is also your account in all those services. Those services will have shadow accounts in their databases linking you to your Google SSO credentials, and breaking those chains may be impossible. It is really up to these services to let you re-link your account to a different identity, and not all of them do.
Compare this to Microsoft’s O365 personal and family accounts. For these, you start by creating a consumer account and then you can add your domain address as an alias for it. This lets you sign into the O365 services and use them with your domain address, but your domain address is not your account. And if you are a family, you simply pay for a family plan from one of the accounts and then link the other consumer accounts into it. All accounts are still primarily
@outlook.com accounts. This is not the same as using GAFYD for the whole family, but I now believe it’s a better model with fewer chances of lock in.
My plan to move out of GAFYD was “simple”: manually transfer as much data from the GAFYD accounts to some other place and then rely on Google Domains email forwarding feature to keep our domain email addresses working. I could play this card because we barely had any paid content and the kids’ accounts were just a gimmick.
So, what are those “other places”? For certain services like Domains and Voice, I kept Google. I recovered our old consumer accounts and transferred our data into them. For other services like Photos and Drive, I opted to make my FreeBSD-based NAS server the primary copy. And for productivity services like email and calendar, I opted to move to a paid Microsoft O365 family plan.
Wait, so I’m trading GAFYD for O365? And I’m paying for the latter now? How is this different than paying for GAFYD in the first place? Well… many reasons. I get a very generous discount for O365 from work so it’s hard to pass on it. The kids have an Xbox and enjoy the Office apps. As I have already explained, I don’t want the Google Workspace features. And, more importantly, the O365 paid accounts are easy to move out of: they can be downgraded to unpaid accounts and because their
@outlook.com addresses are hidden behind email forwarding, I can reroute email when necessary.
Let’s now see how I could deal with the many services that Google offers.
Note that the scariest part of the whole move out process is that there is a chance to break inbound email. Losing access to receiving email via the domain address could have been a disaster given that this is how all services across the web know me/us and how I get 2FA tokens for many of them, so my plan was organized to ensure this remained true.
Let’s start with Google Domains first because this plays a key role in the transition, especially thanks to its email forwarding features.
I have bought a few domains from Google Domains. I like their offering and prices and have no good reason to move elsewhere. All of these domains, including the one for GAFYD, were owned by the GAFYD administrator account so I had to move them out to my consumer account.
The process was trivial:
Add the consumer identity as an owner of each domain.
Update the payment methods to point to the consumer account.
Remove the GAFYD identity from each domain.
Ta-da! Easy but anxiety-inducing. If you have more than one domain, start with the one that’s less “risky” to you if it stops working.
Moving email has been the hardest and scariest part of this whole ordeal.
The move-out plan looks like this:
Disconnect all “imported accounts” from the GAFYD account, if any. I was using this feature to receive stray email sent to my consumer account from the GAFYD GMail account. Years after abandoning the consumer account, it still received email… which amusingly was almost-exclusively recruiter spam. I suspect my supposedly-unused address is in some old LinkedIn data dump but don’t understand why the domain address never made it into them.
Enable POP3 support in the GAFYD account and configure it to allow fetching all email and to delete downloaded email from the server.
Configure the consumer account to import email from the GAFYD account. This is under the Accounts and Import settings panel and is the feature called Check mail from other accounts.
To speed things up, I took the chance to clean up my email archive. I noticed that my account had thousands upon thousands of messages I did not need in my account. The vast majority were mailing lists messages that are already archived elsewhere and that I simply didn’t need to keep around. Mass-deleting them helped quite a bit.
Optional: Configure the GAFYD GMail account and the consumer account to forward all incoming email to the non-Google address (Outlook.com in my case) and to delete incoming email. No need to do this if you’ll continue to use the consumer account.
Make sure to test that sending emails to yourself (from non-Google accounts if at all possible) via the domain address still works.
Don’t forget that GMail supports plus-addressing. If you have ever used that feature (like I did), double-check that plus-addressed email is properly forwarded to your desired target address. Using plus-addresses has caused me more trouble than benefit over the years though and, out of paranoia, I went and got rid of my plus-addresses from the most critical services (like banks).
After the steps above, the email archive in the GAFYD account will start transferring to your consumer account. This process will take days or weeks depending on how much email you have. And once the data transfer completes, the GAFYD GMail account should not be “operational”. Its archive should be empty and any new email that lands on it will immediately leave and go elsewhere.
But the GAFYD GMail account cannot yet be eliminated because it’s still in the inbound path to receive email: your domain’s
MX records still point to the GAFYD services. We’ll cut those later by using the Google Domains’ email forwarding feature.
For the kids’ accounts, who did not have consumer GMail accounts, I decided to just create Outlook.com accounts instead. To move their limited email archive, I set up the Outlook desktop app with both accounts (their GAFYD account and their Outlook.com account) at once and did a manual move of all of their email. One issue here is that the All Mail folder does not show up under
[Gmail] in Outlook even if you explicitly subscribe to it. The trick to make it show up is to create a folder named
All Mail under
[Gmail] from within Outlook; after that, all email will sync and you’ll be able to move it.
One pending task I have in this area is to set up OfflineIMAP to download a copy of my email archive from GMail and then delete it from Google’s servers.
Transferring contacts between the GAFYD and Google consumer accounts was easy. I went into the GAFYD accounts, generated a CSV export, and then imported those back into the consumer accounts. I do not need the contacts to live in Google because email is moving to O365, so this was primarily for peace of mind.
The problem came when trying to import said CSV dataset into Outlook.com. Mind you, Google offers an option to generate an Outlook-compatible CSV export, but feeding that into Outlook.com simply errors out. I spent quite some time figuring out what might be wrong in the CSV export. I suspected that the various Korean contacts I had might be problematic because of encoding reasons. I tried importing the CSV into Excel (which required adding a BOM to the UTF-8 file upfront), reexporting it, and using that second export in Outlook.com without luck.
Eventually, I tried to “shorten” the export by trimming the CSV file to just a few people that did not have any non-ASCII characters in their data. And… the import still failed! Or did it? After running the import into Outlook.com from the web and seeing an error, I unintentionally hit “Refresh” and… all the contacts were there. Somehow, the UI errors out but the import completes anyway when done in small batches. So that’s what I ended up doing: curating the CSV files with batches of about 50 contacts and importing those one by one. Not… great.
Transferring Drive data has two sides: one that is easy and one that is not.
On the easy side we have all non-Drive native files uploaded into Drive. These files can be trivially downloaded (from the UI or with the desktop Drive client) and then reimported into the consumer account if you so desire. I had hundreds of PDF files in there from document scans and I simply rsync-ed them to my NAS by relying on the Drive desktop virtual file system.
On the difficult side we have the Drive-native documents. These documents’ authoritative format is something proprietary that Google keeps in their internal databases. There is no way for you to download the originals of these documents because, well, you wouldn’t be able to do anything with those originals anyway if you did not use the web apps. Exporting those documents to other formats was an option, but exports are not originals. So I opted to move the documents to the consumer account.
As a first attempt, I just shared all documents with the consumer account. Once they were shared, I went again into the sharing settings and tried to upgrade the permissions of the consumer account to Owner. As you can imagine, this failed: Drive complained that I could not give ownership to people outside the organization. (I’m sure this worked in the past before GAFYD turned into a more business-only feature.) Uh oh.
At this point, what I did was log into the Drive consumer account, right-click on all files shared from the GAFYD account, and then select Make a copy. This is not the same as a document move because permissions and timestamps are lost, but who cares. I did not have enough documents to be worried about this. The other annoying part of this was going over each file and removing the
Copy of prefix that was added to their names. If you use the Drive desktop client, you could use something like PowerRename to do this trivially though.
Google Voice was easy to transfer to my consumer account, but I was tempted to instead move completely out of Voice.
The reason is that Voice has caused me more trouble over the years than benefit: inbound calls seem to drop too soon (to the point where sometimes the phone doesn’t even ring), integration with iPhone is almost non-existent, and some online verification services refuse to deliver to these numbers. But… the ability to receive texts and voicemails while traveling abroad has been very useful in the past, and I’m not sure I want to lose that.
As I decided to remain with Google Voice for now, moving the account was a matter of a couple of clicks on the web UI. Those clicks were routed through old-style dialogs though, which shows that Voice is one of those products at risk of cancellation for lack of upgrades… but anyway.
I took the chance to delete tons of old garbage. It was kinda cool to see text messages I sent years ago, but those were intended to be ephemeral. Keeping them in an online service is something that can backfire so I just wiped everything. More on this later.
As alluded to earlier, GAFYD encompasses more than just email or the services I touched upon above. There were many more I had to deal with, but the processes were easy enough. Here is a summary:
Calendar: This was probably the simplest of all. I generated an ICS export of the Calendar data from the GAFYD account, went into the Outlook.com calendar, imported it and… voila.
YouTube: I did not have any content in YouTube (no videos, no comments) and only a few channel subscriptions so I just proceeded to ignore any takeout operations. Losing the YouTube history was probably a good thing too.
Analytics: I built my own for unrelated reasons. Enough said.
Play: I only had a few digital purchases in my account: some Android apps and a movie (yes, just one). I do not use Android any longer and didn’t care about the rest, so I chose to ignore this. I realize that Play paid content may be a real problem for people that have built extensive digital collections over time and I hope this is where the upcoming tooling to abandon GAFYD will help. Good luck there.
Keep: Google’s data hoarding approach shows up everywhere. I was surprised to find here tons of old notes that I had archived instead of deleted. Those were transient notes that should not have stuck around, but they did for no good reason. I proceeded to delete most of them and, for the few notes that are important/useful in any way, I manually copy/pasted them across accounts given that there was no other option.
Cloud and Firebase: I had created a couple of test apps in these services so I just deleted them.
Photos: This service has been nice at times but it has never hosted my primary, full-resolution copy of my photos. I’ve only used this as a backup for the photos taken with my mobile phone; the originals have also stayed with me in local drives. Off-boarding from this service was easy, as all I had to do was to delete all online copies. I have not re-uploaded them to the consumer account.
Maps: I had a few custom maps and lots of saved places in my account. I could not find of a way to migrate those to my consumer account. I backed everything up using Takeout but it’s probably a worthless backup for a later reimport… a pity, but not a big loss.
Activity history: This includes Location History, Web Activity, YouTube History, and Ad Personalization. Wow. What a trove of personal data. Very cool to see where I have been over the years, physically and virtually… but not something I particulary want Google (or anyone, including myself!) to know. I wiped everything and made sure that my consumer account had all of these data collection options off from now on.
SSO accounts: This might be the biggest problem if you have used the Sign in with Google feature as explained earlier. You’ll have to go into these apps one by one and see if you can reconnect them to other IDs. I had barely used this feature precisely because I did not want a single company to hold the keys to all my online services… but you may not be as lucky if you made a different choice in the past.
After two weeks of active work on all of the above, I got distracted and didn’t come back to this project for almost a month. This was actually a good thing because it let me ensure that I did not need to log back into my GAFYD account for anything. My move-out process was almost complete.
The time for the scariest step (the one that risked breaking email) was here. It was time to remove the Google Workspace services from my domain. But by “remove”, I wasn’t sure what would happen. The removal button was there in plain sight within Google Domains, but I could not anticipate what the consequences of clicking it would be.
Before doing that, I went into the Google Domains console and set up email forwarding addresses for all of us to point to the new Outlook.com addresses. When doing so, the Domains console warned me that forwarding wouldn’t work until I disabled Workspace and offered me an extra button to do that. This gave me some more confidence because it felt that this workflow had been properly thought out.
Regardless, clicking that button was scary. I manually backed up the DNS records for the Workspace configuration, re-double-verified that email delivery to a forwarded address worked (by testing this out with another domain I have), and then clicked the button. After this happened, I confirmed with
dig that the MX records were updated—but they still had a TTL of 1 hour so there was still a risk that something would stop working.
I patiently waited for an hour and tested sending myself an email. And it was routed properly.
I’m now GAFYD free! My grandfathered Google Workspace free plan, however, is still alive.
Given the promise of tools to move our data out of the GAFYD accounts, I’ll wait to delete these accounts until the last moment. I want to see if those tools will let me handle the few loose ends I left behind (like Play content). I’m not too hopeful though—especially now that I’ve moved most of my data my hand because I suspect this will confuse whatever automation Google builds.
Lastly, before departing, a couple of thoughts:
Google Takeout is great in theory but pretty terrible in practice. The fact that a Takeout export cannot be used to import the same data into another Google account is sad—it’s called Takeout and not Backup for a reason, I guess—and the format of the exported data is lossy and extremely hard to make sense of.
Google is a data hoarder, which is obviously not a surprise to absolutely anyone. But looking at what data Google has collected about you is… interesting. In the process of pruning my GAFYD account, I found tons of details of my past that, while cool to see, seem very dangerous to keep around. I chose to delete most of these data and keep whatever is important with me (in my NAS) instead of in the cloud. I’m sure that whatever profile Google has about me won’t be impacted by my data deletion—but if my account ever gets compromised, it’ll be less scary.
Good luck freeing yourself from GAFYD!