I'm confused about the Move to and Labels feature in Gmail.

What's the difference between the two?
Why does the Move to option not appear sometimes?


4 Answers 4


It seems as though there are 3 modes when viewing Gmail messages:

1. Mailbox Mode:

  • Invoked by: clicking a mailbox on the top left (e.g. Inbox, Starred, etc.).
  • Interface: Blue
  • URL: ends with #inbox, #starred, etc.
  • Top left button:
    • For Spam and Trash: Delete forever
    • For all the rest: Archive
  • Buttons available: Labels and:
    • For Inbox, Spam and Trash: Move to
    • For all the rest: Move to Inbox
  • Dragging a message will: Move it

2. Label Mode:

  • Invoked by: clicking a label on the left.
  • Interface: Green
  • URL: ends with #label/[my-label].
  • Top left button: Remove label "[my-label]".
  • Buttons available: Move to and Labels.
  • Dragging a message will: Move it

3. Search Mode:

  • Invoked by: pressing the Search Mail button.
  • Interface: Green
  • URL: ends with #search/[my-query].
  • Top left button: Archive (There will also be the text Search results for:[my-query] to its left).
  • Buttons available: Move to Inbox and Labels.
  • Dragging a message will: Label it

Note that when you drag a message you can drop it on: Inbox, Starred, Spam, Trash, or one of your labels. If you are in search mode and drag a label onto a Mailbox, it will say Label, but it will actually Move the message.

You will notice that modes 1 and 2 behave almost exactly the same. When you click through to a message from a list, it will show the exact same buttons the list had.

Notice how Move to is only available when the concept of a folder is used. For example, the Inbox acts as a folder since a message can't be both in the Inbox and Spam (or Trash). Similarly, when you press on a label to go into Label Mode, it treats the label as if it were a folder (even though it may be tagged with multiple labels).

When you Move a message it will remove the label/folder you are currently viewing from the message and apply a new one. For example, say a message is marked as label-a, label-b, and label-c. Now you click on label-b on the left to enter Label Mode. Next, you move the message to label-d. What happens is label-b is removed and label-d is added. The other labels remain on the message. The message will now be labeled: label-a, label-c, label-d.

Similarly, if a message is in the Inbox and you Move it to the Trash, it will be removed from the Inbox and moved to the Trash.

When you use the Label feature, you simply choose which labels to add or remove. Nothing will be done automatically for you.


Everthing in gmail is managed by labels, Inbox and Trash are also labels

Move To XYZ means remove Inbox label and apply label XYZ (if it was in Inbox)

While if you label it as XYZ then one more label XYZ will be added to that email resulting two labels Inbox,XYZ on your email

  • I think Inbox and Trash can better be described as folders since a message can't be in both the Inbox and Trash.
    – Senseful
    Commented Jul 9, 2010 at 18:35
  • If it was as simple as Move To XYZ will remove Inbox, it would be much easier to understand. However, if the message is also tagged as ABC, and you view the ABC tag, when you press Move To XYZ, it will actually remain in the Inbox, and only the ABC tag will be removed.
    – Senseful
    Commented Jul 9, 2010 at 18:38

Simply put:

  • All mail state/attributes, including [Inbox], [Trash], etc, can be considered as Labels.

  • However, Mutual Exclusivity must be maintained for these labels: [Inbox], [Sent Mail], [Drafts] and [Spam] [Trash] i.e. these labels cannot coexist; a mail may only have a maximum of one label out of these.

How to interpret:

  1. Move to = Remove current label, Apply new label
  2. +/- Label = Apply/Remove a label, ignore the rest.
  3. Archive = Remove [Inbox] label
  4. Delete = Apply [Trash] label. Because of Mutual Exclusivity of Labels, once [Trash] is applied, any [Inbox], [Sent Mail] etc labels will be removed.
  5. Send a Draft email = Remove [Drafts] label, apply [Sent Mail] label.
  6. All mail = Mails and drafts with no labels + Mails and drafts with (any combination of) labels

i.e. All mail excludes Trash, Spam, etc.


In More Simple terms: Label will simply add the Label but leave the message where it is. Move to will Add the label AND then archive the message.

  • 2
    It won't necessarily archive the message, though. The only time it will, is when you are in the Inbox.
    – Senseful
    Commented Jul 9, 2010 at 18:46
  • 2
    To clarify, "archiving the message" just means "removing the Inbox label".
    – Harlan
    Commented Jul 9, 2010 at 20:55
  • 1
    @Harlan: Try this: click on a label on the left hand side to see all of that label's messages. Now click on one of these messages. Next, choose to move this message to another label. You will notice that this did not archive the message (i.e. if the message was in the Inbox, it will remain in the Inbox). The only label/folder that was removed was the one you clicked on at the beginning of this procedure.
    – Senseful
    Commented Sep 7, 2010 at 20:11

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