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I am a relatively new Mac user, recently bought a MacBook Pro with OS X 10.9.1.

I see that there are tagging capabilities within the file system. I'm concerned about portability. If I get a new computer in a few years, how would I transfer my tags to the new system? What if I want to move my files to a Windows or Linux machine? Can I see the tags on these operating systems?

I just don't want to put some effort into the built-in tagging system only to have my tags useless at some point down the road.

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Tags are not 100% portable in that they don't always survive mailing or copying to other computers such as Linux or Windows. On that respect, it's more about those OS supporting the Apple filesystem. I am impressed that even copying tagged files to a SMB formatted USB drive preserves the tag metadata and most copy operations from and to another Mac via an HFS+ hard drive or share does preserve the tags well in practice. (Even copying the file to a 10.8 or older Mac didn't strip tags in my tests).

Apple's article covering tags, http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5839, recommends:

If you want to include your Tags when sending files through Mail, Messages, or other apps, compress your files and folders before sending them.

  • With regard to the Apple article, tags seem to be preserved on files when I send them through email without the need to compress them… – grg Feb 25 '14 at 17:53
  • Yes, I am almost certain that initially, they were extremely non-portable and things have been shifting but I can't find an authoritative source or test / example of a tagged file from the 10.9(.0) release to test. – bmike Feb 25 '14 at 17:55
  • One point is, are tags preserved if action X is taken (mail, zip, filesystem, etc). Answer: It depends ;-) But what is also very important (and I guess also the question): What if the OP changes to Linux? Is there a way to keep and manage those tags under Linux, or Windows??? – benzkji Oct 31 '16 at 7:31
  • @benzkji Let's split that off. It seems almost too broad for a specific question. What version of windows, what flavor of linux? I'll add a general sentence in my answer to not expect tags to work unless windows / linux preserves the HFS+ (or later APFS) filesystem in it's entirety and can read/write to that filesystem to show those tags. – bmike Oct 31 '16 at 12:56
  • @bmike ok. just that the OP asked: "What if I want to move my files to a Windows or Linux machine? Can I see the tags on these operating systems?" – benzkji Oct 31 '16 at 14:27
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Yes, tags are completely portable as they are saved to the file as extended attributes. Copying/moving the file keeps the tags as they are saved as com.apple.metadata:_kMDItemUserTags to the file.

  • 2
    Your answer is mostly correct, but IMO a strong warning is needed: Extended attributes are silently dropped by many tools which transfer or modify files. Attributes will also be lost if files are stored in a filesystem that doesn't support extended attributes, or has them disabled. – Eric Drechsel Jan 12 '16 at 1:33
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I found an interesting article over here which goes into some detail about the portability of tags in macOS. There is some writeup but it attempts to answer the question, "Which file systems and Cloud services preserve extended attributes?".

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