How to Mail GEDCOMs

Since so many people have trouble with mailing GEDCOM files over the internet, I thought I'd write a little blurb explaining what to do and what not to do. There are, however, no guarantees and I explicitly disclaim responsibility for any undesirable consequences resulting from any following any instructions given here.

What is GEDCOM?

GEDCOM is a text-based genealogical file format standard promulgated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because they're really into genealogy and wanted a standard format so people could exchange data easily. As is usually the case, the format is often imperfectly implemented, but it works enough so that people can exchange GEDCOM files to some degree. GEDCOM files normally have .GED as their file extension. See this example.

If It's Just Text, What's the Big Problem?

Well, really the source of most problems with e-mailing GEDCOMS is more in e-mail systems than in GEDCOM itself.
  1. Text files require translation when transferred between some platforms. Generally speaking, transferring text from DOS or Windows to anything else is going to be a pain.
  2. A few genealogy fanatics have really huge GEDCOMs that won't fit through some mail gateways.
  3. Some people insist on sending ZIPped, TARred, SITted, UUencoded, BINHEXed or otherwise compressed or encoded GEDCOMs to other people without telling the recipient what to do with them. The solution to this is easy -- don't do it unless you have to, and if you have to, make sure you know what you're doing and explain it to the recipient. (You should never use UUencoding unless neither party has a MIME-compliant mail system, which is very unlikely. Similarly Macintosh users should never-ever-ever send BINHEXed files to someone who doesn't use a Macintosh. This has maybe a 1/100 chance of a successful outcome.)

#3 often interacts with #1 because most encoding systems defeat the inter-platform translation abilities that are built into most mailers.

Where Can I Get the Utilities Mentioned on This Page?

Lots of places (try a web search utility). For example,




The Most General Method

If you don't already have any understanding of file formats, mail systems, and cross-platform data communications, basically if you don't know what I mean by "computer platform" or "MIME", try this first:

  1. Start your mail program as normal for your machine and proceed up to the point where you would write the actual letter.
  2. If your mailer includes a signature automatically, erase it from the letter body now.
  3. Use the read command to read the GEDCOM file into the mail body (not as an attachment!). In pine, this command is Ctrl-R. If you're using something else, find out what it is. In UNIX elm mailers, this will be the file read command of the mail editor, e.g. ":r" for vi. For Eudora, this might require some doing. You have to make Eudora "include text files in the body of the message" and make it think the GEDCOM is a text file. Or, you can open the GEDCOM with a separate text editor, copy the GEDCOM text, and then paste it into the mail body.
  4. Write nothing else in the mail body. There should be nothing in it except for the GEDCOM text.
  5. Send the mail.
  6. The receiver should then open the mail containing the GEDCOM and save it to a disk using whatever name he/she wants to use, probably with ".GED" at the end. In pine, use the 'E' command while reading the mail. In elm, use 's'. In Eudora, pick "Save As..." from the file menu.

This method will usually work with or without MIME capability and it will usually work between any two types of computers connected to the Internet. Its disadvantages are that it is a bit clumsy and for very large GEDCOM files it may fail.

There is also one special situation in which it won't work: if the sender has a MIME-compatible mailer and the receiver doesn't and the GEDCOM contains certain special characters, like letters with accents. The result will be a GEDCOM file that contains things that look like "=0Dsdf=87." Sometimes you can get around this if the sender can force his/her mailer to turn off the Q-P (or Quoted-Printable) encoding. Some Eudora versions allow this as an option. If that isn't possible, there are still ways around this, but they involve unpleasant things like base64 decoders. See below, if you dare.

Methods to Use If Think You're Really Computer Literate

If You Know That the Sender and Receiver Use the Same Kind of Computer and That Both Have MIME-Compatible Mailers

  1. Start a letter to the recipient.
  2. Attach the GEDCOM file using whatever your attach command is. Ctrl-J in pine.
  3. Send the letter. Feel free to put other things in the mail body or add other attachments.
  4. The receiver should then save the attachment when the mail is received.

If You Know That Sender and Receiver Have MIME-Compatible Mailers but Different Computers

By "different computers," I mean computers with wholly different operating systems, for example, Macintosh to MS-Windows, UNIX to Macintosh, or UNIX to Windows, that is two systems where you can't read a text file created by one on the other without doing anything special. If you don't understand this, use the general method. In fact, oftentimes, the general method will be easiest in this case.

Send the file as an attachment, as in the previous case where the computers were the same. Now the recipient should save the file when it arrives and must then convert the file format. If the receiver's computer is a Macintosh, some versions of Stuffit can do this for you. Undoubtedly, there are similar utilities on other platforms if you can find them. Sometimes, you can do a binary FTP transfer of the file to a computer of the same type as the sender's and then do an ASCII transfer of the file back to your computer. This will usually take care of necessary cross-platform translations.

If the Sender Has MIME, the Receiver Doesn't, And the Sender's Mail Gets Q-P Encoded

As metioned earlier, this is probably the nastiest situation you can encounter (at least that isn't your fault for trying to do something fancy).


1. The receiver can save the mail to a file and run it through a Q-P decoder. I've never seen a Q-P decoder, but there must be one somewhere. Fortunately, they are easy to write -- well, for a programmer anyway.

2. The sender should attach the GEDCOM file to the mail as a MIME attachment. Now the receiver has to get a base64 decoder. Fortunately, there are a number of them out there, since, like the hypothetical Q-P decoder, they aren't hard to write. Then the receiver should save the mail to a file. Try running the base64 decoder. If it works, great! Otherwise, the receiver will probably have to save the received mail file and edit out the headers and the mail body, leaving only the base64 encoded attachment that contains the GEDCOM. Run the decoder again. If it doesn't work then, give up and put a stamp on a disk.

If The Mail is Too


Sometimes, really huge GEDCOM files are just too big to send in one piece by e-mail. This used to be really common, but fortunately it doesn't happen a lot nowadays. This typically only applies to files larger than 1 MB (megabyte).

If Everybody has the Same Kind of Computer, with MIME, but the Mail is Too Big

At this point, we're getting into a higher degree of computer skill. I have to assume that you know how to use file compression software and do things like change program options.

You have two options:

1. Compress the file and then attach it. PKZIP is probably the best with Windows or DOS machines. For UNIX, use gzip or compress. With Macintoshes, Stuffit is the way to go. The receiver must have software that can decompress this type of compressed file.

2. Reconfigure the mailer to break up large attachments and/or set a smaller break-up size limit.

If You Have Different Computers, with MIME, but the Mail is Too Big

This case often requires computer proficiency to deal with it. See the options for the above case. Then, after you extract/save and decompress the file if necessary, you have to convert the file format. If you are using a Macintosh, some versions of Stuffit can do this for you. Undoubtedly, there are similar utilities on other platforms if you can find them. Sometimes, you can do a binary FTP transfer of the file to a computer of the same type as the sender's and then do an ASCII transfer of the file back to your computer. This will usually take care of necessary cross-platform translations.

To Learn More See...

If none of that works or you're just curious, there are a number of Web sites with useful info.

By Ben Buckner.

Requests for file tranmission and conversion help may be ignored due to the big piles of work I have to do.

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