Archive or delete: Understand iOS Mail’s most confusing setting

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Mail swipe options
Some confusing mail options.
Photo: Carol Jeng/Unsplash

You know how when you swipe an email on your iPhone or iPad, and depending on the direction you swipe, you get a bunch of options? Mark as read, move, archive — that kind of thing. But how do you customize these options? And how do you access the ridiculously well-hidden option to archive and/or delete?

Let’s find out.

Mail swipe options in iOS

In iOS 13, you will find the Mail app’s main swipe settings inside the Settings app under Settings > Mail, as you’d expect. But Apple buried the settings for archiving and deleting inside the settings for your individual mail accounts. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, the main settings.

Once you find Settings > Mail > Swipe Options, you’ll see the following screen (or something like it).

The iOS Mail swipe settings.
Mail’s swipe settings.
Photo: Cult of Mac

While fairly self-explanatory, these settings are tricky to use because the labels don’t tell you everything. You must switch back and forth between Mail and the Settings app to see the results. For instance, the Swipe Left option in the screenshot above is set to Mark as Read, but if you look at the actual swipe menu in Mail, you see this:

Understand your Mail swipe settings: Archive, Mark Unread, and More.
Archive, Mark Unread, and More.
Photo: Cult of Mac

What this setting really does, then, is choose the top-level option for this swipe menu. In the above example, I chose Mark as Read. This appears in the center of the swipe options in Mail. The other options are still accessible behind the More button. If I instead chose Flag in Settings, then Flag would be the top-level option, and Mark as Unread would be hidden behind the More… menu.

So, that’s the Swipe Left menu taken care if. Swipe Right gives you the same options to pick from, but when you actually swipe right in Apple’s Mail app, you will get a single menu item. Also, you cannot set the same command on both sides. Swipe Left and Swipe Right must show different options.

But what about archive and delete?

This is the most confusing part. In the Settings > Mail > Swipe Options page, there is no mention of delete. Take a look:

Setting up the Mail app's swipe settings: Where’s the Delete option?
Where’s the Delete option?
Photo: Cult of Mac

The answer is buried deep inside the settings for each individual mail account. Head to Settings > Passwords & Accounts, then find your email account in the list. Tap it, and then — on the following screen — tap Advanced. Finally you’ll see the section named Move Discarded Messages Into:

This is where you choose between Archive and Delete.
This is where you choose between Archive and Delete.
Photo: Cult of Mac

This is where you choose whether messages are deleted or archived by default. And here is where things get confusing.

Archive equals delete?

If you set this to Archive Mailbox, whenever you choose Archive in the Mail Swipe Options, it will really mean delete. Even though it still says Archive in that screen. This is what those exact settings look like:

Archive=Delete. WTF?
Archive = delete. WTF?
Photo: Cult of Mac

If I go back into the advanced settings in Settings > Passwords & Accounts, and switch to Delete then this is the result:

No comment indeed.
No comment indeed.
Photo: Cult of Mac

And that’s not all! If I swipe in the other direction, I will get the option to delete. Here are the left and right swipes with the same mailbox settings:

If you change the mailbox settings, then this behavior is reversed.
If you change the mailbox settings, this behavior is reversed.
Photo: Cult of Mac

While you can try to understand this, I’ve found the best option is to experiment until you’re happy with what you have. In practice, choosing Archive or Delete in the deep, hidden, advanced-settings screen of your email account only changes where the archive and delete options appear in the swipe menu.

So, armed with this info, you at least know how to set all those swipe optiosn, even if the “why” of it isn’t so clear.

Good luck.