Everything you need to know about emails
If email were all the internet offered, it would still be a wonderful invention. It has revolutionised the way we keep in touch with each other. If you're still to get on board, or just want to understand how it works a little better read on.
What makes email so great?
- Email is immediate and it’s free. More than 2 billion people use it for business or to contact friends and family.
- You can send photographs and documents over the internet by attaching them to emails. You can send very large files by signing up to specialist websites.
- The latest technology means that you can make free phone calls—including video calls—over the internet.
What is email?
Email is short for ‘electronic mail’. It’s a way of sending written letters or messages across the internet—anything from a quick hello to a 100-page contract.
When you send a mail to someone, it arrives almost instantly and sits waiting in an ‘inbox’ until he or she comes to read it.
With email, there is a facility for adding pictures or other digital files to the message—like popping a photograph in the envelope when you send a letter or posting a book or videotape or a formal invitation.
I want to use email. What do I need to do?
Before you can start sending emails, you’ll need an email address, which will be unique to you. To get this, you’ll need to sign up for an account with an email provider. In the first instance, your email provider will be the same company as provides your internet access—an ISP will usually provide its customers with an email address when they sign up for its services.
You can change this to something more personal or user-friendly, and the ISP will also allow you to set up more email accounts with different addresses all as part of your internet package. There are other ways of getting an email address too and many people have more than one (for example, one for work and one for home use, in the same way that someone can use two postal addresses: where they live and where they work.
Read more: 5 ways to avoid email scams
How do I change the email address I have been given?
This varies from ISP to ISP, but generally, you go to the company’s own website and sign in, using the email address allocated to you. There you will find a link called something like 'Manage your account'. Click on it, and you will be guided through the process.
Where do I send and receive my emails?
You either go online or you can use the software (called an email client) that is pre-loaded on your computer. Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Entourage are the most commonly used email clients.
What is an email client?
The term ‘email client’ is a bit unhelpful: it is simply a program installed on your computer that allows you to compose and read emails offline (that is, when you are not connected to the internet) as well as to send and receive them. These programs were developed at a time when people were charged by the minute each time they went online. It therefore, made sense to write emails in advance and then nip online to send them, and grab any new emails from your inbox as quickly as possible, before going offline again.
These days, now that broadband is widespread, most people’s computers are constantly connected to the internet, so you don’t necessarily need an email client. Lots of people prefer these programs because they find them easier for composing drafts of mail, maintaining lists of contacts, and organising and filing mail that they have sent and received. But using an email client is no longer the only sensible way to do email. Some people find it more convenient to use ‘webmail’ or use a combination of webmail and an email client.
Read more: My email account has been hacked, now what?
And what is webmail?
Webmail is an email account that is accessed through an online website. You visit the site to read your mail, and also to write and send mail of your own.
This means that you need to be connected, of course (if your internet has gone down, then you cannot access webmail), but the convenience of this is that all your emails remain in the same place and they don’t take up space on your computer.
How do I sign up to webmail?
You can usually access your emails through your ISP’s website. And there are various free webmail accounts available too.
The most popular include Gmail (the Google mail service), Outlook.com (which used to be known as Hotmail, and is owned by Microsoft) and Yahoo! Mail.
They all work in the same way, allowing you to send and receive emails, to organise messages in your inbox into folders and to set up filters to stop you being bombarded by tiresome junkmail.
All you need do is to go to the website, click on the option Sign up and give a few personal details, such as your name, date of birth and gender. You will then choose your email address and password.
I am hopeless at remembering passwords, though.
Most people have trouble keeping track of their passwords. You may be tempted to use the same password for everything (again, lots of people do) but this is unwise: you need a different lock for every door of your internet presence. It is often said that you should not write down your passwords.
But actually this is a low-risk way of keeping track of them—especially if you take the extra precaution of, say, tucking the sheet of paper into a particular book on your shelves (just don’t forget which book).
A more hi-tech solution is to register with an online password manager. In short, it is not hard to keep hold of your passwords—including the ones that give you access to your various email accounts.
So I can have several email accounts?
Lots of people do. It’s useful to have separate email addresses for professional and personal purposes so it’s easier to keep track of all your messages and contacts. And it is a good idea to have a ‘spare’ email address—ideally a webmail one—that you use to sign up for offers and newsletters online: this helps to limit the amount of marketing emails that come to your main email address.
There’s no limit to the number of accounts you can set up, you just need to keep track of the log-in details for each one.
How do I choose an email address for myself?
Take a look at the box above to see how email addresses are constructed. The part that you can choose is the phrase before the @ sign: this is the username, which identifies you personally.
So most people choose a version of their name, which has the advantage of being easy for other people to remember.
Say your full name is Sarah Margaret Regan. You might opt for the username sarahregan, sregan, smregan or (though it’s a bit on the long side) sarahmargaretregan.
It is common to use punctuation such as full stops, hyphens and underscores to make a name more readable: sarah.regan, sarah-regan or sarah_regan.
Anatomy of an email address
Email addresses are similar to postal addresses, in that they are structured in such a way that your mail will be delivered to you and only to you. Every email address is essentially made up of two parts: the bit before the @ (which is the username) and the bit that follows it (the ‘domain’ name).
The username part is unique to you. In the same way that your specific house number identifies your home in your postal address, the local part of an email address allows your ISP to route the message to the correct mailbox.
The second, domain part might be issued by your ISP (internet service provider), your webmail provider or the company you work for; it is likely to be shared by many other users. Anyone can set up their own personal domain name, and you may decide to do this yourself.
The domain name is similar to the street or city name in a postal address, as it narrows down the destination that the message needs to be routed to. It includes the suffix, which is an indication (though not a guarantee) of what type of organisation owns the site and where it is in the world.
Do I have to use my real name?
No, you can use any words you like. Choosing a facetious or witty name may seem like a good idea when you set up your email, but it may feel less hilarious when you have to confess ‘I_love_pie’ each time you want to pay a bill online. It may be sensible to stick to something straightforward, and express your personality by other means.
What if I have a common name… or else one that is hard for others to spell?
If your name’s really popular, and you are using webmail or an ISP’s domain name, then it is sure to have been snapped up for use already. The address firstname.lastname@example.org will undoubtedly have been taken. So try adding another element, such as a number or your middle initial (for example, john.m.smith or john.smith60).
At the other end of the scale, if you have a long name or one that is hard to type or spell, you may want to simplify it—because all it takes is for one letter in the address to be spelled wrong, and your mails will not reach you. If you have a name such as Konstantin Gorodetzky, you could make an easily spelled acronym of it, or a short version: kongor, or gorod, say.
What about the bit of the address after the @ sign? Do I get to choose that?
Not usually. When you register for a personal email account, the part after the @ sign—the so-called domain name—usually consists of the company name of the email provider: yahoo.com or gmail.com, for example.
Many people find that the domain name provided by their ISP or their webmail account meets their needs. However, businesses and professionals generally choose to register a name that is a version of the company’s name, which they then use for their website and as the email domain for all employees.
Some individuals choose to register their family name as a domain, and set up distinct and easy-to-remember email addresses for different family members. James Matthewson could in theory register ‘Matthewson’ as his personal domain, and set up individual accounts for himself, and his wife and son (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com).
One good reason for doing this is that your email address will stay the same if you change ISP.
That’s a great idea. Can I pick any name I like?
You can if it is available. But the internet has been around for many years now, and so pretty much any common name has already been taken.
You are more likely to have success with a made-up name or combination of two or more names or words: cowleyjones, juliamariafernandes.
How do I know what is available?
Domain name registration companies, such as 123-reg.com, can guide you through the process, including searching to see if your chosen name is available or already in use.
You can’t use anything offensive, libellous or copyrighted, and you need to steer clear of anything that is very similar to a known brand or famous person’s name as this could embroil you in a legal challenge (it has happened more than once).
Is it free to have your own domain?
No, you have to pay a small annual fee. Commercial organisations are obviously happy to pay this fee but private individuals may not feel that it is worth it, just for the fun of ‘owning the rights’ to their surname. The charge varies, as with any service provided by a commercial organisation.
But think in terms of an annual fee that works out at the price of a few CDs.
I have my email address and want to set it up on the email client program on my computer
It’ll take only a few minutes to get your email client set up and ready to receive and send mails. When you open the program for the first time, you will be prompted to create a new account. The exact instructions on how to do this will differ according to the client you are using and whether you’re on a Windows PC, Mac or tablet.
Look for the Tools drop-down menu and then select the Accounts menu. You’ll need to enter some details, including your name, email address, and password, and (in some cases) the type of server you want to use to access your email, selecting either IMAP or POP3.
It’ll take only a few minutes to get your email client program set up and ready to receive and send mails.
What do IMAP and POP3 mean? And does it matter which one I choose?
IMAP is short for Internet Message Access Protocol and POP3 means Post Office Protocol version 3. Don’t worry too much about remembering what these terms mean as you won’t need to give them any more thought once you have gone through the initial account set-up process. They relate to the way in which messages sent to your email account are received and stored.
IMAP is the best option to choose if you regularly check your mail from different devices, as POP3 mails may be deleted from the server once they have been delivered to your email client depending on how you set it up. This means that if you access your mail from a mobile device, messages will be downloaded to that device and deleted from the server; they won’t automatically appear the next time you sign in from your home computer.
With IMAP, you download messages to your computer but they are synchronised with the master copy of your inbox folder, which is retained on the ISP’s computer. This is useful if, say, your computer malfunctions as there will always be a retrievable copy of your correspondence. To find it, you sign in online, using your email address and password.
Is it the same for outgoing mail?
No, the server that sends emails from your account is called the SMTP server. This stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. While you are setting up your account access in your email client program, you’ll need to enter some additional details relating to your ISP here, but these will be provided by your ISP as a matter of course.
I have a tablet. How can I access my emails on it?
It’s even easier to set up your email on a tablet (or a smartphone). It comes pre-loaded with an email app; it is often called Mail. The first time you press the icon – it is usually an envelope – you’ll be asked if you want to set up a new account. Simply tap in your email address and the password, and give the account a name (‘My email’ will do). You can add another account at any stage by going into the general Settings menu and selecting Mail or Accounts and then Add account.
Is email better than an instant messaging service, such as Facebook messenger or Whatsapp Web?
The difference is mainly in the kinds of conversations you have. Instant messaging is a lot like sending a text message, short, snappy and casual. Emails tend to be more formal and you can write a lot more at the format makes it a lot easier to digest huge chunks of information.
Most messaging services require you to have an email address in order to sign up.
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