A Short Guide to Free Email

Commonplace.net
By Lukas Koster Nederlandse Versie

Last update: 22nd of January 2003

Email basics

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Almost anybody who has access to a computer nowadays has one or more email addresses. The majority of these people just use the email address they happen to have because they work somewhere or because they use some Internet Access Provider/Internet Service Provider (ISP) just to gain access to the Internet.
Some people share one email address, because their ISP gives them only one.

But not everyone can access their work email messages at home, or vice versa. Perhaps you can't read your email when you're on holiday. Not to mention send mail! What if you change jobs or ISP? Tell all your friends that your email address changed again?

If you're not satisfied with just using your ISP's email address and changing it from time to time, you don't have to do that. You can have your own personal email-for-life (that is: as long as Internet life lasts) address and read and write email messages wherever you are (as long as you have some means of connecting to the Internet, even a mobile phone!). And all that without having to pay for it, too!

Free or paid?

The main reasons to choose a paid service instead of a free service would be: greater chance of continuity and reliability, less chance of receiving spam.
That's about all that can be said about this.

So, what is an email account, anyway?

Basically, it is a combination of an email address and and a mailbox.
A mailbox is just the location where email messages that have been sent to your email address are stored. This location consists of some kind of database on some computer somewhere in the world which is connected to the Internet. On this computer runs a so-called Mailserver program that manages all incoming and outgoing email messages. The computer, or mailhost, can be referred to as Mailserver as well.

An email address consists of two parts: the name of the person, department or role you want to send a message to (username), and the name of the mailhost (domain name) where the mailbox resides, separated by an "at"-sign ("@"):

For instance:

John.Smith@mailbox.com
McCoy@itsadomainjimbutnotasweknowit.nl
mailman@commonplace.net

Now, when you send an email message to, for instance, me, special-purpose computers on the Internet ("Domain name servers") look at the bit after the "@"-sign and send the message to the computer that is known under the name "commonplace.net", where the mailserver program looks at the bit before the "@"-sign to store the message in the mailbox belonging to the user "mailman".

Email account types

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So, as mentioned above, you can have an email account provided to you by an organization you have a relation to in some way for a given period of time, like: When this relation ends, so does your email account.

The alternative is an independent email provider: Of course providers of combinations of mailboxes and forwarding options can be found as well.

Mailbox Options

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Email providers can offer one or more extra features, some of which could be:

Types of access

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Basically, there are three ways in which you can access (read) your mail: through a WWW-browser, through email client software, or by using a WAP enabled mobile phone. Most mailboxes allow you to access your email in more than one way.
  1. WWW-browser
    From home or anywhere in the world where there is an internet connection and a computer with a WWW-browser (like Internet Explorer, Netscape or Opera), you can read and/or send mail from your mail account on the web. All your email messages remain on the mailbox server. You have to have an open online connection to the internet.
    This can be done in two ways.
  2. Email client
    If you have an email client installed on your home or work computer, and if your mail provider has enabled POP or IMAP access, then you can read and write email through your favourite email client software. For every account you want to administer this way, you will have to create an account in your email client. For instructions on how to do this you should consult the Help of your particular client and your mailbox provider, or take a look at http://www.fastmail.fm/docs/faqparts/ExternalMail.html.
    In order to get or send mail you will have to temporarily open an online connection to the internet, download your messages from your mailbox/send your new messages, then, after closing the connection, you can read/write your messages offline.
    This can be done in two ways:

    POP and IMAP compared: If you just want to read your email in one location (for instance at home or at work), and you have no need for filing messages in different folders, then POP will do.
    But if you want more, then you definitely need IMAP.

    If your mailbox provider only provides webmail, and no POP or IMAP access, then you can read your email using a utility that logs in to your webmail account from a POP client, like Web2Pop

  3. WAP
    WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) is nothing else than a method of visiting a website (wapsite) through a mobile phone. It can be compared to WWW-access, so nothing is downloaded to your mobile phone. The difference is that you only have a small screen for displaying pages. More about WAP: WapSilon
    Some email providers also have a wapsite, for instance YourWap. Other PIM or Calendar websites provide email accounts too, and have WAP access enabled (Yahoo!).
    WAP is very slow and therefore can be expensive, because you pay for the time you are connected to the internet through your mobile phone.
    It can be useful when on the road, but only for reading your email. Writing an email message on a mobile phone is not very pleasant...

Sending mail

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In order to send email you need an SMTP server, a bit of software for sending mail that runs on a computer somewhere on the internet. This computer is also known as an SMTP server. An SMTP server computer can actually be the same as the receiving mail server or a different one. Also it can be operated by the same provider you use for reading mail, or by a different one, for instance your ISP.
Another option would be to run an SMTP server program on your own computer, so you could completely bypass any external provider altogether.
Sending mail can be done directly from the website (or WAPsite) you log in to for reading mail, or from your local email client.
An email message is sent through SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) to an SMTP server (which you have specified in your email client), that takes care of delivering the message to the mail server that handles the mail for the domain specified in the email address.
The actual sending can only be done with an online connection to the internet.

Free Email client software

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A few reasonably much used free email clients.

Email checking/notifying software

There is also a possibility to use small programs on your computer that run in the background, check your email accounts for new messages and notify you whenever new messages have arrived. This way you do not have to have your email client open at all times.

Solutions

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A list of possible ways to make use of email accounts.

1 - One email address at your ISP, school or work

In this situation you have an email address in combination with a mailbox with an organisation you have a certain kind of relation with, other than just being an email service provider. If you use email for just a few purposes and do not mind having to change email address and provider from time to time and letting people know about your change of email address, than this solution is fine.

2 - One email address with an email provider

In this situation you have an email address in combination with a mailbox with an organisation you only have a relation with for the purpose of providing you with just this, an email service (free or paid). Here you are not obliged to change your email address when you change jobs, ISP, etc. You will only have to tell everone you know you've changed email address, in case you want to or have to use another email provider, for instance when your free service ceases to be free, or just ceases to be.

3 - Email forwarding service + mailbox service

A situation where you are independent of your current internet service provider, employer, school or any other institution, is a combination of an email forwarding account obtained from an email forwarding service and a mailbox with an email provider to forward your email to.
In this situation you will only have to rely on the continuing service of your email forwarding provider to be sure of a life long email address.

For instance: you register for an email (forwarding) account with, say, GMX.NET. Your username (and email account name) could be captainkirk. So your email address would be: captainkirk@gmx.net.
Next, you register for a mailbox account with, say, FastMail. Your username (and email account name) there could be misterspock. So your email address there would be: misterspock@fastmail.fm.
Now, through the GMX website, you set your GMX account to forward all incoming email to your mailbox account. Consequently, every email sent to captainkirk@gmx.net will arrive at GMX.NET and there it will be automatically forwarded to misterspock@fastmail.fm.
You check all your email at the FastMail mailbox.

If, for any reason, you want to or have to change your mailbox provider, say, to MyRealBox, all you have to do, is change the forwarding address in your GMX.NET account to for instance scottie@myrealbox.com, and you can check all your email at your new mailbox, without having to tell everyone you know about your new email address.

4 - Your own domain name + domain forwarding service + mailbox service

Now, if you do not want to be dependent of an email forwarding service either, then you can try this solution. Buy your own domain name, use this domain for your email address and use a DNS/mail forwarding service to forward your email to your current mailbox provider.

If you choose this option, you will have to pay only for your domain name, which is a yearly fee. But it can be something around 12 Euro or $9 a year.
See Commonplace Short Guide to Domain Management for instructions on how to achieve this.

A real example (my own as a matter of fact): I own the domain name commonplace.net, which is registered and paid for at the Registrar Joker.
In my Joker account I have specified that this domain name is handled at the free DNS service ZoneEdit.
In my ZoneEdit account I have entered a number of specific email addresses (like qqqqqq@commonplace.net and nospam@commonplace.net ) with the email accounts they must be forwarded to. Besides that I have specified a "catch-all" forwarding address, which redirects all messages addressed to email addresses @commonplace.net that I did not explicitly name, to a certain email address (in my case my account with FastMail).

5 - Combinations of solutions

Of course you can have more than one email address, with different purposes, for instance in order to separate work, private, clubs, mailing lists, using one or more of the solutions described above. You can make your email life as complicated, sophisticated or simple as you want.

Links

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In this section I only provide links to websites and service providers I have had experience with personally, and which I find good enough to have a look at (subject to change of course).

Directories

Here you can find more information about different subjects concerning email.

Forums

Free Email Forwarding

Free Mailboxes

A few free email providers.

Comparisons between email providers

Free Email checking and collecting

Check your POP or IMAP mailbox through a Web interface. Check your web mailbox through a POP client. Check your POP/IMAP/web mailbox through a WAP mobile phone.

Free SMTP server software

Software to be used for running your own SMTP server.