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 ("@"):
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
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:
Internet Service Providers
Other organizations (sports club, school, etc.)
When this relation ends, so does your email account.
The alternative is an independent email provider:
Independent/autonomous mailbox providers
Here you are provided with a personal mailbox which can be used for as long as you like (and as long as the provider exists)
Email forwarding accounts
These accounts do not have an actual mailbox attached, but you can register one or more existing email accounts to which all messages sent to this address are forwarded. So you can switch mailboxes and still keep the same email address.
Of course providers of combinations of mailboxes and forwarding options can be found as well.
Email providers can offer one or more extra features, some of which could be:
Folders If your mailbox allows you to create folders, then you will have the possibility to file different categories of email (for instance from a specific mailing list or about a specific subject) in different folders.
POP access (see Types of Access) usually only shows the content of your INBOX folder, not of other folders!
Rules/filters If you can create "rules" or "filters", then you can have your mailbox automatically perform certain actions with incoming mail, like filing certain emails in specific folders, or deleting emails from a specific sender.
Emails that are automatically filed in a folder other than your INBOX this way, will usually not be displayed in a POP client!
Sender Some email providers allow you to specify a different sender than your account/servername when you use their servers to send email from. This is especially convenient, if you are using email forwarding and you want to use your "public" email address as the sender instead of the email address of the mailbox you are using.
Ads or not Some free email providers depend on ads to keep their free service alive. Others do not. Ads will be displayed in the web-interface of the webmailsite, so only you will see them, but can also be attached to your outgoing mail when using their server. This is a personal decision you will have to make.
Checking external accounts The possibility to check for email messages sent to other email accounts you may have, and fetch them into the mailbox. This way you would only have to check one email account.
Aliases Some email providers may let you have one or more aliases. An alias is in fact the same as an email address, but without a mailbox of it's own. It is just another address to the mailbox of the "primary" email address it is attached to. An alias can consist of another username and/or another domain name. For instance email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com could be aliases for firstname.lastname@example.org.
Types of access
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.
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.
Email provider's own website If your mailbox provider provides webmail, then you go to the email provider's website and log in to your mailbox account (like FastMail).
General website for all POP/IMAP mail providers If your mailbox provider does not provide webmail, but only POP or IMAP access, then you can use an email checker on the web, actually a web based POP or IMAP client, like Mail2Web
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 The POP (Post Office Protocol) features:
There is no synchronization between mailserver and pc client
Messages are downloaded to local PC and are usually not kept on mailserver
Only messages in INBOX folder are downloaded (exception : RunBox, but that is not a free service
IMAP The IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) features:
Server and local client(s) are completely synchronized, so you will always have access to the same folders and messages, no matter what connection you are using, wherever you are
Messages are stored and kept on mailserver, copies can be downloaded to local PC
Messages in all folders can be downloaded
Folders can be created, renamed and deleted both in local clients and on the mailserver
Sent messages can be stored on mailserver, so you have access to them wherever you are
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
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...
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
A few reasonably much used free email clients.
Outlook Express Email client from MicroSoft bundled with Internet Explorer, so you most likely already have this installed on your PC...
Supports POP and IMAP. You can have multiple POP and IMAP accounts. All messages from all POP accounts are by default delivered to your Local Inbox; every IMAP account has it's own folder tree. SMTP server (server used for sending messages) must be specified for each account individually.
Netscape Email client from Netscape bundled with the Netscape browser, so you might already have this installed on your PC...
Supports POP and IMAP. You can have multiple POP and IMAP accounts. Every POP and IMAP account has it's own folder tree. A default SMTP server (server used for sending messages) can be defined, to be used independently of email account.
Eudora Supports POP and IMAP. The free version displays ads.
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.
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: email@example.com.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now, through the GMX website, you set your GMX account to forward all incoming email to your mailbox account. Consequently, every email sent to email@example.com will arrive at GMX.NET and there it will be automatically forwarded to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com ) 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.
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).
Here you can find more information about different subjects concerning email.
Bigfoot Email forwarding only. The free version only allows for 25 messages forwarded a day! Obviously not as good as it was in the early days (the free version that is), but they were here as long as anyone can remember...
GMX In German; choice between email forwarding (to two email addresses), POP/webmail account.
CJB.NET Provides subdomain forwarding (website and email): unlimited number of email addresses of the form: firstname.lastname@example.org, including web- and POPmail of their own.
HotPop Choice between email forwarding to 3 addresses and POP account. Displays small X-Advertisement header in sent email; advertisements from select companies are sent to your HotPOP mailbox.
A few free email providers.
FastMail Free:IMAP/WEB; 10MB; folders/subfolders; rules. For a small fee: >10MB, also POP, forwarding, and more It's an email provider Jim, but not as we know it!
MyRealBox IMAP/POP/WEB; 10MB; folders/subfolders; rules; no ads
GMX In German; choice between email forwarding and POP/webmail account. Messages will be stored on the mailserver for no longer than 30 days.
Web.de In German; 12 MB IMAP/POP/webmail/WAP; filters for filing messages in folders; spam protection; external POP accounts checking.
HotPop Choice between email forwarding and POP/SMTP account (Free 10MB; also paid accounts). Displays small X-Advertisement header in sent email; advertisements from select companies are sent to your HotPOP mailbox.