What Is Email?

A basic overview of electronic mail

man with email icons floating above his cell phone

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Electronic mail, commonly known as email (also written as e-mail), is a digital message. Instead of using a pen to write a letter on paper, use a keyboard (or sometimes just your voice) to write out a message on an electronic device such as a smartphone or computer. Letters are mailed, while email messages are sent via a click or tap of the Send button.

An email address is required to receive an email message; the address is unique to individual users. To access and store emails, either an internet-based application or a dedicated program on your computer is needed.

The very first email message was sent by Ray Tomlinson in late 1971. Although the exact words have been forgotten, this email is said to have included instructions on how to use the @ character in email addresses.

Email Basics

While there are many email applications and programs, all emails contain the same elements.

Email Address

Emails are sent to an email address from another email address. Email addresses are written with a custom username at the beginning followed by the email service provider's domain name, with an @ sign separating the two. Here's an example: name@gmail.com.


When an email message is finished and has been addressed to the recipient's email address, sending it allows the message to reach the intended recipient (or recipients if you're sending a group email).

Email Transport

Email servers transmit messages from the sender to the recipient. SMTP is the name of the protocol used to send email messages, and POP or IMAP servers are needed to download electronic mail to the email client.

Email Client

An email client is a computer program used to read and send electronic messages. Typically, the client downloads messages from the server for local use (or for use within a browser) and uploads messages to the server for delivery to its recipients.

Fetching New Mail

If you've got a new email mail in your mailbox, simply tap on it (on a phone) or click it to open and read the message.

File Attachments

When you send an email message, it's easy to attach a picture or other file to send along to the recipient. These add-ons are called file attachments.

Why Is Email Popular

There are many reasons so many people use email every day:


The speed at which an email can be sent and received is a huge benefit to most people. People can communicate in minutes or seconds from anywhere, whether it's in the same building or across the world.


Emails can be faster and easier than a phone call, as there's no danger of being put on hold or forced to engage in lengthy conversations. If you have a quick question for someone, just send off an email.


It's simple to attach any file to an email message. It's just as easy to email a teacher your essay as it is to send someone a group of vacation pictures or email a spreadsheet to a coworker.


Email accounts are like large folders for not only private messages but also files and other important information. Good email clients make it easy to organize, archive, and search through your messages, so any information contained in an email is always readily accessible.

A Record

Email provides a record of a conversation, which you don't get with verbal communication. It's easy to print emails, or utilize your email provider's large storage space to keep everything online as long as you want.

Unlimited Space and Time

Unlike texting, write as much as you want in an email's unlimited space. Spend as much time as you want crafting your message, revising it as many times as you need to before sending it off.

Free Communication

Unlike some forms of communication, like long-distance calling and physical mail messages, most email providers give you free access to an email account. Select your own email address, send and receive all the electronic mail you want, and store everything online without ever paying a dime.


Some email services are built specifically for privacy and security, so users can be confident that messages and files are hidden from everyone but the intended recipients.

Popular email clients include Microsoft OutlookMozilla Thunderbird, MacOS Mail, IncrediMail, Mailbox and iOS Mail. The most popular web-based email client is Gmail; others include Yahoo! Mail and Outlook.com.


Unfortunately, email's big problem is unsolicited mail, more commonly known as spam. With hundreds of these junk emails in your inbox, the occasional good email can get lost. Fortunately, though, sophisticated filters exist that go through your new messages and sort out the unwanted ones automatically.

Help alleviate the junk mail problem by properly reporting spam. First, identify the real source of the message, then find the ISP used to send the message. Determine the correct person to contact and make them aware of the spam.