Everything You Need to Know About Email Addresses

What email addresses are, how they're used, and how to get one

@ or at sign made of puzzle pieces on white background

Horia Varlan/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

An email address is a designation for an electronic mailbox that sends and receives messages on a computer network.

What Is the Meaning of an Email Address?

To understand what an email address signifies, examine the elements of the fictitious email address Jane@Acme.com. The elements go from general to specific from right to left.

Starting on the right, the .com component represents the top level domain or TLD for the email address. It could also be .org, .edu, or one of many other TLDs. Each one represents a type of entity. These are the commonly used TLDs:

  • The .com TLD is typically used by entities that engage in commerce.
  • The .org TLD is used by nonprofit organizations.
  • The .edu TLD is used by educational institutions.
  • The .net TLD is for network providers.
  • The .gov TLD is for governmental agencies.

Moving to the left, the Acme portion is the specific name of the organization. It could be any name, including many familiar ones such as Google.com, Target.com, or Lifewire.com. The combination of the organization name and TLD is also the address that is entered into a browser to get to that organization's website. The website name and email address are connected in that they use the same domain, which is the combination of the organization name and TLD.

Further to the left, the @ (at) symbol is the connector between the domain and the person at that domain using the email address. In this case, the person is Jane. In plain language, when an email message is sent to this address, the message is sent to Jane at Acme Corporation, which is a commercial entity. But computers need a simpler way to understand that information, so email addresses use the syntax Jane@Acme.com.

What is the Correct Format for an Email Address?

An email address has the format username@entity.TLD. Only certain characters (mostly letters and numbers as well as a few punctuation marks such as the period or underscore) are allowed for email address names. The username can be in numerous formats, including First Name (as above with Jane), First Name.Last Name (for example, Jane.Doe), or First Initial, Last Name (for example, jdoe).

An email address can be up to 254 characters long (including the @ sign as well as the domain name).

Sometimes names are capitalized, and sometimes they aren't. While email addresses are often spelled out with some capitalization, in practical use it doesn't matter whether the email address contains capital letters. For example, if Jane's email address is Jane.Doe@Acme.com, the message could be sent to jane.doe@acme.com as the case doesn't matter and it would still be delivered to Jane's mailbox.

Where and How Do I Get an Email Address?

Get an email address from your internet service provider, company, school, or through a web-based email service such as Gmail, Outlook.com, iCloud, or Yahoo! Mail.

To get an email address that won't change as you change schools, jobs, or service providers, create your own personal domain (such as janedoe.com) and set up custom email addresses (such as jane@janedoe.com).

Many people have multiple email accounts for personal use, work, and other purposes. This way, communication for each area of life is separate from the others. When you use multiple email accounts, check all the accounts so you don't miss any messages. Desktop clients like Outlook can be connected to multiple accounts so you only have to look in one place.

What Is a Disposable Email Address?

While email addresses are convenient for communicating with people you want to stay in touch with, they can also be a place for those you don't want in your life to contact you, including pushy salespeople, spammers, and scammers. Any time you give out your email address, you risk receiving unwanted mail. That's because companies that collect your email address to conduct business with you often hand it off to other entities that may have less honorable intentions.

To sign up for shops, services, and newsletters online without giving your real email address, use a disposable email address instead. The temporary address forwards all messages to your main address. When you receive junk mail at the address, disable it without affecting your true email address.

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