Everything You Need to Know About Email Addresses

What they 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

An email address is a designation for an electronic mailbox that can send and receive messages on a computer network.

What Is the Meaning of an Email Address?

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

Starting on the far right, the .com component represents this email address' top level domain or TLD. It could also be .org, .edu, or one of many other TLDs. Each one represents a type of entity. For example, .com is typically used by entities that engage in commerce. The .org TLD is used by nonprofit organizations, and .edu is used by educational institutions. Others include .net for network providers and .gov for governmental agencies.

Moving to the left, the Acme portion is the specific name of the commercial enterprise. It could be any business name, including many familiar ones such as Google.com, Target.com, or Lifewire.com. As you may have noticed, the combination of the company name and TLD is also the address you would use to type into a browser to get to that company's website. The website name and email address are connected in that they use the same domain, which is the combination of the company name and TLD.

Further to the left, we find the @ ("at") symbol, which 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 you send an email message to this address, you're sending it to "Jane at Acme Corporation, which is a commercial entity." But computers need a simpler way to understand that information, so we have email addresses like Jane@Acme.com.

What is the Correct Format for an Email Address?

As we've seen above, 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 (e.g. Jane.Doe), or First Initial, Last Name (e.g. jdoe).

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 you capitalize when you send a message to that address. For example, say Jane's email addres is Jane.Doe@Acme.com. When sending an email message you could send it to jane.doe@acme.com as if the case doesn't matter and it would still arrive in Jane's mailbox.

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

Where and How Do I Get an Email Address?

You can get an email address from your internet service provider, company or 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, you could create your own personal domain (such as janedoe.com) and create email addresses (such as jane@janedoe.com) on it.

Many people have multiple email accounts for personal use, work, and other purposes. Doing so is helpful in that communication for each area of life is separate from the others. However, you need to remember to 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, you can use a disposable email address instead. The temporary address forwards all messages to your main address. When you start to receive junk mail at the address, you can simply disable it without affecting your true email address.