Get Important Email Info by Viewing the Entire Header

There's more to know than just subject, sender, and date

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The brief email header you typically see in an email contains the To and From email addresses, along with the date and subject. That's just the tip of the iceberg, though. The complete email header contains much more information that can be valuable in certain situations, such as avoiding scammers and troubleshooting.

The Role of Email Headers

Every email consists of two parts: the header and the message body. The header includes behind-the-scenes information that controls the transmission of the message and identifies metadata. In addition to the data you normally see, the header includes such information as the path the email takes, the servers it passes along the way, the time it does so, and the message priority.

Most people never need to view the entire header of an email. However, when troubleshooting an email problem, a technician may ask for the complete header.

Additionally, header information can help identify a spam sender or verify that an email is a spoof or phishing attempt. Examine the headers to identify these scams and keep yourself safe.

Phishing attempts are malicious attacks that try to access private or sensitive information and give it to an individual masquerading as an authentic source (such as a bank or other financial institution).

How to View an Email Header

Email headers are lengthy (sometimes longer than the body of the message) and complex. Most email clients and email web pages provide a way to display email headers. Each email program has its own method to view the entire header of a message. The instructions below show how to view the header in Gmail; check the documentation for other providers to learn how to view headers in those programs.

  1. Open a Gmail message.

  2. In the upper-right corner, select the menu (three-dot) icon, then choose Show original.

    Show original menu item in Gmail
  3. The header information appears in a separate window.

    Email header information
  4. The basic information appears at the top, followed by the full header at the bottom.

Understanding an Email Header

Email headers appear as long, complex blocks of text, but knowing what to look for can help you decipher them like a professional. Here's some of the information you'll find in an email header:

  • Content-Type: HTML or plain text.
  • Date: When the message was composed.
  • Delivery Date: When the message was received by your mail server.
  • From: Who sent the message.
  • Received: All the servers the message was sent through.
  • Return-Path: Where a reply to the message will be sent.
  • Subject: The message subject.
  • To: Whom the message was addressed to.
  • X-Originating-IP: The IP address from which the message was sent.
  • X-Spam: Spam information generated by your email service.

Email header information can be forged. In particular, the From field can be manipulated readily. Trust only the sections containing the keyword Received.