Can I tell if email I sent has been read by the recipient?

While there are settings and services that claim to be able to determine if email has been opened, they are notoriously unreliable and pointless.

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I sent an email to a friend and he claims never to have gotten it. I don’t believe him; things he’s said lead me to believe that he did get it and that he did read it. Is there a way I can tell for sure?

I’m actually fairly amazed at the number of times that I get questions that boil down to people just not trusting each other. Not that there isn’t cause, I suppose, with spam, phishing and viruses running all over the place. But this seems like the simplest case of all – was your email read or not?

Interestingly enough, there is infrastructure in the mail system to get an answer to that question. The problem is that, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t work.

I’ll give you the quick answer first: no, I don’t know of any way to reliably determine if your email has been delivered, and if it was delivered, whether it was opened, and if it was opened, whether or not it was read.

I can hear a lot of you asking, “But what about the delivery confirmation option in my mail client?” That’s the “infrastructure” I talked about earlier. The problem is that 99% of the time, it simply doesn’t work.

Delivery Confirmation is nothing more than an additional header added to your outgoing email that asks the recipient’s email client, “Please email me back when this is delivered to the inbox.” Note that it requires the cooperation of the recipient’s email client – they have to a) recognize that request for confirmation, and then b) do something about it.

Most email clients ignore Delivery Confirmation on incoming mail.

Email envelopeWhy? Either the email client simply doesn’t support the feature or (more commonly) the user has turned it off for privacy reasons. I know I do.

The same is true for Read Receipt. It asks the recipient’s email client, “Please email me when this message has been opened.” Again, if their email client supports it, most people turn this off for privacy reasons.

Now, there is one common trick that some folks (mostly email marketers) use to see if email has been opened. Using HTML mail, they can reference a picture from a remote server. For example, I can create an HTML email that includes a picture of my dog, but have that picture reside on my server. Then, when you open the mail, the picture of my dog is fetched from the server and I can use my server logs to see that.

The problem here is that because this feature has been so misused by spammers and the like, most email clients now don’t display those images unless explicitly asked to by the person reading the email. If those pictures aren’t displayed, the server isn’t notified and there’s no way to tell that the email was opened.

So, so far all our techniques for testing to see if email was delivered or opened are failing most of the time. There’s simply no reliable way to tell if an email has been delivered or opened.

But, let’s say for a moment there was. Let’s say we could tell that email was delivered and opened. Even with that – how could you possibly tell that a person actually read it? You can’t. Even if the person has it open on their computer, there’s no way to tell that they’re actually reading it.

There are 30 comments:

  1. computer guy Reply

    There are some website that both you and recipient use that will confirm the time/date/length of visit to email generated within the website. Has worked for me in the past

  2. Leo Reply

    That tool will not work unless the recipients allow images to be displayed in their email. The default for many mail clients now is to NOT display images, and hence you’ll never know if those recipients opened your mail or not.

  3. khir Reply

    Hi
    How can I know if my girlfriend open my email account and read my email, then mark it as unread?

  4. extender Reply

    I agree with you the way you view the issue. I remember Jack London once said everything positive has a negative side; everything negative has positive side. It is also interesting to see different viewpoints & learn useful things in the discussion.

  5. sd Reply

    How can I tell the email sent to gmail has been read by the recipient? Can you help me? thanks.

  6. Akthar, pgrl Reply

    I’ve always wondered about the same doubt of how can i get notified if my email recipient has opened and read the mail ‘n’ got this reference site in search engine. i think that owing to different platforms of os, browsers and service providers, it is a bit difficult to get confirmation of the whether your e-mail recipient has opened your mail. i’m working out about various firewall sneaks and blackholes through different os on mail servers and browser settings. may be in the near future, if not completely i may get some or other way to do the same.
    thanx to ask-leo.com: provided me very good information.

  7. andy Reply

    I received an email from an address I know. Is there any way to tell what company the email was sent from (it was used in a personal email account). Will the IP Address state if the email was sent, lets say, from a university or business office and not from home.

  8. Leo Reply

    Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on too many things. Grab the IP out of the email headers, and see where it resolves to.

  9. Kathy Lou Reply

    just found u, great!!! My computer prompts me with check mail you’ve sent, you have a hundred unread messages(this really strokes my ego) & suggests I delete them but how can I when I don’t know who’s read what? Thanks Leo, really.

  10. mike waugh Reply

    on my sympatico email,you have to click on a box that will save sent msg….if i 4get to clik on this box..is there any way to retriev the msg..to see what i hav sent??

  11. rakesh Reply

    Can I tell if email I sent has been read by the recipient

    did u please know me the setting on my mail id.

    Thanks,
    Rakesh

  12. Lynne Reply

    On the same topic, does an auto response (on vacation) from recipiant of my email actually mean that they did indeed get my email, or could it have gone into their spam/bulk folder and not have been seen?

  13. Leo Notenboom Reply

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    There’s no way to know. I’d expect it means it got delivered, BUT:

    - – that’s an assumption and could easily be wrong. It might not be true for all
    mail systems and mail programs

    - – there’s still no guarantee that on returning from vacation or whatever the
    recipient actually found, opened and read the mail.

    Leo
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  14. rincy Reply

    i already sent an email to my friend .but when i open her email there cannot see that message. why

  15. Leo A. Notenboom Reply

    —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
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    Short answer: all email tracking services are unreliable. Longer answer:
    http://ask-leo.com/do_email_tracking_services_work.html

    Leo

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  16. Boo Reply

    Seems Leo doesn’t know too much. It’s simple. Just go to Msgtag.com & download their free software. It works if you fall in the categories that they say it will work in. Very nifty program – I use it & it works great.

  17. sheila Reply

    I badly need a format that allows me to know when people have read my e-mail if they have preview pane on then I do not know if they have read it if they do not respond, I am not paying for the privilege, http://www.spypig.com is good but does not work in webpage.

    Please help

    Sheila

    As the article you just commented on states pretty clearly, there’s no way to reliably do what you want.

    Leo
    24-Oct-2009

  18. faisal malik Reply

    google “spypig”

    you’l find the answer.

    Like all such third party tools and services that claim to do this, they are not reliable. They all rely on the recipient viewing images, which of course is turned off by default in most cases, and can be turned off if not. Again, there is no 100% solution to find out for certain if your email has been opened. Period.

    Leo
    02-Nov-2009

  19. Mike Tyson Reply

    All you have to do is ask the person if they read it or not. Simple.

  20. Thomas Reply

    Try a progran called Read Notify. Its not free, but cheap. I’ve used it for 4 years & it does work. It tells you when the mail was first opened, for how long it was read, if it was reopened again, who it was forwarded to, how many times it was read, who they forwarded it to.Ect. It does work.

    Unless they force the recipient to read your email in a web interface provided by the service then my statement stands: there is no 100% reliable way to track whether email has been opened or read.

    Leo
    29-Nov-2009
  21. Leo Reply
    As I keep saying again and again these techniques all rely on images being viewed by your recipient. If the recipient does not view images then there is no way to reliably determine whether they’ve opened your email. The only possible approach is if the email is presented not in the recipient’s own email program but through a web interface provided by the tracking service, which is both inconvenient for the recipient and makes it very clear that their actions are being monitored.

    I’m closing comments on this article because too many people keep posting false and misleading information.

    Leo
  22. Monica Reply

    Funny, some one tried to extorting me. Saying they know I read the email.
    But I feel better now, I know can’t know

  23. nada Reply

    The author, clearly, never used Groupwise. If your company uses Groupwise for their email client, then you CAN tell if your email was opened, by another person in your company. It does not work for emails sent to outside addresses. I don’t know why other email clients, such as Outlook or Lotus Notes, do not have this feature. They seem inferior, to me. Groupwise also has a much superior calendar, where, with their permission, you can see other people’s calendars (not just blocked off, but actually see the appointment, who is in the meeting, and where it is located). This is a great help, if you need to find your boss, in a hurry. Again, Outlook and Lotus Notes? Inferior!

  24. Herbert Sweet Reply

    I used to use msgtag and got spotty results. I am not using the service from readnotify.com. It is not 100% but it is very good with only a few addresses not responding. It tells me if a message was opened, how many times it was opened, how long it was opened and if it was forwarded. If forwarded, how many times. There’s more.

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