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Can I Tell If Email I Sent Has Been Read by the Recipient?

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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 led 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 amazed at the number of questions I get that boil down to people 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?

The answer to your question is no, there is no way to tell for sure that your email has been delivered or has been read.

I always get a lot of pushback on that.

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It’s all about certainty

There are plenty of solutions that work sometimes, or in some situations, or if the stars are aligned just right.

When they work, they can tell you that an email was delivered and even that it was opened. But they cannot tell you for certain that an email was not delivered or not opened.

In other words, if you hear that it’s been opened, great, you know it’s been opened. But if you hear nothing … you know nothing. It could have been opened or read … or not.

And hearing nothing is the norm.

Delivery confirmation

Delivery confirmation is a feature that requests an automated return email when a message is delivered.

Mail DeliveryAlmost all email clients now ignore those requests for privacy reasons.

In other words, they may occasionally work, but most often do not. If you get no confirmation in reply, it means absolutely nothing.

Read receipt

Like delivery confirmation, a read receipt is a request to the recipient’s email client: “Please email me when this message has been opened.”

Again, almost all email clients ignore those requests for privacy reasons.

On occasion they may work, but generally don’t. If you get no read receipt, it means absolutely nothing one way or the other.

Images in messages

One approach to see if email has been opened is to include a picture, and then notice when that picture is fetched. I might create an HTML email that includes a picture of my dog, with that image file stored on my server. When you open the mail, the picture is fetched from the server, and I can use server logs to see that you opened the mail.

This technique has been so misused by spammers that almost all email clients now don’t display images unless you explicitly ask for them.

If the pictures aren’t displayed, the server isn’t notified, and there’s no way to tell that the email was opened. While this might work more often than other techniques, hearing nothing (once again) tells you nothing.

For the record: every service that claims to tell you whether an email has or has not been opened with 100% accuracy uses this technique or something similar, and is thus at least misleading you about their accuracy. There’s simply no way to be 100% accurate. If they require additional infrastructure, like a special mail-viewing program, or if they send people to a website to read your message, then it’s no longer email. Those techniques also act as an obvious disincentive to getting your message read, as they’re also used by spammers, phishers, and hackers.

Opened is not read

So, all our techniques thus far to see if email was delivered or opened fail most of the time. There’s simply no 100% accurate way to tell if an email has been delivered or opened.

Let’s say for a moment there was. Let’s say we could tell that email was delivered and opened. Even then, 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’ve actually read it. Unless, of course, they take the time to reply to you and tell you that they did. (Though even then, they could be lying.)

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62 comments on “Can I Tell If Email I Sent Has Been Read by the Recipient?”

  1. 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. 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. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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??

  8. 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?

  9. —–BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE—–
    Hash: SHA1

    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
    —–BEGIN PGP SIGNATURE—–
    Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)

    iD8DBQFF/yBsCMEe9B/8oqERAmZIAJ9GaVmK0ICSNJSisTBi7jz3qqJ9wwCePAuJ
    T4/Fa3SFrfnweypeZKq20fE=
    =O8GB
    —–END PGP SIGNATURE—–

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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

  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. Funny, some one tried to extorting me. Saying they know I read the email.
    But I feel better now, I know can’t know

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. Could I find out if and when someone read an email I sent for court purposes by contacting; for example if I sent the email to a Hotmail account; Microsoft Canada have them bounce me around from tech to tech until I get in touch with a tech who has access to the Hotmail logs for the account I sent it to. If so in order to get access to these logs would I then require some kind of court order.

  19. Is it likely that I could contact the company in charge of the main server with which I sent my email to and have them produce a log/record showing when certain emails were opened and for how long they were open and have that company email me this log/record.

    • They would be able to tell if the emails were downloaded from their servers, but there is no way of them knowing whether those emails were read. They may have been retrieved by another email service provider and never downloaded to the person’s computer or simply retrieved by that person’s email program and never opened.

  20. Thank you for your answers. It gives me hope that there is a chance to resolve at least this issue. What a great site Leo. Thank you.

  21. When I use Constant Contact for mailings, I at least get an indication of what email has been opened. I also get very good feedback on what links have been clicked.

    • But that information is not 100% accurate. Additional people may have opened the mail without images being enabled or clicking any links in it – those people would not be reported as having opened the mail.

  22. i have sent a love proposal to my fnd one week back, i dont know whether he opened or not?? this is my life and death problem, i cant tell him directly. is there any way to know that mail was opened or not? pls help me pls…

  23. I received an e-mail from my state senator’s campaign office, looking for a contribution, that said, ” we noticed that you have been opening our e-mails but have not responded to them recently”. I used to respond to some of them, until they started coming from names I did not recognize. So I would use view source to see where they came from. When I saw it was from the senators office, I started just deleting them without opening them. Are we going to find out the government does have a way to tell if we are opening our e-mails or not?? Or were they just guessing, or bluffing?

    • Any good email sending software has the ability to track if emails have been opened, if any links have been clicked, and if the email has been replied to. It’s not foolproof. For instance, an email can be opened but even the best tracking can’t tell if the human being actually read it.

      So it has nothing to do with government surveillance. It’s just the state of the technology. It’s used in businesses all the time as well.

  24. Why do you need my email address? To sell it? It’s “required” but won’t be “published”?
    Ha ha ha.
    What ever happened to free speech?

    • I need it in case I need to contact you about your comment, and to encourage you to be responsible for what you post. Since you did not use a real email address (as some choose to do), I can’t contact you (you may not care) and it’s one more data point that I use when deciding whether or not to allow your comment to stand.

      Free speech simply doesn’t apply when you post a comment on someone else’s web site. It’s my site, and I set the rules, period. That’s true for every website on the planet – the owner sets the rules. Free speech may apply (depending on an assortment of other factors, not the least of which is where you live) if you set up your own web site. You can say whatever you want on your own web site. That’s free speech.

      • You are so right, Leo. Since you are paying for the media (website in this case) you have a right to control what is posted.
        I used to work in a catalog sales company and was often called upon to handle unreasonable customers (not as a part of my job). If the customer was abusive, used improper language (by my standards), or otherwise obnoxious, I would simply tell them they do not have the right for that type of behavior. We were paying for the call (800 number), and could establish the standards. If they wanted to continue with their behavior, we had a local number they could call – at their own expense – and express themselves in whatever manner they wanted. None of those people ever took me up on that, though.
        To me, it is the same as in my private residence. My rights, as owner or renter, out weigh those of guests. Guests can be asked to leave or even be thrown out by force (preferably by law enforcement officials).
        People need to realize they are merely “guests” to your site, and therefore subject to your rules (which are really quite lenient compared to some sites).

    • Yes. Some email programs have a feature that can ask for a reply. Most people have that disabled on the other side… making it useless. In other words: Say you send me an email requesting a reply, but I have my email program set to refuse read-requests. Then you will receive nothing.

      Auto reply is a feature that spammers use to discover if an email belongs to a person or not. Allowing that reply to go back was like advertising back to the spammer, “Yes I’m here. Send me more junk!” So almost everyone has it turned off.

      Also an auto reply doesn’t let you know that the actual person actually read it. I remember once, before I turned auto-reply off on my side that a person received a reply on an email that I didn’t actually read. Later they accused me of reading the email when, as far as I knew, I had never received it.

      So basically, there is no 100% reliable way to tell if an email has been opened and certainly no way to tell if it was read.

  25. Not quiet correct Leo, there is a certain way to tell if the email has reached the recipients PC but a read receipt depends on if the reader wants to put the tick into received
    This is the message I get for every email I send anywhere:
    The original message was received at Tue, 27 Sep 2016 17:45:49 +1000 from [104.238.169.110]

    —– The following addresses had successful delivery notifications

  26. There is a Gmail add-on app named “Sidekick” which sends you a message informing you that an email you wrote and sent has been opened. You have the option of a free version or paying for a “professional” version. Personally, I have had zero problems with the free version.

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