A fair question. There are many approaches that I do recommend, depending on your specific situation.
I need to explain what I’m looking for, first. Then it’s just possible we’ll find that you already have what you need.
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What I Look For
I look for three things in an email provider:
- Data portability – can I take my data to a another provider if I so choose?
- Reliability – can I connect, and does it work consistently?
- Support – if I have a problem, is there someone to help me?
There’s an optional fourth item: email address portability. I’ll talk about that as well.
Data portability is probably the most commonly undervalued, and in my mind, perhaps the most important of the three.
To me, data portability means either:
- Using a desktop mail client like Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird or others, so that email and contacts are stored on my machine independently of whatever email service I use. This way when I get a new email address and account at a new email service, I still have my complete set of existing emails and contacts.
- Relying on the export (and perhaps import) capabilities of the email services I use to be able to download and then upload my emails and contacts to a new service; should I ever elect to get a new email account and close my previous one.
Fortunately the first option – using a desktop email client – is pretty ubiquitous. Almost any email account, free or paid, will support this.
The second option is more hit-and-miss. The biggest issue, as it turns out, is rarely email itself. Email can typically be transferred from one online email account to another by using a desktop email client and the IMAP protocol. Contacts are the issue. While there are supposedly standard contact formats, the reality is that most email services don’t export and import email the exact same way for all possible contact fields. As such an export/import scenario involving contacts almost always loses some amount of data.
Reliability is fairly obvious to most folks. What good is an email provider if it doesn’t work? This includes not only connectivity – being able to even connect to your email provider, but deliverability as well. If your email provider is preventing you from receiving the email you requested, for example, due to overly aggressive spam filtering, that could quickly also become unacceptable.
One of the most common complaints about some free services is email deliverability. This applies in both directions: the inability to receive email that is sent to you, as well as the email you send never making it to its destination. Gmail seems to be in the best position among the free services. Gmail still also has, by far, the best spam filtering technology.
Support is by far the biggest issue I have with many of the free providers, but it holds for many paid providers as well. If I have a problem, will you help me? Can I find a person to address my issue? Is there a phone number to call?
Tied in with reliability, this means helping me with connectivity issues that might come up, account recovery from hacking and malware, and of course, dealing with issues related to missing email and spam.
There are a boatload of other “features” one might consider, including a web interface, customizable spam filtering, mobile access, high mailbox quotas, sub accounts, and so on. To me, these all pale in comparison to the Top Three: portability, reliability and support.
Recommendation: your ISP
OK, so what email providers do I recommend?
For the average user, I would start with your ISP. You’re already paying good money to someone to connect you to the internet, and by definition they have customer service. (Whether it’s good or not is something you’ll have to evaluate – and if unacceptable, let them know, and then switch ISPs.)
Most ISPs include at least one, if not several, email accounts with your connectivity package, and often include some kind of web interface as well.
If you need more accounts, quite often your ISP will provide them for a small additional charge.
In probably about 95% of the situations I hear of here at Ask Leo!, I’d advise first looking to your ISP.
Email Hosting Services
If for some reason you can’t use your ISP, then there are many companies that do provide email hosting. A Google search on “email hosting” turns up many providers, typically targeting the small business market.
Email Address Portability
Email address portability means being able to keep your email address when you change your email provider.
Normally you cannot.
Many people, after signing up for a free email service – or even using a paid email service such as that from their ISP – are shocked to find out that the email address they’ve shared with all their friends and contacts ties them to that service forever. Changing your email provider almost always requires changing your email address. Want to leave Hotmail and move to Gmail? Say goodbye to your old @hotmail.com email address.
There is a solution; it’s a solution that I highly recommend for businesses, and even for individuals in search of a more permanent email address that they can continue to use regardless of what email service they choose to use.
Own your own domain.
Instead of having an email address @hotmail.com or @gmail.com – or even @yourisp.net – have one @yourveryowndomainname.com. If you own “yourveryowndomainname.com“, not only can you have as many email addresses on that domain as you want, but those email addresses are yours as long as you pay the annual domain registration fee.
For example, I own “pugetsoundsoftware.com”, and I probably will until I’m no longer connected online. I control all the email addresses that are available on that domain, and I choose whether to “do” the email service myself, or to select another email service.
I could even run it all through Gmail for no additional charge.
And I do. All of my pugetsoundsoftware.com email is, in fact, routed to a Gmail account. That way I get not only great spam filtering, but an exceptionally useful web interface for my email.
Many domain registrars also provide email hosting services. For example, the registrar I use, SimpleURL, has several plans, and might be one of the first places I would recommend looking into should you want to go this route.
Particularly if you are running a business, I strongly recommend you purchase your own domain name, and then at a minimum use the services of your registrar to establish email accounts (again, via POP3 and SMTP using your desktop mail client) on that domain. That way, even if you change everything else; as long as you own that domain name, the email addresses on that domain need never change.
If You Must: A Free Recommendation
Finally, one of the alternatives that meets most, but not all of my criteria is free, and that’s Gmail. Gmail’s a valid alternative, if you use it properly and you don’t care that your email address is and will always be functional only as long as you have that Gmail account.
What do I mean by “use it properly”? Today that boils down to a single thing: Back it up, ideally using a desktop email program.
The primary criteria that Gmail doesn’t meet is support. Not to say that it isn’t there – it is, in the form of an extensive FAQ and user support forum. But you won’t find a phone number, and it’s unclear just how responsive their on-line support request form will be when you finally do find it. Remember – it’s free, and you’re getting what you pay for.
In all cases, be it your ISP, an email provider, a domain registrar or even when using Gmail “properly” you are taking responsibility for your email. First and foremost that means you need to be backing up your email and contacts yourself, regularly, in case of loss. One might think that the free and online services would do this for you, but based on what I see here every day – people regularly losing all of their email, or access to their free email account entirely and permanently – that’s clearly not the case.