How Does Email Work - The Journey From Sender to Recipient

How Does Email Work - The Journey From Sender to Recipient image

Email is one of the oldest and most popular forms of online communication. But it is also an incredibly versatile tool. Just think about it. It's a central part of your day-to-day life, and you probably use it for communicating with friends and family, for work purposes, and for sharing files. But how does email work? Moreover, what is it about the email that makes it such a successful communication system?

To better understand it, we will explore the basics of email communication and look at some of the reasons why it's still such a popular way to connect with people online. Read on for a dose of email knowledge to learn how to use it effectively.

What Is Email and How Does It Work?

Electronic email, or E-mail, as it was called back in 1971 when it was invented, was initially conceived as a messaging system for computer-to-computer communication. But it was quickly adapted and used as a way to communicate with other people too.

An email is a message that is sent from one email address to another, i.e., it contains sender and receiver info and, similar to traditional letters, includes a subject line, text, images, files, and even attachments. In other words, they are simple documents, but the email communication process is a complex one because it employs multiple servers. So, what are the basic steps to send an email?

How Email Works: From Sender to Recipient

When you send an email, the email client (program) on your computer will first send the email to an outgoing SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) server, which practically works like a post office. The email server will then check the validity of the address to figure out where to send the message and will then forward the email to the recipient's email server.

The SMTP, however, does not understand domains, so the email address needs to be converted into an IP address (Internet Protocol) which is a unique number assigned to every domain. But then it needs to find out whether the domain has mail exchange servers (or MX) set up and if it does, the email will be delivered to that server. The recipient's email server will then check whether the email is wanted and if so, it will download the message and store it in the recipient's mailbox. If not, then a message will be sent to the sender informing them that their email failed to deliver.

The delivery of an email can be tracked by a return receipt which is a feature that allows the sender to request notification when the recipient has read the email. The sender has to enable this feature for it to work, and when they do, they will get a notification either as an email or as a message on their webmail interface.

Email Bounces: When Does the Email Communication Process Fail?

Sometimes when you send an email, it might bounce back. In this case, your email client will show either a 554 or 5xx error. Here is why this happens:

The domain is invalid, which means that the email address is incorrect or the name of the domain is misspelled. For example, if you type [email protected] instead of [email protected], the SMTP server will not recognize the address and return an error.

If no MX records are found - it means there is no mail exchange server setup for the domain. This error message will be displayed when the receiving server cannot find the mail exchange servers for that domain. This is an issue that the recipient's admin should resolve.

And finally, the User Unknown or Invalid Recipient error happens when the email address is valid, but the recipient doesn't exist, or their mailbox has been deleted. For example, the employee you are trying to reach has resigned, and their mailbox has been deleted.

These are the three main reasons why the working of email could fail, i.e., return your messages as undeliverable. Of course, there could be other issues like a 4xx error which happens when the mailbox of the recipient is full or when the server uses anti-spam to avoid unsolicited email messages which, by the way, comprise half of all email messages. Regardless of the issue, by understanding why messages bounce back, you can take steps to ensure successful communication.

Reasons Why Email Is So Popular Today

So, with the advent of social networks and chat messaging apps, what purpose does email serve today? Email has surpassed all other forms of communication, both personal and professional, in terms of its popularity. That’s because email is:

- Immediate in the sense that it is delivered instantaneously.

- Asynchronous, i.e., it doesn't require both parties to be online at the same time, which makes it a good way to communicate with people who are located in different parts of the world.

- Versatile —it can be used to send text, images, files, and attachments.

- Scalable —it allows for communication with large groups of people or just a few people making it an excellent tool for online advertising specialists.

- Easy-to-use as the majority of people are familiar with the basics of email and know how to use it.

- Cheap and, unlike making phone calls or sending traditional letters, email does not cost a thing!

- Reliable as long as the recipient's email server is up and running.

- Private unless you choose to address your email messages to multiple people.

- Fast as emails are usually delivered within a few seconds.

- Searchable as there is the option to search your emails for keywords and find specific messages in an instant.

And last but not least, email is an eco-friendly, paperless way to communicate globally, acknowledged by over 4 billion email users.


It would be difficult to imagine the internet without email, right? This shows how important and ubiquitous it has become. And no matter whether you're a marketer or just someone who emails their friends and family members, knowing how email works will not only help you get your messages delivered successfully, but you will also have mastered the quickest and most reliable way to communicate with people all over the world.


What happens when I send an email?

When you send an email, the message is sent to the recipient's email server. As it travels, it passes through multiple servers that are tasked with delivering it to the intended recipient. If the recipient's mailbox is not set up or has been deleted, this will cause the email to bounce back.

How does email encryption work?

Email encryption works by converting a message from readable text to "gibberish" ciphertext before it gets sent to the recipient's email server. This makes it difficult for anyone who might intercept the message to read it. If you’re looking for optimal protection from malicious hackers attacks, try installing one of the top ranked email encryption software.

How does email marketing work?

So, how does email work in relation to marketing? Email marketing works by sending bulk email messages to a list of recipients in which you promote your products, discounts, or other services. The messages are usually targeted to specific people based on their interests or demographics. Note that although email marketing is a $1.12 billion industry, spam laws still apply when sending out email marketing messages, so make sure you're familiar with the regulations in your country or state.

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