Getting started with e-mail

E‑mail (short for electronic mail) is a fast and convenient way to communicate with others. You can use e‑mail to:

  • Send and receive messages. You can send an e‑mail message to any person with an e‑mail address. The message arrives in the recipient's e‑mail inbox within seconds or minutes—despite whether he or she is your next-door neighbor or lives halfway around the world. You can receive messages from anyone who knows your e‑mail address, and then read and reply to those messages.

  • Send and receive files. In addition to typical text-based e-mail messages, you can send almost any type of file in an e‑mail message, including documents, pictures, and music. A file sent in an e‑mail message is called an attachment.

  • Send messages to groups of people. You can send an e‑mail message to many people simultaneously. Recipients can reply to the whole group, allowing for group discussions.

  • Forward messages. When you receive an e‑mail message, you can forward it to others without retyping it.

One advantage that e‑mail has over the telephone or regular mail is its convenience. You can send a message at any time of day or night. If the recipients aren't in front of their computers or online (connected to the Internet) when you send the message, they'll find it waiting for them the next time they check their e‑mail. If they are online, you might get a reply within minutes.

Sending e‑mail is also free. Unlike sending a regular letter, no stamp or fee is required, no matter where the recipient lives. The only charges that apply are those that you pay for an Internet connection or a specific e‑mail program.

What do I need before I can use e‑mail?

To use e‑mail, you need three things:

  • An Internet connection. To connect your computer to the Internet, you must first sign up with an Internet service provider (ISP). An ISP provides you with access to the Internet, usually for a monthly fee. You also need a modem. See What do I need to connect to the Internet?

  • An e‑mail program or web-based e‑mail service. You can download or purchase e‑mail programs from Microsoft or another provider. E‑mail programs often have more features and are faster to search than most web-based e‑mail services. Before you set up an e‑mail program, you'll need to get some information from your ISP: usually your e‑mail address, password, the names of your incoming and outgoing e‑mail servers, and certain other details.

    If you don't want to download or purchase an e‑mail program, you can instead sign up with a free web-based e‑mail service, such as Gmail, Windows Live Hotmail, or Yahoo! Mail. These services allow you to check your e‑mail with a web browser from any computer connected to the Internet—even a computer that belongs to someone else or is in a public location such as a library.

  • An e‑mail address. You get an e‑mail address from your ISP or web-based e‑mail service when you sign up. An e‑mail address consists of a user name (a nickname you choose, not necessarily your real name), the @ sign, and the name of your ISP or web-based e‑mail provider—for example,

Creating and sending e‑mail messages

Picture of a sample e‑mail message
Sample e‑mail message

Here's how to fill out the message window in most e‑mail programs. These steps may vary, depending on what e‑mail program or web-based service you are using:

  1. In the To box, type the e‑mail address of at least one recipient. If you're sending the message to multiple recipients, type a semicolon (;) between e‑mail addresses.

    In the Cc box, you can type the e‑mail addresses of any secondary recipients—people who should know about the message but don't need to act on it. They'll receive the same message as the people in the To box. If there are no secondary recipients, leave this box blank. Some e‑mail programs also have a Bcc field, which allows you to send a message to people while hiding certain names and e‑mail addresses from other recipients.

  2. In the Subject box, type a title for your message.

  3. In the large blank area, type your message.

    To attach a file to the message, click the Attach File button Picture of the Attach File to Message button on the toolbar (located just below the menu bar). Locate the file, select it, and then click Open. The file now appears in the Attach box in the message header.
Picture of a file attached to an e‑mail message
File attached to an e‑mail message

You're done! To send the message, click the Send button. It will zip through the Internet to your recipients.


  • To change the style, font, size, or color of the text, select the text, and then click one of the buttons or menu items that allow you to change the text formatting.

Reading e‑mail messages

Most e‑mail programs and web-based e‑mail services have an inbox where you can read messages you have received. You might have to click a button labeled Send/Receive, or something similar, to receive new messages. To see a list of e‑mail messages you've received, click Inbox in the Folders list of your e‑mail program. Your e‑mail messages should appear in the message list. The list typically shows who sent the mail, the subject, and when it was received.

To read a message, click it in the message list. The contents of the message might appear below the message list in the preview pane. If so, double-click it in the message list to read the message in a separate window.

Picture of an e‑mail program showing the folders list, message list, and preview pane
Click the inbox to see your e‑mail messages

To reply to a message, click the Reply button.

E‑mail etiquette

Like telephone and face-to-face conversations, e‑mail communication has certain implied rules of behavior. These rules are referred to as e‑mail etiquette or netiquette (a combination of the terms Internet and etiquette). For effective communication, follow these guidelines:

  • Be careful with humor and emotion. E‑mail doesn't convey emotion well, so the recipient might not understand your intended tone. Sarcastic humor is particularly risky because the recipient might interpret it literally and take offense. To convey emotion, consider using emoticons (see "Using emoticons" in this article below).

  • Think before you send. Writing and sending an e‑mail message is fast and easy—sometimes too easy. Make sure you've thought out your message first, and avoid writing when you're angry.

  • Use a clear and concise subject line. Summarize the contents of the message in a few words. People who receive a large amount of e‑mail can use the subject to prioritize the message.

  • Keep messages short. Although an e‑mail message can be of any length, e‑mail is designed for quick communication. Many people don't have the time or patience to read more than a few paragraphs.

  • Avoid using ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Many people perceive sentences written in all uppercase letters as yelling and might find it annoying or offensive.

  • Be careful with sensitive or confidential information. Any recipient can forward your message to others—either intentionally or accidentally.

Additionally, in formal or business communication, avoid spelling and grammatical errors. Sloppy e‑mail conveys an unprofessional image. Proofread your messages before you send them, and if your e‑mail program has a spelling checker, use it.

Using emoticons

Because it's often difficult to convey emotion, intent, or tone through text alone, early Internet users invented emoticons (a combination of the terms emotion and icons)—sequences of keyboard characters that symbolize facial expressions. For example, :) looks like a smiling face when you look at it sideways. Below are some examples of emoticons.

Emoticon Meaning

:) or :-)


Smiling, happy, or joking


:( or :-(


Frowning or unhappy








Indifferent or ambivalent




Surprised or concerned




Not saying anything




Sticking out your tongue (usually in fun)





Dealing with junk e‑mail

Just as you might receive unsolicited advertisements, flyers, and catalogs in your regular mail, you'll probably receive junk e‑mail (often called spam) in your inbox. Junk e‑mail might include advertisements, fraudulent schemes, pornography, or legitimate offers. Because it's very inexpensive for marketers to send junk e‑mail, it's not uncommon for people to receive a large amount of it.

Many e‑mail programs and web-based e‑mail services include a junk filter, also called a spam filter. These analyze the content of messages sent to you and move suspicious messages to a special junk e‑mail folder, where you can view or delete them at any time. If a junk e‑mail message slips past the filter into your inbox, many e‑mail programs allow you to specify that any future messages from that sender be automatically moved to the junk e‑mail folder.

To help prevent junk e‑mail:

  • Use caution in giving out your e‑mail address. Avoid publishing your real e‑mail address in newsgroups, on websites, or in other public areas of the Internet.

  • Before you give your e‑mail address to a website, check the site's privacy statement to be sure it doesn't permit the disclosure of your e‑mail address to other companies.

  • Never reply to a junk e‑mail message. The sender will know that your e‑mail address is valid and might sell it to other companies. You're then likely to receive even more junk e‑mail.

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