How is an email sent?

Have you ever wondered what happens with your email after you hit Send? Email is something we use every day, but most of us don’t know what happens behind the scenes to transmit our message from point A to point B.
Mail inbox containing three envelopes next to a small potted plant against a yellow background
What happens behind the scenes before an email arrives in your inbox?
mail.com explains the steps your email takes along the way – and don’t worry, we promise not to get too technical!

 
In early days of computers, it was only possible to send messages within a single system, but in 1971 Ray Tomlinson came up with a way to send electronic mail to users on other systems, in effect inventing the email. From that point on, standards and protocols were developed that allow us to send messages to one another over the shared network of the internet.

What happens when an email is sent?

Let’s start with what happens when you write an email. For this you use an email client, which is a computer program that lets you access your email account – for example, Outlook or the mail.com Mail App. This is where you compose your message and type in the recipient’s email address containing a domain name like @mail.com.

Once you press the Send button, your message needs to be formatted so it can be transmitted over the internet using a standard called the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). Basically, your message needs to be sent between servers, and SMTP is how they communicate with each other.

Now your email client connects to its mail server, the Mail Transfer Agent (MTA), which will send out your email. So it knows where your message needs to go, the MTA has to contact a Domain Name System (DNS) server, which translates the domain portion of your recipient’s address into an IP address. It then searches the internet for the destination mail server, or Mail Exchange Server (MX), associated with that IP address. This tells it where to send your message.
Graphic showing the steps between the sending and receiving of an email as outlined in post
In the blink of an eye, your email travels through the internet and several servers to reach its recipient

Once it is clear where your message should be delivered, it is transmitted to the recipient’s MTA. After it arrives at the destination mail server, it can be retrieved by your recipient’s email program using a standard such as the Post Office Protocol (POP) or Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP). It is then placed in their inbox, where it can be read.

This process happens much more quickly than the amount of time it takes to describe it – if you sent off an email right before you started reading this article, the odds are that it will have arrived before you are finished!

We hope you enjoyed this peek behind the scenes of how an email is sent. Please leave us some feedback below!

Images: 1&1/Pexels
 

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