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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 12 Issue 9
September 2018
Email confusion: What is your "account"? What happens if you delete it?

The Problem

If you're confused about what your "email account" is and where it's located, you're not alone. Most email programs on your computer, email webmail sites on the internet, and email apps on your smartphone or tablet do a poor job of distinguishing between your actual email account as opposed to the settings that give the software access into your account.

Your email account

Your actual email account is an online service that is hosted at a company, and is completely separate from (and independent of) your Windows or Macintosh computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android. You use your computer or mobile device to access your email account, but it is not located in your computer or device.

The "email account" in your email program or app

What is stored on your computer (or mobile device) are a collection of technical settings that tell a regular email program like Microsoft Outlook, Apple Mail, Thunderbird, etc. (or mobile app) how to connect to your email hosting company over the internet and get access into your account in order to send and receive your email messages. Back when that software was originally set up on your device, either you or a technician had to enter those settings. See "Typical email settings" below for details.

Unfortunately, most email programs and apps refer to these settings as your "email account" instead of the more accurate phrase "your email account settings." This can be very confusing, especially when you see functions like "Create account" or "Delete account."

Since they don't have any effect on your actual email account or service, those functions should really be called "Add account settings to this device" and "Remove account settings (and all accumulated messages) from this device."

Thus, deleting the email account settings from your computer or mobile device will not actually close your email account or service, but (depending on the email software you're using) that may also remove any associated messages stored on your computer or mobile device, unless you have first copied or moved those messages elsewhere to preserve them.

Analogy: Telephone handset vs. phone service

If you unplug your landline phone's telephone cord from its phone jack, you probably understand that that does not cancel your phone service. That simply disconnects that particular telephone from that service.

Similarly, if you remove the SIM card from your cell phone, or your phone breaks or stops working, you probably understand that that has no effect on your cell service. Your phone simply won't be able to use your service until you repair or replace it.

In my analogy, the software on your computer or mobile device is like your physical landline phone or cell phone, and your email account is like your landline or cell service. "Deleting" or "removing" your email account settings from the software on your device from your email service does not cancel your email account or service.

How your actual email account was originally created

Unlike the email account settings stored in your computer or mobile device, your actual email account was probably created:
  • By you (e.g., Gmail, Yahoo, Microsoft, etc.) if it's your own separate, individual email account, or
  • On your behalf by your ISP (e.g., Comcast, Verizon, RCN, etc.) back when you first signed up for internet service (which may also include telephone and cable TV service), if yours is the primary email on your ISP account, or
  • By the primary user on your ISP account, if yours is a secondary email on your ISP account, or
  • By you (or your web person) as part of setting up your own domain email (e.g., abc@company.com) and web site, or
  • By your employer if it's a company account.
How your actual email account can be deleted

In general, whoever originally created your actual email account service can also delete it (see above), typically by signing into the account website or calling customer service. Note that once your email account is closed, you will no longer have access to all of the accumulated messages stored on the email server, which are separate from any messages stored on your computer.

Typical email account settings

In order to access your email account, the regular email software on your computer (or the app on your mobile device) needs a collection of technical information that typically includes:
  • Name or description: Any text that you choose, e.g., "Comcast" or "Work email"
  • Username: Most often this is your complete email address (for example, abc@company.com), but for a few email services you only type the first part (abc)
  • Password: This is your email account password, which controls access into your account, and which your email software uses to receive your new incoming messages
  • Incoming host name: The name of your POP or IMAP server, like pop.company.com or imap.company.net; for a POP server this gives access to the newly-arrived messages in your Inbox (i.e., your incoming messages), and for an IMAP server this gives access to the messages in all of your online mailboxes (Inbox, Sent, Drafts, etc.)
  • Incoming port number (and related encryption protocol): Common choices for a POP server are port 110 (no SSL) and 995 (with SSL), and for an IMAP server are 143 (no SSL) and 993 (with SSL), but many servers use unusual combinations, and some change what they require with no notice
  • Outgoing host name: The name of your SMTP server, like smtp.company.com, which handles the sending of your outgoing messages
  • Outgoing port number (and related encryption protocol): Common choices for an SMTP server are port 25 (no SSL), 587 (with or without SSL), and 465 (with SSL)
  • Whether "SMTP authentication" is required or not: This extra-security option is normally "on" for most modern servers, which tells your email software to also use your password when you send messages
  • Note that some email programs and apps require you to enter both your Username and Password twice: first with the Incoming host settings, and again with the Outgoing host
Your email software probably (and confusingly) refers to this collection of settings as your "email account." If you have set up access to multiple email accounts, your software will have separate settings for each of those accounts.

By comparison, for webmail (using a web browser to access your email), what you need to know is usually much simpler:
  • Web address: The address of your email website, typically something like mail.company.com or webmail.company.com or www.company.com/webmail; note that going to www.gmail.com actually forwards you to mail.google.com
  • Username: Most often this is your complete email address (for example, abc@company.com), but sometimes it's just the first part, (abc)
  • Password: This controls access into your email account
Where to go from here
  • Don't get confused between the "email account" on your computer or mobile device (the settings) and your actual email account (the service).
  • I recommend writing down your email account settings now, when everything is working, so that if a problem develops (or if you move to a new computer or mobile device), you'll have the information you'll need. If you don't know where to find your settings, ask someone you know and trust for help. Be careful not to change anything as you gather the information, and don't forget to collect it for each account if you use more than one.
  • Don't delete your email account settings without first thinking about the consequences, especially if some well-meaning technical support person recommends deleting/recreating to fix a problem, since that may also delete all of your accumulated messages for that account.
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2018 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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