What Is POP & IMAP & Which One Should You Use For Your Email?

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pop vs imapIf you have ever set up an email client or app, you will have certainly come across the terms POP and IMAP. Do you remember which one you chose and why? If you are not quite sure what these terms stand for and how each affects your email account, this article will shed some light. The article explains how POP and IMAP work and will help you decide which one best fits your needs.

IMAP is short for Internet Message Access Protocol, while POP translates to Post Office Protocol. In other words, both are email protocols. They allow you to read emails locally using a third party application. Examples of such applications are Outlook, Thunderbird, Eudora, GNUMail, or (Mac) Mail.

The original protocol is POP. It was created in 1984 as a means to download emails from a remote server. IMAP was designed in 1986 to allow remote access to emails stored on a remote server. Essentially, the main difference of the two protocols is that POP downloads emails from the server for permanent local storage, while IMAP leaves them on the server and just caches (temporarily stores) emails locally. In other words, IMAP is a form of cloud storage.

How Do POP & IMAP Compare?

The two protocols are best compared by looking at their most basic workflows.

POP Workflow:

  • Connect to server
  • Retrieve all mail
  • Store locally as new mail
  • Delete mail from server*
  • Disconnect

*The default behavior of POP is to delete mail from the server. However, most POP clients also provide an option to leave a copy of downloaded mail on the server.

IMAP Workflow:

  • Connect to server
  • Fetch user requested content and cache it locally, e.g. list of new mail, message summaries, or content of explicitly selected emails
  • Process user edits, e.g. marking email as read, deleting email etc.
  • Disconnect

As you can see, the IMAP workflow is a little more complex than POP. Essentially, folder structures and emails are stored on the server and only copies are kept locally. Typically, these local copies are stored temporarily. However, you can also store them permanently.

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What Are The Advantages Of POP?

Being the original protocol, POP follows the simplistic idea that only one client requires access to mail on the server and that mails are best stored locally. This leads to the following advantages:

  • Mail stored locally, i.e. always accessible, even without internet connection
  • Internet connection needed only for sending and receiving mail
  • Saves server storage space
  • Option to leave copy of mail on server
  • Consolidate multiple email accounts and servers into one inbox

What Are The Advantages Of IMAP?

As mentioned in the introduction, IMAP was created to allow remote access to emails stored on a remote server. The idea was to allow multiple clients or users to manage the same inbox. So whether you log in from your home or your work computer, you will always see the same emails and folder structure since they are stored on the server and all changes you make to local copies are immediately synced to the server.

As a result, IMAP has the following advantages:

  • Mail stored on remote server, i.e. accessible from multiple different locations
  • Internet connection needed to access mail
  • Faster overview as only headers are downloaded until content is explicitly requested
  • Mail is automatically backed up if server is managed properly
  • Saves local storage space
  • Option to store mail locally

pop vs imap

What Is The Best Email Protocol For Me?

Obviously, it depends on your specific variables and you probably have an idea of what is best suited for your situation already. The points below should help to make a final decision.

Choose POP If…

  • you want to access your mail from only one single device
  • you need constant access to your email, regardless of internet availability
  • your server storage space is limited

Choose IMAP If…

  • you want to access your email from multiple different devices
  • you have a reliable and constant internet connection
  • you want to receive a quick overview of new emails or emails on the server
  • your local storage space is limited
  • you are worried about backing up

If in doubt, go with IMAP. It’s the more modern protocol, it allows you to be flexible, your email is automatically backed up on the server, available server space usually isn’t an issue these days, and you can still store important emails locally.

What protocol did you choose and do you think you need to revise your decision?

More Articles On This Topic

How Does An Email Server Work? [Technology Explained]

6 Reasons Why You Should Stop Using Desktop Email Clients In Favour Of Web-Based Options

3 Ways To Sync Thunderbird Emails Across Multiple Computers

How To Download & Back Up Your Gmail & Other Google Data


Post Office Protocol – Wikipedia

Internet Message Access Protocol – Wikipedia

IMAP vs. POP – University of Minnesota

Image credits: Secure Email via Shutterstock, Mail Sending via Shutterstock, Email via Shutterstock

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Comments (69)
  • Alain Bongbi (BigAlain)

    It was a nice refreshing article this morning

  • Janice Earliene Carr

    I’m not very good with computers, as I had to teach myself a little of what I do know. So would I have POP OR IMAP ? – if when I bought a new iPhone & sent an email to a friend from it, ALL MY EMAILS ( over 2000 showed up on it which filled up the phone & now no one can take pictures & etc….) FROM MY I PAD SHOWED UP WHICH I THOUGHT ONLY THE ONES ON MY IPAD WOULD STAY ON MY IPAD. I only want the ones I use on my phone on my phone – I can delete them SEPERATELY from my I pad? Please help me! I have an iPhone , An-iPad & MAC computer, so I would like to keep my phone “pretty-clear.” As I go. Thanks in advance! Jan Carr.
    Ps which do I need if I don’t have right one now? :)

  • dalmas

    same comment very clear and helpful!

  • Robert

    Excellent explanation and very helpful. Thanks, Tina.

  • Jimmy Dee

    Actually, the default for Outlook is to leave the email on the server for 14 days.

    Terrible for active accounts with small boxes on older email systems (especially commercial accounts), but still a sensible precaution.

    In our office, we use 2-4 days depending on the usage profile of the user. That gives 24 hours of backup… Our .pst files are also backed up here every 24 hours, so that’s safe.

    POP3 is better for smaller email accounts. IMAP is better for modern accounts.

    POP3 is better for very high activity accounts (the boss here gets 1000-2000 emails a day and is not at all diligent about organizing and archiving… his .pst backup is nearly 500gb).

    POP3 encourages bad recoverability policies. Most POP3 users store everything in a single file on a single hard drive unless there is adequate tech staff (that they listen to). IMAP by nature is safer against hardware failure, and if it fills up, instead of automatically slicing itself up, requires specific action by the user to organize and archive properly.

    IMAP is better for redundancy as well for users who do not have a backup solution in place, but have information they want/need backed up.

    IMAP has a higher security risk, but this is not really significant and is usually overplayed by “techies”. Information that is genuinely sensitive is usually kept to protected servers and internal mail domains. Otherwise, good password policies are usually adequate.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.