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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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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65 Comments -

0 votes

Ashwin Ramesh

Good that I had IMAP enabled even though I didn’t know how it worked until I read your article. Thanks for sharing, Tina!

0 votes

Timothy Liem

I use pop on my mobile since it’s the one recommended by Google.

0 votes

Pat Wiegand

I also use POP because I often need to access my emails when I have limited access to the internet while traveling. With POP I can quickly download via a phone tether or pay-by-time internet at an airport then drop the connection and peruse the emails, write replies, etc. at my leisure without an internet connection. When I’m done, jump back on the internet and hit send/receive and then I can drop off again. With IMAP you would have to be connected to the internet all the time. Expensive when you are traveling.

0 votes

Bill

Provided you tell your IMAP client to store your mail locally then IMAP gives you all the “advantages” of POP plus a lot more.

Not mentioned in article: make sure you have enough storage server space for your mail if you use IMAP or if you don’t delete your POP mail.

Note with IMAP, unless you delete your mail and save it locally, then all your mail is in the cloud. This could be a consideration if you’re worried about the security of cloud based services.

0 votes

Tina

Thanks for the additional tips, Bill. I thought I had made the last one clear. You have a good point with the first one.

0 votes

Lee

I use IMAP with my email clients for Gmail because I like everything being in sync. Sometimes I like using desktop clients (right now, I have Gmail setup in Outlook since I have another email account that’s on an Exchange server and integrates really well with Outlook).
One big plus about using Gmail with Outlook instead of just using the web-based version is that you can do things like send and receive read receipts, which aren’t available on the web-client for Gmail (unless you have Google Apps).

0 votes

Vipul Jain

coincidently i need help regarding this matter.
I have been using GMail on my droid for long now. recently i got a hotmail/outlook or (whatever its general name is) mail address from my college.
Now i have the Mail app in my phone (the exchange sync i guess).
And i just cant add my mail into it. I followed instructions for POP3 & IMAP, given in mobile section in the hotmail but all futile :/

0 votes

Tug Ricks

Hey, if I’m thinking correctly, I believe I know what to do. If not, sorry for my confusion.

User name: You@outlook.com
Incoming server: pop3.live.com
Incoming port: 995
SMTP server: smtp.live.com
SMTP port: 587

0 votes

Gideon Pioneer

You need to contact your college’s IT department for the details. They most likely have different server addresses than the default hotmail ones. So contact the IT department and ask for instructions on how to set up an email account on your smartphone

0 votes

jrasulev

As far as I know before one could not have a corporate exchange mail account and other non-exchange mail accounts together, see with your IT

0 votes

Adjei Kofi

I use IMAP

0 votes

NSM Techie

yes, but i think there are new version of both i.e is POP 3 and IMAP 4.
Difference between is mail cannot be searched in pop 3 and mails can be searched over the server in imap 4

0 votes

Pat Wiegand

Any decent email client will allow you to search your mails delivered by POP3, and you don’t need to be connected to the internet to do it. Not saying this makes POP3 better overall, just adding clarity to your statement.

0 votes

SKK

After reading this article i completely understand the difference between both the terms.Now i will use IMAP because i have to use multiple devices to access my Inbox.
Thanks to makeuseof team to explain with these two terms with in the simple manner.

0 votes

Pat Wiegand

Actually, this is the one complaint I have about Tina’s article. I use POP3 on multiple devices all the time. Just set the email client to leave the mail on the server for a specified number of days or until it is deleted from the deleted items folder. I have 3 computers and a phone that all receive mail via POP. When sending email if you want to keep it synced among all computers, just blind copy yourself and you will have sent mail synchronized as well.

0 votes

Tina

Pat,

If the client allows you to leave the messages on the server when using POP, then that means you’re getting the best of both worlds. As far as I know it’s not a standard feature, so it’s not available to everyone. However, I did come across this option and should have mentioned it. Thanks for bringing it up!

0 votes

Tug Ricks

Thanks for the info. I’ve always wondered what the differences were, but never had the idea learn more about them.

Historically, I’ve gone with IMAP, perhaps simply because it sounded cooler. And I I’ll stick with it in the future given that I use multiple devices to access my mail.

0 votes

GrrGrrr

Thanks Tine, nice read.

I use IMAP. It has another biggest advantage over POP that an email read on say phone, would be marked as READ while accessed elsewhere, unlike in POP where READ is locally on the device, but not on the server (should you opt to keep a server copy).

Thanks,
Grr

0 votes

Gideon Pioneer

Very true!

0 votes

Kaashif Haja

I use POP. I feel it’s better that IMAP. I always have a copy of my mail on the server, i don’t delete it.

0 votes

Scott

I do the same as Kaashif Haja. Although I don’t know that POP is necessarily ‘better,’ I know it’s better *for me.*

My main email is myopera.com, and I usually access my email using the web interface (on my home desktop only), archiving all the emails I keep and simply doing a search for specific ones when I need to.

But whenever I’m in the mood for using a client — or whenever there are emails important enough to keep a back-up copy of — I open my Outlook 2007 and download the message(s) via POP. Outlook allows me to color-categorize the email and even edit the subject line of incoming mail ! (I’m not sure how IMAP would affect either of these things, but with my modest email needs I don’t even worry about it.) :-)

So, I have an online copy and an offline copy of my important emails without concern about any syncing of messages and folders. And if I want to get rid of one of the copies of an email, I can delete it from either location without it doing the same in the other location, since the two functions are independent.

I guess I’m just not a power-emailer. So POP3 “works for me.” ;-)

0 votes

Tina

Thanks for sharing your workflow, Scott! I think whatever solution works best for you is the best one. Often it helps to know what is available to figure out what works best for oneself, especially if you’re not a power user. But if you have already found something that works well, don’t bother fixing it. :)

0 votes

Andrey Zvyagin

Nothing has been written about the important advantage of IMAP over POP3: an encrypted connection to the server process. In POP3 passwords are transmitted in the clear. Therefore, IMAP definitely better!

0 votes

Tina

You’re right, the original POP3 specification didn’t support encryption. However, there are extension mechanisms to securely transmit user details. Anyhow, IMAP still seems to have an advantage over POP3 in terms of security. So this is a good point. Thanks for raising it, Andrey!

0 votes

Shakirah Faleh Lai

I don’t need POP, just use IMAP.

0 votes

Oluwafemi Ajayi

I think IMAP is best suitable for me , because i need a quick overview of my mails, because POP will have to download all the mail before i view them which might take a longer time. IMAP is still the best because you can as well download mails you want locally

0 votes

susendeep dutta

I use IMAP and don’t like to use POP as after Mozilla stopped development of Thunderbird,I’ve no trust in other offline email clients.

0 votes

Pat Wiegand

Really? Seems a bit harsh — there are a lot of fine email clients out there. Even the basic Outlook is very stable — I’ve never had a problem with it.

0 votes

Tor

Mozilla have not stopped development of Thunderbird! Where did you hear that?

0 votes

susendeep dutta

I mean to say that Mozilla would never release any new version of Thunderbird and would release hotfix for current version.

0 votes

WD

How does SMTP fit into all of this email stuff?

0 votes

Tina

SMTP is the ‘simple mail transfer protocol’ used to send emails. POP and IMAP are protocols for receiving email.

0 votes

Barry Weingart

You might want to mention PostBox as a replacement for Thunderbird which is no longer being developed. Anyone using TB should switch to PostBox. Its $10 but well worth it!

0 votes

Tina

Barry,

As Oron said, Thunderbird development has not ceased. Also, this article was not about email clients, just about email protocols.

0 votes

Tara Drennen

Just ran into an interesting issue with this when I set u0 Mac Mail in Mountain Lion – I can no longer use Gmail POP3, only IMAP, and the Gmail doesn’t like to share the inbox.

I got it working, but it’s awkward compared to what I’m used to.

Also: Gmail IMAP is for downloading – sent mail still goes out using SMTP.

0 votes

Tina

Tara,

I’m not a Mac user myself, so I don’t know what it wouldn’t support POP.

Sending mail is always done through SMTP; it’s a separate protocol for sending. POP and IMAP are protocols for receiving/downloading email.

0 votes

coconut

Hi, I found a solution for this. When you add a new gmail account to mail, use first a fake email address, so it doesn’t configure automatically as IMAP. After that you can manually setup your gmail account using POP3 settings

0 votes

Roger Bertrand, P. Eng.

Another point that should be added to the Benefit of POP / SMTP:

For OUTLOOK users the RULES one can write up to classify his Emails, to assign categories, work erratically with IMAP, when one uses POP it works 100 % of the time. This Business of MS Exchange server does not work well with OUTLOOK’s RULES. In addition the CONNECTOR is always generating SYNC errors when you use IMAP. MS needs to polish that side up a bit.

In summary if you always access your Emails from YOU machine, or almost all the time, it is a lot safer to use POP. In addition you don’t have your information sitting on some server that can be hacked.

Frankly when you use your machine all the time, I cannot see any benefit to IMAP.

Roger Bertrand, P. Eng.

0 votes

Tina

Great point about emails being stored on the server, Roger!

0 votes

Oron

Hi Tina, good and useful article. A few points:
IMAP works just as well offline as POP3. Of course, if you only download the headers then you won’t be able to read the messages, but those who want to read their email when not connected to the internet would need to download their email anyway before disconnecting, however they connect!

Barry Weingart: Thunderbird has not been killed (a new version was released very recently!). Development is just going to be a lower priority at the company.

Tip of the day: one of the easiest ways to move your email folders from one email account to another is to connect to the new account using IMAP from the same email client you used previously and drag the messages INTO the new account!

0 votes

Tina

Oron,

Thought I had replied to this comment already, but guess my internet connection was shaky. Great tip, thank you for sharing!

0 votes

michael egerton

I’ve never used any of these, best keep things simple.

0 votes

jrasulev

Nice article, but after years of using pop3, imap & smpt I decided gmail app and chrome browser are the best tools for my mail, besides that there is offline mode.

0 votes

Tina

Same here actually! I use Gmail with Firefox (private) and Chrome (MakeUseOf). For my private account I’m pulling in emails from various accounts (other Gmail accounts, old university accounts etc.) via POP and sort them into various folders. It’s the best setup I’ve ever had.

0 votes

David

What’s to decide? We all agree on Cloud accounts’ advantages, and add to those the salvation of your mail (and attachments) when that inevitable melting of one’s hard drive Yet why not do both? I access two Cloud accounts from anywhere, including phone. And I use Thunderbird for hard POP copies on both my PC and my phone as well. Redundant not dunce!

0 votes

Tina

David,

Now that I’m happy with my webmail setup, I’m reluctant to keep a desktop client up to date and have it download my email. It would take up tons of hard drive space and some resources and I don’t have a need for this redundancy.

0 votes

Tina

So you use webmail exclusively, Michael?

0 votes

michael egerton

I got email X-notifier on the browser so I log in automatic with a click of the mouse; and before that I’ve always gone to the web page and logged in like hotmail, so why complicate matters and have space taken up on the hard drive? It was probably different with modems but now with DSL the internet is there all the time.

0 votes

Tina

To be honest, that’s my take exactly. :) But I still use POP to route emails from various accounts into my one main account.

0 votes

michael egerton

The X-notifier checks all my accounts whether I’m using Opera, Google or Firefox, and shows which has new emails, so I know if its worth checking straight away, because I’ve got accounts for business, personal, rubbish and certain contacts so I don’t need them all into one main account. I also don’t want hard disk space used up by storing locally because the internet is always on with DSL, Google gives you loads of storage I’m still only 9% full. If DSL is off then I’ve always got my smartphone; so I guess you use POP on your phone too with such limited space? You can’t be! Write another article of what you suggest for a smartphone.
To me, the whole idea of POP and IMAP is such an outdated way of checking emails that it belongs in the dial-up modem era of 20 years ago, whereas now you check them with two clicks of the mouse.

0 votes

Piseth Mao

Fantastic, Tina. I have been using and managing e-mails for many staff at my organization for years but have never read any article regarding the different of POP and IMAP. I just read your article today and I’m pretty clear about this now. You’ve just cleared my brain. Thank you.

0 votes

Tina

Glad I could help. Thank you very much for the feedback! :)

0 votes

Seishun Kyosoukyoku

I use IMAP

0 votes

lance burn

thanks for this a good read

0 votes

Tina

Most welcome Lance.

0 votes

Rob Hindle

Good article and some interesting comments.

As regards “which is best” – that’s the wrong question. Ask instead “which is best for me/my circumstances”. Personally I use Gmail (with the web interface) for a long list of reasons which would be an article in itself. I know there are people with various concerns about Gmail but again, that’s a different discussion.

In this context Gmail’s 10GB of storage is an important factor, more than most ISPs provide. That means I never need to delete anything – even if 10GB isn’t enough the upgrade to 25GB is fairly cheap.

There is the issue of whether the filed messages are safe in the cloud, might they disappear? I think the risks of my hard disk failing are greater than Google’s cloud. There are options for handling the risk of Gmail losing emails – like forwarding copies of important messages to another account, maybe collecting from that with a desktop client, or if it’s that important use the commercial version of Gmail which is claimed to be more reliable.

For geeks the IMAP/POP differences and config are not a problem but I’ve seen others get somewhat confused with IMAP, not really understanding that delete from desktop means it’s gone from the server too for example.

I have a second “while travelling” Gmail account as default on my mobile, only known to a select few and reserved for important messages (set up with Googles two step security so I can reduce the risks of using potentially insecure WiFi and set to forward duplicates to my primary account). That’s not the best solution for others and that’s the point. By using more than a single account, using filters and auto forwarders, maybe even POP on one account IMAP on another you can build your own solution. The “should I use IMAP or POP?” question can become “how do I get the advantages of both with the drawbacks of neither”. There’s not a “one size fits all” way of handling email but with a bit of imagination it’s possible to address most requirements. However, I must repeat, complicated mashups are for the geeks, if you don’t fully understand the implications of every link in the chain it will screw up.

0 votes

Tina

Rob,

You make excellent points! I also think data in the cloud is safer as in “better backed up than locally.” For many people, however, there remains a concern around privacy, which I can understand.

And yes, ‘the best’ anything always depends on your individual situation. True for most everything in life. :)

0 votes

Aaron Couch

Awesome article Tina! I MIGHT have an email question to ask you later, when I have time.

0 votes

Tina

Hold on to your question, Aaron! :)

0 votes

Dr Ramraj

my doubt is which one is secured . also in case of POP if i download a mail and keep it in local storage , what can i do if i lost my local data . you have also explained that POP will delete my mail on the server . so if i lost my data , it’s lost forever . thinkin IMAP will be better . pls verify about security

0 votes

Tina

Yes, if you lose your local copy of emails downloaded with classical POP, then it’s gone, unless you had a local backup that you made yourself.

Note that when using IMAP, if you delete emails locally, they will also be deleted on the server – changes made locally are synced to the server.

With most accounts, you can opt to keep mails stored on the server, although downloading with POP. So maybe that is the best option if available.

0 votes

Benjamin Glass

I’ll use IMAP from now on.

0 votes

Edgar Meixueiro

I personally like imap. Unfortunately I have both a gmail and hotmail account. And hotmail only supports pop option.

0 votes

Kelliann

I use POP, I do have one imap account, using iCloud with it. There is a delay before mail I send or move comes back to me. I find that annoying. I have no reason to need imap… I set up that account after my hard drive crashed so it could collect incoming mail. I told most users I email with that I had a temporary email address (xxx@me.com) I was able to read my mail on my iPhone. Meantime, my ISP was collecting other email on their servers and to see that mail, I used webmail temporarily.When it all got straightened out, I had Windows Mail. not Windows Live Mail, running. I started writing to everyone from my older address and when they replied, they replied to it. I am now very happily back to POP3 mail which I can keep on my computer. If I need to access webmail messages, I just go to my ISPs site and access it from there from any location with any device I happen to have. I have a PC with Windows 7, by the way, not a Mac.

0 votes

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.