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What is IMAP Hosting?

Internet Message Access Protocol, or IMAP, refers to the way e-mail is handled online. If you have a central mailbox many people need to access, or you need to be free to check email from multiple locations, choose IMAP hosting.

There are two ways to receive emails: POP and IMAP. While POP is widespread, we're increasingly switching to IMAP as the most efficient way to use email. Hosts have now recognized that IMAP is a more sensible way to use email, even if it requires more resources on their side.

POP vs IMAP

Post Office Protocol (POP, or POP3) email is the method that most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) used to promote as the default and preferred method. With POP, emails are downloaded from the server and stored locally on your computer. Normally the email is deleted from the server once they've been downloaded, so the ISP doesn't need to store all of that data on its servers.

With Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) works differently. The email client stays in sync with the mail server. You can still read emails when you're not connected to the internet, providing you downloaded the whole message prior to disconnection. Once an email is deleted on one device, it syncs with the server, and all other devices update their synced copy to reflect the change.

There has been a sea change among ISPs in the last couple of years. They are bending to demand and offering more support for IMAP over POP. This is partly because we're all using mobile devices, and IMAP is the only practical way to manage our email accounts.

IMAP Pros and Cons

IMAP is recommended by email providers because:

  • It's more suitable when using one mailbox on multiple devices
  • It makes more sense when more than one person is working from a mailbox
  • It fits in with our move to cloud computing, where the emphasis is on remote storage and syncing, rather than local storage and backups
  • Your Sent items are synced with the rest of your email folders, so you can access those items from any device; with POP, the Sent folder is unique to that machine
  • It works well with Push, a technology that alerts you to new emails as they come in, rather than polling for new emails every few minutes; IMAP allows you to choose whether to download email when a Push notification comes in

There are a few downsides to IMAP:

  • Some email clients behave strangely when using auto-responders; it's better to use the auto responder features offered by your email host
  • It's possible to download message headers, and the message content is downloaded 'on demand', but you'll need a connection to the internet for this to work
  • People with massive amounts of email may hit storage limits set by their host; downloading email with POP helps to get around these limits
  • Push notifications can be distracting if you receive messages frequently
  • IMAP can't be used with POP - it has to be one or the other

IMAP Hosting Features

Most hosting providers allow you to create email accounts and access them using IMAP. Some impose limitations which you should be aware of:

  • Check the number of mailboxes you can create. Some hosts impose limits
  • Ask what the maximum mailbox size is; remember, email storage includes attachments, and the more data there is in mailboxes, the less you can use for your website

Separate IMAP Email Hosting

In some (rare) cases, IMAP email isn't offered as part of a hosting plan. If you need dedicated email hosting, some companies to provide this as a separate service. You can normally use it along with your main domain name, even if it's hosted elsewhere.

While there are some free IMAP email services, check the terms carefully. Many don't provide some of the more advanced features you might expect, such as labelling and nested messages. Some services also limit provision to POP without IMAP, and they may restrict you from sending too many messages to prevent spam.

On the plus side, email hosting is not expensive and usually includes webmail, which works well with IMAP. As an alternative, you could use Google Apps.

IMAP Support Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is IMAP?

    IMAP stands for internet message access protocol. It's a protocol for storing and retrieving email.

  • How long has IMAP been used?

    IMAP was first developed in 1986 by Mark Crispin, a systems programmer at the Stanford Knowledge Systems Laboratory. It was created as an alternative to POP (post office protocol).

  • Is IMAP used to send email as well as retrieve it?

    Technically, you can use IMAP to send email, but it doesn't normally handle that. It's more common that you'd use IMAP for storage and retrieval, while using an SMTP server to send.

  • What’s the difference between IMAP and POP?

    In simple terms, IMAP allows you to store email on a remote server, and download a copy of that mail. When you read, delete, or archive an email on your computer, the changes are replicated on the remote server, so the local and remote copy are always the same.

    With POP, the email is downloaded from the server onto your computer in a one-way transfer. You can choose whether those emails are retained on the server, or deleted once they have been downloaded. Either way, if you delete an email on your computer, the server doesn't replicate that change. So if you connect another device to the same POP mailbox, the message may be downloaded again.

    The easiest way to understand the difference is to think about one mailbox that you use on several devices: a computer, a phone, and a tablet. Once you delete an email on your computer with IMAP, the change is replicated on the email server, and then, on your phone and tablet. In contrast, if you download email with POP on all devices, and then read, archive, or delete messages, the devices will be constantly out of sync.

  • How does IMAP handle folders?

    IMAP and POP are different in the way they store emails in folders.

    With POP, emails are downloaded from server to computer, but there's no transfer in the opposite direction. The most notable impact of this is the sent mail folder. With IMAP, sent emails are stored centrally on the server so you can access them from anywhere.

    Likewise, you can create folders in an IMAP account and those folders will appear on all devices. If you create folders when using POP, they will only apply to your local computer.

  • Why should I choose IMAP when setting up my email account?

    Most of us use devices that are constantly connected to the internet, and we use the same mailbox on multiple devices. IMAP is ideal for this, because it always retains a copy of emails on the server. IMAP also works well with web-based email like Gmail, and where multiple team members are working from one shared mailbox.

  • Are there any disadvantages to using IMAP instead of POP?

    POP is inherently very simple and fast, so it can download messages quickly. This fast transfer can be advantageous if the recipient has to connect to dial-up to retrieve their email.

    IMAP also is a more complex protocol than POP, and it requires more server resources.

    But perhaps the biggest consideration is mailbox space. With POP, you can choose to delete all of your messages from the mailbox once they've been downloaded, which frees up space on the server. IMAP doesn't do this, so you might end up running out of server space if you don't delete old emails regularly.

  • Do all web hosting plans support IMAP?

    Most web hosting companies include IMAP support standard with their plans.

  • Which email software supports IMAP?

    All major email applications support IMAP. If you are looking for a free client, we recommend Thunderbird.

  • Is it possible to buy email hosting by itself?

    Yes. Some web hosting companies offer dedicated IMAP hosting for business email. The fees are usually based on the number of mailboxes you need, and you may also benefit from extras like built-in anti-spam software, uptime guarantees, and dedicated support teams.

  • Does IMAP use more bandwidth?

    IMAP maintains a constant connection to the server, but it doesn't necessarily use more bandwidth. Many email clients have a setting that only downloads the header information from each IMAP message: the name, sender, subject line, and so on. The actual content of the message is only retrieved when the message is selected, and the same goes for any attachments. If you receive a large amount of email, this 'on-demand' retrieval can be faster and more efficient than downloading everything.

  • What hosting features should I look for if I need IMAP?

    Check that the host offers IMAP as well as POP. Ensure the plan you intend to buy allows you to create a sufficient number of mailboxes. Find out what the storage limits for your mailboxes are. On many plans, your mailbox space and server space are shared, so you'll need to ensure that your email mailboxes don't encroach on the space you need for files.

  • How do I move email from my old POP account to my new IMAP account?

    The most straightforward way to achieve this is to set up both mailboxes in an email client, such as Thunderbird. Allow all of the messages to download from your POP server onto your computer. Then, select all of the POP emails in the inbox, and drag them into the inbox of your IMAP account.

    You can repeat the process with any email folders that you've created for your POP account, as well as your Sent Items.

  • How often will my device check for new emails?

    With POP, you can choose how often your device checks your mailbox. With IMAP, the server and device stay in sync as long as there is a network connection. If you get a new email into an IMAP mailbox, you can have a Push alert pop up more or less straight away, assuming your device is connected to the internet at the time.

  • Should I use Microsoft Exchange or IMAP?

    Microsoft Exchange requires a Windows server, so the cost needs to be factored into this decision. But if you're using other Microsoft technologies, it might make sense to use Exchange for full integration. Exchange is designed for full office collaboration, rather than just an email service.

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