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What Is SMTP?

SMTP hosting is a standard part of many hosting packages. It enables you to send mail and can be customized to help you manage your site's official communications from simple email to mass promotional mailings.

The Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is perhaps best known to users of a certain age as "the sent mail server." This technology has been around since the early '80s, when guidelines were developed to allow communication servers a quick and consistent method for sending electronic mail. While more intuitive and secure alternatives are currently in development, for most denizens of the Internet, SMTP is the gold standard for getting one's message into the electronic ether.

At its core, SMTP is simply a set of instructions used by servers (whether your own or those of your Internet Service Provider (ISP)) to determine both how to send mail, and who may send it. It was developed in response to threats of widespread e-mail "spam." While it remains disturbingly easy to send spam anonymously, most hosts have configured their SMTP servers to provide much greater security than the now-infamous open relay configuration. This security includes, in part, automatic virus scanning on outgoing messages, filters limiting access to outgoing mail servers to customers only, and the inclusion of a traceable Internet Protocol (IP) address linked to message senders.

Should you choose to use your host's SMTP servers, you'll still most likely receive a custom SMTP server configuration using your hosted domain. This means email you send comes from "[email protected]" rather than "[email protected]" or "[email protected]" and lends an air of professionalism to your messages. And because your messages are still identified by other systems as originating from the "safe" server of your host, they're less likely to be regarded as suspicious by anti-spam security systems on other servers.

Why Use SMTP With a Web Hosting Account

In order to send email, you can use the SMTP server provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or you can use the one provided by your web host. For normal email purposes, either will suffice. There are a few specific advantages to using your host's SMTP for business purposes:

  • Sending from your domain email address adds a professional image to your emails, and will give your customers confidence
  • If the sender's domain matches the source of the email, it's less likely to be flagged as spam
  • If you need to send large quantities of email, your ISP will almost certainly reject your messages, so your host's SMTP server is the better option

Some hosts prefer you to use your ISP's SMTP server and will set their rate limit low to discourage heavy use. The rate limit is the number of emails that can be sent over a specific period. Sometimes, you can purchase additional "credits" so that you can send mail to more recipients during that period, but this is a clumsy way round the restriction if you frequently send a lot of emails.

Dedicated SMTP Hosting

In some cases, your host may offer a SMTP service that's not suitable for your needs. For example, the host may limit the size of message you can send, or use the host to send out large numbers of email marketing messages to a mailing list. If that's the case, you can opt for separate SMTP hosting that's separate to your web hosting account.

If you decide to buy dedicated SMTP hosting, check the provision carefully:

  • Check the uptime guarantee: similar to web hosting, SMTP hosts should provide 99.9% or higher
  • Ensure there's dedicated support for your SMTP service
  • Make sure you can send a reasonable quantity of email, and ensure there's room to grow as your email marketing list grows
  • Look for additional features like autoresponders and email forwarding
  • Check the mailing list product to see if there's a limit to the number of people you can add

How Not to Spam

There's one problem with SMTP, and that's the danger of misuse.

Originally, SMTP was an open relay by default. An open relay can be used by anyone on the internet, and this was very useful when email servers passed emails from server to server in a relay configuration, as they did in the 1980s. As the web matured, the open relay method left SMTP servers wide open to abuse. A spammer could use an open relay to fire out thousands of emails without trace, causing untold spam problems and distributing viruses far and wide.

Since the mid-1990s, security features have been implemented to curb the use of SMTP unless the user is authenticated. Open relays are actually illegal in the United States, and email providers are required to authenticate the person sending the email. Many hosts, particularly dedicated SMTP hosts, will bundle some kind of virus scanning and spam protection in to the price.

If you're accused of spamming, and you end up on blacklists, you may be granted respite after around four weeks of a spam-free period. To ensure your emails actually reach their recipients, use our email deliverability checklist.

Accessing Webmail

Don't forget that many hosts offer webmail along their normal email services. Webmail allows you to access your domain email from a browser, and you can choose from a range of email clients depending on the features you need. Examples include:

  • RoundCube
  • Horde
  • SquirrelMail

Because the majority of hosts include SMTP as part of their services, most users probably won't require a separate SMTP host unless they want to maintain their own outgoing email server or have concerns about maximum file size and port configuration offered by their ISP's SMTP servers.

Those who send out email "blasts" or a large number of newsletters might also be drawn to a separate SMTP host, as many ISPs block what they regard as suspiciously large quantities of outgoing email. As always, its best to check with your host for specific details on what limits may be in place, and what options and services are available.

SMTP Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does my email client support SMTP?

    Yes. All email clients support SMTP.

  • What is SMTP?

    SMTP stands for simple mail transfer protocol. It is the standard protocol used to send email messages.

  • How long has SMTP been used?

    The components of SMTP started to form in the 1960s and 1970s. Standards began to develop, especially in the context of the government’s ARPANET, the forerunner to today’s Internet. SMTP was officially outlined by Jon Postel in RFC 788 in November 1981.

  • How does SMTP work?

    When you compose and send an email message, your email software opens a connection to an SMTP server. This normally involves logging in using a password. To transmit the email, your email software sends a series of text-based commands, including details about the sender, recipient, and content. The server confirms each command, and once the message has been received successfully, it uses DNS records to find out the IP address where the email should be delivered.

  • Will my host allow me to use SMTP?

    Yes, assuming your plan includes the ability to create email mailboxes. To prevent spam and abuse, each person that sends emails will need a username and password. You can set those up in your control panel.

  • Is SMTP secure?

    Not always. But it was never designed to be secure, because it was invented when the internet was very small. Keeping SMTP simple, like its name, meant that it was more reliable.

    Email delivery has been adapted to tackle modern challenges like spamming, so most servers now require your email software to log in before sending an email. Many also require that the connection between email client and server be encrypted via SSL or TLS to encrypt the login details, and the email message itself. However, that doesn't ensure that the email will be secured from your computer to the recipient's computer. If you want to ensure that nobody can read your emails in transit, you should use something like PGP encryption.

  • What are SMTP ports?

    Ports are the entry and exit access points for data on a server. An OS can have tens of thousands of ports. Some are reserved for specific kinds of traffic.

  • Which ports does SMTP use?

    On SMTP servers, ports 25, 587, and 2525 are standard. Some email servers still use port 465, but this is officially deprecated.

  • What is the difference between SMTP and POP3 / IMAP?

    SMTP is for sending email. POP3 and IMAP are for receiving email.

  • Do I need to use SMTP with email forwarding?

    No. When you create an email forwarder, you are essentially creating an alias for incoming email. You will need to send email using a different account. Many people use the email SMTP details provided by their ISP, but you could also use a third party webmail service like Gmail.

  • Are there any alternatives to SMTP?

    There are some vendor-specific alternatives to SMTP, but these aren't offered with regular web hosting accounts.

  • Where do I find the SMTP settings for my hosting company?

    Before you sign up for a web hosting account, check that email service is included. Some hosts do not allow you to create email addresses alongside your web hosting files.

    Assuming you can create email addresses, you'll need to create mailboxes in your hosting control panel, then ask your host for the necessary server information to connect to them.

  • What is an MX record?

    MX records are part of the DNS record for your domain. They tell other servers where to send email messages for that domain. You don't usually need to add or change MX records, unless your host or email provider instructs you to do so.

  • Can I send my email newsletter using my host's SMTP server?

    Be very careful when sending a high volume of email messages at once. This can be flagged as abuse or spamming, particularly if you are advertising a business. It's safer to sign up for a mailing list company, and send all of your marketing messages through them. If you do want to host your own list, you should install a mailing list script that provides options to unsubscribe. This is required by law in many countries.

  • Why do I get error 554 when trying to send an email?

    This usually happens because your SMTP settings are incorrect. You may have the wrong server, the wrong username or password, or the wrong security settings in your email client.

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