While there are paid email services out there for businesses, the average web user doesn’t need anything fancy or expensive. What the typical individual needs is a basic free email service. But, not just any free service will do. There are positives and negatives of the various options out there. Let’s toss the main contenders into the ring and figure out which of these might be right for you. Spoiler alert: Gmail is the champion, every time.

What You Need in a Free Email Service

When choosing which email provider to use, you want to look for a few things. Ease of use will be important to most of us (who wants to struggle to send a message?), but security should also be a top priority. To avoid clutter and a jam-packed inbox, plenty of organisation and customisation is a plus. And you’ll definitely want to have solid spam filters to keep those nasty, unwanted spam messages out of your main inbox. Finally, storage space should be a consideration. Plenty of the major free email providers offer cloud storage as an option, so you’ll want to look deeper to find which one best meets your needs.

And now, onto the contenders.

Best Free Email Providers:

Gmail

Across the board, mail consistently ranks as one of the very best free email providers out there. So what makes Gmail so good?

Gmail is extremely easy to use and simple to sign up for. You’ll have no problem keeping your messages organised. Google automatically divides your Inbox into categories like Primary, Promotions, and Social, or you can switch these off if you’d prefer. You also have additional options for adding labels to your messages, starring important emails, and more.

Sending emails is super fast with Gmail. Your message is typically delivered in less than 10 seconds, compared with a slower (30 seconds+) delivery time with providers like Yahoo.

The spam filtering in Gmail is strong and has been honed over time. Unfortunately, at times it is almost too good, and you might find some genuine messages tucked away in spam. Still, it’s a small price to pay for thwarting phishing attempts and junk mail.

Gmail’s free cloud storage is ample, currently offering 15GB free with your Google/Gmail account. You can also pay a reasonable monthly fee if you require even more space. This is integrated with Google Drive and is a straightforward place to store documents, images, etc. The storage space also means you can archive old emails and not have to worry about maxing out your space.

Gmail has Google Chat and messaging features included, so you can connect easily with your contacts on one platform. Gmail also can connect directly with your social media accounts to import those contacts.

Gmail has top-notch security features, including 2-factor login options. Last year, they also released an even higher level of security that any Gmail user can access. This is called Advanced Protection, and it has helped position Google as the most secure free email service available. Their virus and malware filters are excellent, too.

Need to connect multiple email addresses to your Gmail account? You can do this. Gmail allows you to sync up your emails from any IMAP compatible email provider, so you can check them all in one place.

Cons of Gmail? Some users might be bored by the plain interface, and the small box in which to send a reply email is not ideal for some. While automatically categorising is mostly useful, it might also lead to important emails being missed on a semi-regular basis.

Overall, Gmail’s integration with other services (allowing you to log in and manage your YouTube account, for instance) makes it the obvious choice for your free email address.

Yahoo Mail

Another strong contender is Yahoo Mail. Yahoo prevails with its free storage options (1 TB per user is included at no charge). If you need a hefty serving of cloud storage, this aspect could tip your favour towards Yahoo.

It’s a trusted provider, too. You can use 2-factor authentication and other features to keep your mail secure. The spam filters on Yahoo are strong and you can even completely block specific email addresses from sending you messages, which is an unusual and beneficial feature.

The Yahoo Mail interface is pleasant and easy to use. There are options for customisation for colour scheme and background, which enable you to make your inbox uniquely “you.” Reading and organising emails is straightforward. Attachment files upload quickly. With a built-in notepad and newsreader in Yahoo Mail, you can effortlessly switch from your email messages to jotting down notes or catching up on a headline story. One drawback of Yahoo Mail is the inability to categorise by adding multiple labels to a message as you can in Gmail. However, there is a nifty feature called Conversation View that lets you read a message thread in chronological order, so it could make it easier to find what you’re looking for. This view saves you having to open each message or scroll back continuously.

Both Yahoo and Gmail have an inbuilt translator that will automatically translate messages sent in another language. This makes it simple to connect with friends and business associates from all across the globe.

One of the downsides of email is that you often have to provide an email address to sign up for certain online services or platforms, or when making a purchase. Yahoo Mail has a solution for that, allowing you to create up to 500 “alias” addresses. These disposable addresses let you link to your main email address without including your name or any other personal data. So you can use these aliases around the web if need be.

Finally, there are bonus features like instant messaging, an integrated calendar, and a Yahoo GIF collection you can use to insert fun GIFs in your email messages.

One of the cons of using Yahoo Mail may be its heavy usage of ads.

Outlook

Microsoft’s Outlook Mail is a worthy opponent for the title of best free email service. Though previous Outlook users had to make do with the somewhat outdated @hotmail.com domain, today you can register and receive an address using @outlook.com, adding a professional edge to your email.

Outlook’s best characteristic is its ability to integrate with a wide variety of apps and services. Platforms like Skype, Facebook, DropBox, Boomerang, PayPal, and Trello, a task-management application, work well with Outlook.

Both writing and reading emails is an easy task in Outlook. Instead of having to open various email messages in separate browser tabs, the service supports tabs within the inbox, so you can seamlessly refer to a bevy of emails at once. When writing, take advantage of the many rich features to enhance your message. You’ll also enjoy the fact that your attachments can be as large as 50MB, twice the size limit of most other free email providers.

Hate spam? So does Outlook, and as a result, filters it seamlessly. Its spam filters are highly accurate, but if a phishing scam should eek through, you have the ability to report it and mark it as a spam message.

Your desirable, non-spam messages should arrive just fine, and Outlook will help you to organise them. By learning what emails are a high priority or require urgent attention, Outlook sorts your mail and funnels these messages into a Focused tab in your inbox. When checking your mail, you can then quickly spot which messages you should focus on first. At the same time, you can help guide the service to understand what you want to place in the "Other" tab.

There’s more, too. Outlook comes with a host of shortcuts which give you manual tools to sort your mail easily. One example is clicking “V” which will produce a list of folders where you can move a given email. Similarly, hovering over a message brings up the ability to “flag” or “trash” it. You can colour code messages too, if that’s your style, with as many categories as you like. The only downside is Outlook doesn’t currently provide a way to easily search within a single category, making it more challenging to find a specific email. That aside, Outlook has a pretty smooth system for avoiding inbox clutter.

Outlook allows for a plentiful 15 GB of storage space---the same amount as Gmail. If you have a subscription with Office 365 Home or Office 365 Personal, however, you can utilise increased space capabilities (50 GB).

Downsides to Outlook Mail include ads in your inbox as well as a clunkier method of attaching files to emails. The process requires a few more steps compared with providers like Gmail. There’s also no inbuilt translator, so while you can use external services or even find an Outlook add-on, this feature doesn’t keep pace with Yahoo and Gmail.

ProtonMail

If security is one of your main concerns, you may be interested in ProtonMail. This provider is focused on encryption.

This Swiss-based service doesn’t show ads, and gives you total peace of mind when sending and receiving messages. Offering end-to-end encryption, your messages are safe from everyone except the intended recipients (including ProtonMail itself).

Like Yahoo, ProtonMail is a good choice for creating disposable email addresses or aliases. All you need to do when registering for ProtonMail is create a username and a password; no personal information is requested. However, it’s vital to note that this is a paid feature of ProtonMail. A small monthly fee allows for the creation of additional addresses, plus expanded storage, and higher daily usage limits.

Yes, ProtonMail’s free version has a hard limit of 150 emails sent out per day. For most Internet users, this limit shouldn’t prove too restrictive, but it’s definitely a disadvantage to the service.

One interesting downside of ProtonMail has to do with its security. It’s extremely secure, which is why a user might choose it, but there are consequences if you forget your own password. If you have to reset your account because of a forgotten password, you lose access to all previous emails in your inbox. This could be a serious liability for some.

ProtonMail is lacking in organisational tools like folders and categories, and it’s short on storage too, offering only 500 MB.

While ProtonMail certainly does not stack up to some of the other free email services on this list, if security is your #1 priority, you should keep this provider in mind. You may also want to use ProtonMail as a secondary email account for your most secure matters, and opt to select one such as Gmail or Outlook for your primary email address.

Zoho Mail

Zoho Mail is a smart choice for those wanting email addresses for their small business or organisation.

Zoho allows you to customise your email address domain name, so you can easily align it with your business domain (@yourcompany.com). This is free for up to 25 email addresses, so your entire team can get on board with professional, consistent addresses.

Zoho Mail has an extremely intuitive interface. The icons along the toolbar coincide clearly with the related service and the basic email functions are easy to find and employ. Because Zoho Mail is designed primarily for small businesses, the free email comes along as part of a larger package of integrated services. Alongside a connected calendar, task list, and other relevant tools, your mail address comes with Zoho Docs, “a comprehensive online office and document management suite” which makes it that much easier to run your business. Please note, these elements can also be useful for individuals or self-employed/freelancers, as well.

While there are some limits on Zoho’s free plan, business owners who want premium functionality can opt for paid plans to elevate their services. The Zoho Standard plan adds a lot of capabilities, and it’s only a few dollars per user. The Standard Plan allows for email forwarding, domain aliases, a nice 30 GB of storage, a higher size for email attachments, multiple domain hosting, and IMAP and POP access. There are a few higher plans to choose from as well.

Without the paid plans, Zoho does have some drawbacks. Email forwarding is not enabled and spam is not automatically sorted as it is with many other services. Like AOL, you’ll need to manually input the email addresses of items you wish to be considered spam or trash.

AOL Mail

With its unlimited storage, AOL Mail has a unique edge on the email game. But can its other features compete with the big name services?

If your main activity when using the web is checking email, AOL might be a good option for you. A simple interface and excellent spam filters are willers, and that unlimited storage is hard to pass up. This includes unlimited inbox storage too, so if you can’t be bothered to delete old emails, simply let it fill right up!

As a trade-off to these positive features, AOL Mail is light on the side of integrated services and organisational capabilities. While you can sort messages into folders manually, there are no smart systems automatically filtering your messages into categories. This can make checking your inbox a bit more of a tedious task.

There is also no way to import social media contacts into AOL Mail, no built-in language translator, and AOL has both a spam filter and a trash filter. You will need to specifically enter the addresses that you want to be directed into spam, but phishing-type messages should be diverted into the trash filter automatically.

Some users really enjoy AOL’s simple interface. With the Inbox set into a news-focused page, you can spend your web time responding to emails and easily catching up on the latest news.

Conclusion

Though each of the free email services we included has a lot to offer, Gmail stands out time and again as the go-to choice for scoring top marks in nearly every aspect. It seems that the general public would agree; Gmail has 26% of the global market share when it comes to email.

However, Gmail may not be your #1 choice. Your email inbox is a personalised part of using the web, and you might be attracted by the features of one of the alternate services, such as AOL’s unlimited storage, or Outlook’s Focused Inbox. Whichever you choose, there are plenty of excellent---and totally free---email services available to you.

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