How To Access Your Email Remotely

This requirement comes up so often that I finally decided to write a "thing" on it. In a nutshell, the problem is that when travelling, especially outside the country, it's usually easy to get access to the Internet but difficult to access your email account.

There are two approaches to this, and which you choose will usually depend on whether you have access to a computer when away. If you do, then the POP approach works best, but if you have to use Internet Café facilities, then you may prefer web access to your mail instead.

POP mail access

POP stands for Post Office Protocol, and is how "real" email works. You access a POP server that verifies your right to access your mail via user id and password, and then your mail is downloaded to you and (usually) deleted from the POP server. Having got your mail, you can disconnect and read / reply it offline. You'd use an email client software such as Eudora, Pegasus or Outlook, or the email component of a web browser suite such as Outlook Express or Netscape Messenger.

Web mail access

An alternative way of accessing mail is to use a web browser such as MS Internet Explorer, Netscape Navigator or Opera to visit a web site, sign in with a user id and password, and then read your mail online as if it were web pages. The advantage is that you can access your mail from any computer that has a web browser installed, without having to set up your mail server and account settings within an email program. The disadvantage is that you have to remain online while reading, writing, or replying to email messages, and that can have cost implications.

Which to use?

If you have regular access to a system, then POP access is preferable. You can access the same email address as you do at home, and you spare the household the extra Internet Access or telephone usage costs that web mail access incurs. But you may need the owner's permission to set up or install email software for use with your email account, and should take care not to break their own email access.

If you have to use an Internet Cafe, then you are going to be paying through the nose to use the computer, whether or not you are doing so online. In which case you may as well use web mail access, and cut out the time required to set up your mail server and account particulars within the system's email software. However, your ISP (Internet Service Provider) may not be able to offer web access to your POP email account, or may want to charge for this or require use of their software. In such cases, you may need to set up a (free) web mail account (e.g. AltaVista, Yahoo, HotMail) and ask your ISP, or someone at home with access to your account, to forward incoming mail to the new web mail account.

How "real" email works

When you send and receive email, you use three different servers:

As there's no id or password, the SMTP server cannot know who you are, but it can know whether your computer's IP address was assigned by the same ISP or not. So although you need to use your own ISP's POP server to get mail, in practice you have to use the local ISP's SMTP server to send mail. Finally, although you are sending mail from a local ISP of convenience, you want replies to your messages to come to your own email address at your own ISP.

The strategy

From the above, you can see that in order to access POP mail, you want to:

Be nice

If you are using someone else's computer to access your mail while away, you will have two considerations; maintaining the privacy of your mail (especially after you leave), and not messing up their own email access.

You can ensure the latter by either setting up your own email account settings within their email application (not all email applications support this), or by installing a different email application (as the non-default mail client) for your own use.

You can ensure your mail does not get accessed after you leave by uninstalling the added email program or mail account. There's also a case to be made for not "remembering (POP) password" within the email application. Some email applications allow access to your mail box to be password-controlled, but most will allow reading of whatever is already there.

In any case, it's good practice to ballpoint all settings that you change, so that if need be, you can change everything back the way it was before you arrived.


As always, remember that incoming file attachments represent a threat to the system, and this has additional implications when sharing a computer. You don't want to infect someone else's system, but neither do you want someone else's system infecting your own outgoing messages.

Remember also that HTML message format is in itself a risk, as several email programs will run "active content" (Java, JavaScript, VBScript etc.) hidden within the message text itself. So, it's good practice to send mail as plain text rather than HTML, and change security settings so that scripts within incoming HTML messages are not executed… but that's another topic :-)


(C) Chris Quirke, all rights reserved

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