rural post mailboxes

Moving your mail to new hosting

You’re getting ready to launch your redesigned website on a new host, or you’ve been parking a site but using your registrar’s email set-up, and you are using domain mail. You’ll have to jump through a few hoops to get your email situated properly.

Note: You may want to consider using something like GoogleMail. This has several benefits:

  1. Separate and flexible: It keeps your mail divorced from your hosting arrangements so that you don’t have to go through the hassle of configuring it in your email readers (e.g. on your computer and on any mobile devices).
  2. Lots of space: It offers nearly unlimited space. Your hosting provider will typically have a server-space limit.
  3. Options galore: It is highly configurable with regards to actions, auto replies, sorting, etc. — and again, you only need to set it up once regardless of device or hosting provider.
  4. Teams: It works well for teams or couples who may be working jointly on a project as they can both follow up on issues and cover for each other.

What is going on?

You start with your registered domain name. Let’s say it’s “widgets.com”. You’ve registered widgets.com with your domain registrar (NameSecure, NameCheap, GoDaddy, etc.).

A separate issue is your DNS, or “Domain Name Server.” This is the Big Internet Address Book Listing that is shared with all the big core web servers on the internet, telling them where your site lives. That is, on what web server (computer with a special purpose of hosting web pages) do your site files reside?

If you’ve never had a site before, your domain registrar no doubt has your site’s DNS settings pointing to their own “parked” page. You’ll see when you go to “http://widgets.com” in your web browser (Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome) that there’s usually a sort of advertisement for the registrar and a mention that this site isn’t active yet.

If your website was on another host, your DNS settings on your domain registrar were told to point to that other host’s web server.

In either case, your Big Internet Address Book Listing needs updating to your new hosting.

This article assumes you’ve configured an have active email either at your old hosting provider or your parked registrar hosting account.

 IMAP or POP email

It’s important to determine which of these two options you chose when you set up your account. It’s most common in recent years to have IMAP; POP used to be more common, but IMAP works well when you have multiple ways you’re accessing your mail (laptop, desktop, mobile device) as it keeps everything coordinated.

Here’s a simple comparison:

  • IMAP: I check my email via my smart phone. I read an email and then delete it. Later, I check my email via my laptop. The email I previously deleted doesn’t show up because the hosting web server where my mail resides keeps track and coordinates decisions.
  • POP: I check mail from my laptop. I choose to delete an email (on my laptop). I later check my email from my desktop. The same email downloads again and I must delete it again. (There are variables regarding deleting mail from server on download, etc., but that’s the basic idea highly simplified.) Significantly, if I download to my desktop and choose to delete immediately from server upon download, I can’t later download the same to my laptop, so there are real coordination issues. 

To learn more, visit these Wikipedia pages on IMAP and POP.

In this complex age, I usually recommend IMAP. It’s important that you understand what your “old mail set-up” is doing because it will inform you as to your next actions.

If you’re using POP now

If your current set-up is POP, then typically you can assume that all your mail is downloading to your local computer. You can proceed to the next area, “Once your ‘old mail’ is safe and sound“.

If you’re using IMAP now

If you’re using IMAP, which is very handy and keeps things nice and neat, this is the only time it’ll get sticky. This is the reason: Once your DNS has changed — think of it as putting in a Change of Address Form at the [Internet] post office — all the mail that sat in the old “house” [web server] for you to easily access from all your devices [laptop, phone, etc.] is still sitting in that old “house.” However, you can’t easily connect to it because your domain name [widgets.com] is now associated with your “new house” [web server location/DNS].

You’ll need to take an extra step of downloading that mail to a local device [computer]. Here are some excellent instructions from MIT’s knowledge base which describe what to do if you’re on an Apple Mac. Here’s another article I googled which describes how to do it using the Thunderbird (Mozilla) email program.

(Read the next section for a variation which doesn’t involve downloading. Proceed with whichever option you feel more comfortable with.)

Once your “old mail” is safe and sound

Once you’ve taken care of the mail you received and sent prior to your hosting change, you need to prepare for the “propagation period.” This is a four to 48 hour period during which the copies of the Big Internet Address Book are  updated on all the core web servers — showing your new hosting address. The reason for the range of time is that some core web servers are faster with spreading the word.

We’re going to assume that at this point your site is up on the new hosting server, but your DNS settings have not yet been changed at your registrar. Because we can’t know exactly how long it will take for this update to occur — and people will be emailing you during this period (and we don’t know if their Internet Service Provider has gotten the word on the move yet) — you need to set up a second email account on your laptop, desktop, and/or phone to get you through this buffer period. Consult your software’s help files to learn how to set up a new account. In Apple Mail, for example, I click Mail > Preferences, then click the plus sign at the bottom of the left column in the window. Take a moment and choose your current (“old”) email preferences and take screenshots of each panel. Odds are that most of your entries will remain the same. The only thing that might differ is your:

  • Description: call it “New [something]” so you can tell the difference. You should be able to change this later after you discard your current/old hosting account.
  • Incoming mail server hostname: mail.widget.com [where ‘widget.com’ is replaced by your domain name]
  • Username: bill@widget.com [where you replace this with your own email address; if you have difficulties, substitute the ampersand (@) for a plus sign].

What is happening here is that your email program is going out to look at both servers during this buffer “propagation period.”

If you have IMAP mail on your “old” account, you’ll want to save those emails locally (see previous section) as they arrive so that they’re available to you after the transition period is over.

Here is another discussion which, in step 2, offers an option wherein you can change the settings in your current (“old”) account from a domain name to an IP address.

Are we “go”?

Once you’ve done the tasks above, let me know.

  • If I’m updating your DNS settings, I’ll log into your registrar and update it.
  • If you’re updating your DNS settings, let me know so I can track your propagation period.

Soon your site will be live world-wide!

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Note: There are many variables involved with domain registrar settings and many softwares you may be using to access your email. This helpful tip is provided as a courtesy and cannot be considered comprehensive and extends into areas outside the scope of your web design/development project unless specifically noted in your project Estimate.