How To Stop Using Free Email

I'm not going to lie. Changing your email account suuuuuuuuucks. But having gone through it recently, I've compiled the steps necessary and have tried to make it as simple as possible.

Is it worth it? You can read more about why you'd want to do this here: Stop Using Free Email.

Even if you're not technical, you can do this. It's a lot of steps but just put on a cup of coffee and take it slow. The main steps should take less than a couple of hours and you should only have to do this once.

If you get stuck on any of these steps for more than 15 minutes, just contact me and I'll help you through.

Clarifying Terms

Skip this section if you already have a firm grasp on email.

In order to understand why the following steps are necessary and what each one does, we'll have to separate out the components of what we usually mean when we say "email." This is important because there are different costs associated with each component, where the free services usually bundle them all together.

For a mental model most of us understand better, let's compare it to phones. The phone system analog is in parentheses below.

Email Address (Phone Number): This is just what you think, like "[email protected]," but we need to understand its relation to your email account and your email client. Like a phone number it can be independent of the service behind it, like how you can transfer your number from AT&T to Verizon.

For email, this kind of transfer is only possible if you own the domain that's in the address, the "example.com." So for most free services like Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail, you're not going to be able to use your existing email address with a different email provider. That's because you don't own "gmail.com" or "hotmail.com." More on this later.

Email Provider (AT&T/Verizon/etc.): This is the owner of the server that will send and receive your emails for you. They pay for the hard drive space that your emails take up, and make sure that the server is always up and running so you don't miss any emails people send you. This is Google for Gmail, Microsoft for Hotmail, etc.

You get a username and password with the Provider to gain access to your emails, then you usually enter those into some sort of mail client to authenticate yourself. The client then stores your credentials and uses it to pull down emails from the server.

Email Client (Phone): This is the interface for browsing, writing, deleting, and categorizing your emails. If you are using Gmail, this is the interface you use at mail.google.com, or one of Google's apps for iOS or Android. Most of the free email providers offer their own email client, which many people conflate with the service itself.

Step #1: Register Your Own Domain

Since changing your primary email address is a pain for both you and your friends, let's make sure you only have to do it once. Registering your own domain and using that for your new email allows this to happen.

Take me, for example. I had an @gmail.com address that I used for everything for over 10 years. Then I moved services to Mailbox.org, which gave me an @mailbox.org address. If I wanted to change to Proton Mail or something, I would then have yet another address ending in @protonmail.com.

So I registered my own domain, axline.io, and I can now make whatever @axline.io address I want and take it with me to whatever service I choose. This gives me more freedom and now my friends can always reach me at that address even if I change my Provider.

This is like taking your number with you when you switch from AT&T to Verizon.

My preferred way to do this is to visit Domainr and start typing in domain name ideas into the search box. It will tell you different addresses that are available based on your idea. You can also then get taken to iwantmyname.com* to purchase the domain if it's available. There are cheaper places to buy your domain, but I like the simplicity of iwantmyname.com.

A more detailed tutorial is beyond the scope of this post, but you can check out the link below or contact me for help if you run into trouble.

How To Register Your Own Domain Name (Skip to the Step By Step Instructions and don't use GoDaddy)

Step #2: Choose a Privacy Focused Service

Here you'll just need to create an account at a service that you trust. I use Mailbox.org, but lots of people like ProtonMail. A good list to choose from can be found here:

Best Secure Email Providers for Privacy

Many of these services have a free tier without much storage space. This allows you to try them out for a bit to see if you like them. You'll likely run out of room before long and have to upgrade, so be sure to compare prices before you get too committed to a single one.

For some people it may be important that the physical email servers are in a country with a history of privacy protection. Others may want the built-in clients be as nice and feature-rich as possible. There are too many varying criteria for me to recommend one Provider as the best. Just keep in mind that if you don't like the Provider's client apps, you can use a client of your choice with their service so that shouldn't be a dealbreaker.

When you sign up, you'll get a new email address at the service's domain, like @mailbox.org, but don't worry, we'll wire up your fancy new email at your own domain in the next steps.

If you really don't want to leave the Google tools behind, you can pay for a G Suite account. Presumably Google does not scan the data of their G Suite users since that would be a huge breach in trust and many businesses us it with the understanding that it's private.

Step #3: Setup the DNS Records at Your New Domain

Once you've decided on a Provider, you can connect that new account with your new domain. This involves configuring a Domain Name System (DNS) server, which is easier than it sounds.

There are too many combinations of DNS provider and domain name registrar (where you purchase the domain from) for me to give concrete steps here, but I'll tell you my setup and link to some tutorials. (If you've done this before, go ahead and do it and skip to the next section.)

The main thing to look for in the documentation of your email Provider is "Custom Domain Aliases." When I signed up for Mailbox.org, I searched "mailbox.org custom domain aliases" and found this tutorial. And here's one for ProtonMail (scroll down to the heading "Custom Domain Addresses"). There will be a different process for setting up aliases that end in the Provider's domain, like @mailbox.org, and setting up an alias with your custom domain, like @axline.io, so be sure to pay attention to the different instructions.

At a high level, what each Provider wants you to do is point your DNS server at their mail server. Your DNS server is the computer that's listening for requests made to the domain name you registered above. Many registrars like iwantmyname.com will give you a DNS for your domain, but not all of them do. If yours does, it means they have their computers listen for connections to your domain. In this case, the registrar usually has a way to edit the DNS for your domain through the UI of your account.

The specific records you'll be adding to your DNS server are called MX records. So you'll want to do a search with the name of your registrar like this: "iwantmyname.com edit mx record dns". That search takes me to this page:

How do I add MX DNS records for email?

Your registrar should have something similar. Your Provider will likely have multiple MX records that they want you to add which point to backup mail servers. Like for Mailbox.org, I had to add these three records:

MX 10 mxext1.mailbox.org
MX 10 mxext2.mailbox.org
MX 20 mxext3.mailbox.org

Where 10 and 20 are relative priorities and the domains are the addresses of the mail servers.

Adding the MX records to your domain's DNS is one part of the equation. That will send all email coming to your domain to the Provider's server. But there may be many addresses on your domain, so how does the Provider's server know which mail to put in your account? That's why you need an alias.

Once you setup an alias at your Provider, all email addressed to that alias will now appear in your inbox. You should now be able to send a test email, or have someone else send a test email, and see it in your inbox in the Provider's web client.

This can all be a bit confusing until you wrap your head around it, but you actually don't really need to understand it to make it work. If you want to know more, check out:

DNS: What it Is and What it Does

And as always, feel free to contact me with questions.

Step #4: Transfer Your Contacts

One of the biggest sticking points for people moving to a new service is not having all their contacts right where they want them. But in most cases there's a way to bring all your old contacts over with you.

This step involves first exporting your contacts from your current, free account, and then importing them into the account you just created. The steps will be similar but  specific to both the export and import locations. Here are a couple of examples:

How to Export Contacts from Gmail (explanation with images)

Importing Contacts Into ProtonMail

Step #5: Alert Your Contacts

I chose to send out a mass, spammy email to all my contacts from my new address, alerting them to the change. If you go this route, be sure to put every email address in the BCC field so that you don't leak everyone's contact info.

Another approach would be to just auto-forward emails from your old account to your new one (see below), and then as you respond to people with your new address, their contact info is gradually updated.


Great job! I'm proud of you for making it this far. As long as you don't close your old account right away, the rest of these steps can be done gradually over a period of weeks or months.

Step #5: Change Your Online Accounts

The next thing you want to do is update all your online accounts that use your old address to contact you. There are a couple of ways to do this. The first is to proactively go through all your accounts (banks, social media, SaaS apps, newsletters, etc.) and update your email. Then shutdown your old email account.

If you use a password manager, it likely has listed most of the accounts you'll want to update.

The second (lazier and easier) way is to leave your old inbox as is. Then keep an eye on that inbox throughout the day. As emails come in, you can update that service, contact, or newsletter with the new address.

This works even better if you decide to forward all mail from your free account to your new, paid account (see below). That way you can just respond to emails addressed to the free account with your new address and only monitor one inbox.

Step #6: Download and Store Your Old Emails

There are a few ways to skin this cat. Many desktop email clients, like Outlook and Thunderbird, save your emails locally, so if you have one of those, you may already have all your email stored on your computer. Accessing those can be tricky should you change clients, however, so you may want to export them into a platform agnostic archive.

The export formats you want to look for are Mbox and EML. Mbox will save each folder as a separate file, where EML will save each email as its own file. Either will work. If your old Provider doesn't specify what its export format is, it may be proprietary. Outlook, for example, uses its own format called PST. There are many converters out there, so you can probably get your archive into whatever format you wish, even if it's not directly exported as that. Just do a search for "PST to EML email converter," for example.

If you're closing your old account immediately, you'll need to research how to export your emails from your old service and then close your account. Here's an example for Gmail:

How to Export Your Emails from Gmail as Mbox Files

Be sure to verify that all your emails came down with the export before deleting you account. And maybe keep multiple backups of it on different hard drives since you are now responsible for the persistence of those emails.

If you're leaving your old account open, there may still be emails coming and going from it that you'd want to preserve later. Wait until you're ready to make a complete cutover to your new service before exporting.

Step #7 (Optional): Forward the Emails From Your Old Address

This step is optional but highly recommended. Again, it will be based on which service you were using for your old email, but it's usually pretty painless to find it in the settings and set it to your new address. Here's an example for Gmail:

Automatically forward Gmail messages to another account

Step #8 (Optional): Delete and Unsubscribe

Now that you're starting with a clean slate, take this opportunity to ditch any unwanted newsletters or services that are tied to your old address. Like Marie Kondo says, if it doesn't spark joy, get rid of it.

No Free Email Clients

Now that you've got a shiny new inbox that, we have good reason to believe, isn't being read by any third parties, let's not skimp on the client. I will be discussing email clients more in depth in future posts, but aside from Thunderbird and the built-in Mail app on Mac, don't use any free ones. That's because they're likely monetizing your emails by scanning their contents in some way.

If a client like eM Client has a freemium model, that's potentially OK since their business model aligns with maintaining customers' trust. Just make sure you read the Terms of Service or do some research to see if they store your emails on the server, or just on the device. Many clients offer snazzy features that can only be achieved by keeping copies of your emails on their server, so beware.

I use Airmail for Mac and iOS and I'm pretty happy with it.

Stay Tuned

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Cover image by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

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