I remember my first work email address. Obviously, I didn’t have to pay for my email back then. It was 1993, when practically every server was on the public Internet. But I can’t remember my first personal email address. I think it was back when I was using The Loop for my hosting. It’s so old it doesn’t even show up when I ask the Duck. And then Gmail came along. I remember paying some small amount to get an invitation for a Gmail account when they were first available. I still have that account, but I don’t actively use it.
What are your paid and free choices?
As I said, I had Gmail. It’s free and gives you quite a bit of space, but it’s definitely not private. There are other similar free services, but they’re not all created equal. You may consider paid email hosting, but they are not all created equal.
I have a pay plan that includes email!
Over the years, I’ve bought hosting from various companies. They usually offer a lot of email space, but it’s not that great. A typical web host is really focused on websites. Their email is functional, and it has gotten better since I used it, but it’s not their core business. If you’re a casual email user and have a personal domain (usually for a website), then this might be enough for you. Email is already included in your hosting plan, so it’s practically free.
DIY email hosting sounds fun, but isn’t
Since I love tinkering with servers, I explored the option of hosting email on my own cloud server. The best option I found was Mail-in-a-Box. It’s a great free package, so it only costs what you’re paying for your VPS. The downside is the constant maintenance. Suffice it to say, I found it extremely difficult to run a reliable email service. It’s extra challenging on a VPS that’s difficult to keep off the big providers’ block lists because it’s hosted on a regular cloud service, or in an IP address range that’s shared amongst other random VPS users.
Pay an expert handle your email
After all that, I finally decided to go with a professional dedicated email host. In this case, MX Route. I still use them for a few projects and clients. They’re awesome and work super hard to maintain the excellent reputation of their services. MX Route’s packages are similar to web hosting packages: “Unlimited domains, Unlimited Mailboxes.” They price their packages by total storage. MX Route always has a sale going on, but even without the discount, their biggest plan still works out to about $5/month. I use this for large groups of email users in the same domain.
How about super secure email?
I’m a big fan of security. When I hosted my own email, I was pretty sure everything was safe, secure, and private. MX Route is good, but it’s a basic service, and excellent at what they do. But if you want the closest thing to the Fort Knox of Email, it’s Protonmail. I know there’s that saying “If you’re not paying for a product, then you’re the product. Yes, there’s a free plan at Protonmail, but it’s practically a trial account. It’s only 500MB of storage, and some other limitations, but it’s just as safe and secure as any of their paid plans.
They don’t let you use your own domain on the free plan, but that’s ok. You get a locked down email account that you can protect with 2FA (TOTP, but not U2F). Your account also get their best-in-class security. What sets Protonmail apart from the rest is that my email is encrypted at rest, and nobody can read it but me. I pay for the Pro plan and it’s $8/month for a single user. It’s very much worth it. I use this for my most critical email.
My overall favorite
As I said, Protonmail is pretty secure, so it’s a pretty limited configuration. I did find a middle ground that’s pretty close to Protonmail. For my not-absolutely-critical email, I use Fastmail. And it’s super fantastic. I pay $5/month per user for email. They’re big on privacy and security*. You can protect your account with 2FA, including U2F. The only shortcoming is that they don’t store email encrypted on the server like Protonmail does. Fastmail is my absolute favorite by far for personal email.
* Yes, some people point out that Fastmail can still turn over your email if legally compelled to do so. If that’s an issue for you, use Protonmail.