AOL utilizes a highly proprietary mail system. For years, this system was only accessible using the AOL client software or web site. Over time, a handful of other applications became able to access this system. Then, on April 5, 2004, things changed drastically as AOL announced Open Mail Access -- IMAP and authenticated Authenticated SMTP servers available to its membership. (These functions were introduced over time first to users of CompuServe 2000, then to foreign AOL markets.)
What is IMAP?
IMAP is an email protocol that stores email on the remote mail server. This is different from the popular POP3 protocol, which (normally) only holds onto your email until you download it for manipulation in your local email program. Despite this, you can still download IMAP mail to the local computer; the procedure is just a little different (and, in most respects, more flexible).
AOL's mail system, while not IMAP-based, used a very similar model. While you could download messages to the computer, most AOL members accessed it online -- regardless of whether they were accessing it from one location or several. This is also the model that popular webmail providers, such as Hotmail and Yahoo! use.
The main disadvantage to hosting your email on a server is storage space. AOL doesn't have a space limitation, but it does delete old messages after a certain period of time -- except for those saved in a special server-based folder (which does have a space limitation, see below).
How do you use AOL's IMAP/SMTP servers?
The AOL IMAP and SMTP server addresses are:
Log in to the IMAP server using the appropriate AOL screen name (with any spaces removed -- "John Doe" becomes "JohnDoe" or "johndoe" -- this is what we call "normalizing" a Screen Name) and that Screen Name's AOL (not AIM) Password.
The SMTP server requires authentication in order to send mail through it. Just as with the IMAP server, log in using the normalized AOL Screen Name and its AOL Password. You do not need to use the AOL SMTP server, but your message will not appear in your AOL Sent Mail and may be blocked by filters that do not believe AOL members should be sending email without using the AOL SMTP server.
Access to these servers is available whether you are dialed into AOL or another provider, regardless of whether the AOL software is signed on. AOL members using hourly rate plans will not be charged for accessing these servers -- provided they're not dialed into AOL while doing it. Access to the servers will be listed as "<NetMail>" in the Detailed Bill.
These servers will not work for a program that does not support IMAP and Authenticated SMTP. AOL does not have a POP3 server.
AOL provides detailed documentation and examples at Keyword: Open Mail Access, at Postmaster.Info, and in the AOL Help article "Can I read and send AOL e-mail using other e-mail applications?."
AOL's own step-by-step instructions of AOL account setup in various popular email programs include:
Third-party instructions for AOL account setup include:
AOL's IMAP Folder Structure
The AOL IMAP folder structure includes the following folders:
The "INBOX" folder contains all of your "incoming" mail, including mail AOL classifies as "New Mail" and "Old Mail." Although messages typically remain in an IMAP inbox indefinitely, these messages are still bound by AOL's standard policy of deleting unread mail older than approximately 27 days (see "How long does mail stay available in my mailbox?") -- so move them to the Saved folder (see below) or a local folder in your email client if you want to keep them for longer. If your IMAP email client is configured to display deleted messages, it will also show messages that AOL classifies as "Recently Deleted." These linger for roughly 24 hours before being permanently deleted. You may also be able to configure your email client to purge deleted items sooner (such as when quitting or when leaving a folder).
The "Saved" folder corresponds to AOL's "Saved on AOL" folder, and is a place to save messages on the AOL email server so that they are accessible from any location (including AOL Mail). This does not correspond with the AOL Personal Filing Cabinet. You are free to move messages in and out of this directory using your IMAP email client, and to create subfolders. Messages in this folder are saved indefiniately, subject to a 20 MB space limitation. (See "How do I save e-mail permanently?" for more information about the Saved on AOL folder.)
The "Sent Items" folder contains all of the mail you've sent through AOL. Some IMAP email clients ask you whether to store sent mail locally (on your computer) or on the IMAP server, but AOL doesn't give you that choice (or need it). AOL will automatically place a sent message in the Sent Items directory, and you will get an error of your IMAP email client tries to do it -- so it's best to configure your IMAP email client to store sent messages in the local Sent folder (if at all).
The "Spam" folder corresponds with AOL's "Spam Folder," which is where you'll find messages AOL has diverted due to its junk email filtering (see Mail Controls for more information), and messages that you have reported as being Spam. They are automatically deleted after approximately 48 hours unless purged sooner.
The "VOICEMAIL" folder is for users of AOL Voicemail premium service.
Note: The Spam and Saved folders may not exist on a particular Screen Name until they are "created." These folders are created using recent AOL for Windows versions (6.0 or later?) and possibly AOL Mail on the web.
Notes, Issues, and Peculiarities
AOL's Foreign IMAP/SMTP Servers
AOL also offers IMAP and SMTP servers in its foreign markets in their respective localities. There is no difference between these servers (in fact, a DNS lookup will show they're all actually the same servers: imap.imap-r.rotors.cs.com and smtp.cs.com) and they should work interchangeably.
(I welcome direct official documentation links for other localities.)
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This Guide written by AdamKB. Permission to distribute this Guide is granted, so long as its text and source URL remain intact.
Last updated: 04.07.2005.