Custom email domains look more professional than ‘@gmail.com’ or ‘@aol.com.’ Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of free email providers with a custom domain feature. This can be an issue for those using unmanaged server hosting (Cloud Server Hosting or Baremetal Hosting) but needing email hosting as well.
cPanel-managed server hosting includes a functioning mail server by default. And it’s easy to migrate email between cPanel servers. Just transfer a server backup or drag-and-drop using Thunderbird. Unmanaged Linux server hosting is a bare operating system, though. So if you want email while using an unmanaged Linux server, you’ll need to make an important decision between two options:
- Configure a mail server within that unmanaged server to host your email
- Use a paid or free email provider (preferably with the option to use a custom email domain)
If you choose the latter option, you must research your options wisely for some key features.
Security and privacy. Think of how much information you share in email communications that could be valuable to a cyber attacker. Since you wouldn’t be securing that data yourself, read about the email provider’s history of cyber attacks and how they responded to them. Read their setup guide and check if they provide Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Domain Keys Identified Mail (DKIM) DNS records for email authentication. Major kudos for Domain-based Message Authentication and Conformance (DMARC). And don’t forget to read their terms of service for how they might be using your data and compliance with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).
Even if you’re not in the European Union (EU) or California, many companies extend those features to all customers because it’s easier on their internal infrastructure.
High-availability (HA). You don’t want an email provider that consistently can’t let you login or fetch new emails quickly. Check Reddit and other reputable forums for comments about reports of constant downtime.
Ease of use. Everyone has preferences for optimal user experience (UX). Many prefer a dark contrast mode for working night shifts. Some need larger text for better web accessibility. Others may just want the email interface to be responsive enough to still be usable in half of a screen space. In summary, look for screenshots and video tutorials.
IMAP and POP3 access. Some free email providers disallow remote access for managing email. This prevents seamless offline email drafting, making it a hard pass for many. It also means you may need to migrate contact lists, calendar (CalDav) schedules, and to-do lists elsewhere to adjust your workflow.
Customer support. If you need help, would you be able to contact someone directly or have to browse support guides and forums? More importantly, are whatever support options available for the email provider sufficient for the issues you anticipate and your level of urgency? Quick way to test this: ask their support team a question.
Return of investment (ROI). Everything above equates to how valuable a free email provider will be for you. You don’t want to end up on a bad product with great marketing. You don’t want to sign up to a service with the mantra of “If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.” Also, there are many paid email providers that allow you to use custom email domains. Notable examples include ProtonMail and Mailfence. If you’re paying for an email provider, everything above matters that much more. Ensure you understand the email provider’s cancellation and renewal policies.
Below we’ll cover some reputable, free email providers that allow you to use a custom email domain.
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Google Workspace (formerly G Suite) is a popular choice for small and medium sized businesses without the resources to develop their own infrastructure. But it requires a monthly payment. So, many instead opt for the free Google account, point MX records to Gmail, and forward email there. This is easier with cPanel-managed server hosting because you have to create an email account with that custom domain elsewhere first.
There are requirements to set up a custom Gmail address with your domain.
- Well known company
- Thorough documentation for common issues and use cases
- Seamless integration with other Google applications
- Many people including Android users already have an account and experience with Google
- Great uptime
- Great spam protection
- Will likely be the first email provider to integrate Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI) for visual email authentication
- POP3 and IMAP access
- There are concerns about what Google does with user information
- High security lulls many into a false sense of online and mobile security against cyber attacks
Zoho is well known as an alternative customer relationship management (CRM) suite to Google. A lesser known feature of the Zoho CRM is the ability to use a custom domain for external email hosting. All you need to do is create a Zoho account and follow the setup process which includes DKIM, SPF, and DMARC records for email security against spoofing and spam.
- Reputable, mature company
- Easy setup process with checks to ensure security DNS records added to your server are correct and propagated
- High uptime
- Interface is easy to learn
- Grants access to a large array of CRM and collaborative applications
- Responsive customer service via email
- Free plan doesn’t allow IMAP or POP3 access
Your Linux Server Hosting as a Free Email Provider
Lastly, you could consolidate your data by doubling your Linux web server as a mail server. You’ll need the following types of applications to host your own mail server:
- Mail Transfer Agent (MTA), or outgoing mail server, uses simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP) to communicate with other mail servers (Postfix, Exim, or Sendmail)
- Mail Delivery Agent (MDA), or Local Delivery Agent (LDA), uses IMAP or POP3 to pull mail from the MTA and to a mailbox (usually Dovecot or Courier)
- Mail User Agent (MUA) manages email from a local machine (e.g. Thunderbird email client) or directly on the web server (Roundcube, Horde, etc.)
- SSL certificate manager to encrypt email communications (e.g. Certbot for free Let’s Encrypt SSLs)
- Data stored on your own server
- Limits to data and custom email domains determined by your server hosting plan
- You’ll only have the software and protocols available that you explicitly installed
- You may be able to find free VPS hosting
- May be difficult for less experienced Linux terminal users
- You must protect your own mail server with at least a web application firewall (WAF), antivirus (AV) scanner, and backup plan
- Must stay up-to-date on recent mail server attacks
Learn more about email server security from our VPS security ebook.
Many older listicles include Yandex and Migadu. As of 2021, Yandex only allows custom domains with Yandex.Mail for Business or Yandex.Connect (in select countries). Migadu is a great, but now paid email provider with a free trial.
Are there any free email providers with the ability to use custom email domains that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.