How AOL Mail Works

AOL Mail provides free e-mail services to nonsubscribers.
© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

AOL Mail, also called AIM Mail, is a recent development in America Online's long (by Internet standards) history. AOL has always offered e-mail service, but only to its paying customers and only through its proprietary, all-in-one software package. However, in the spring of 2005, AOL launched its first free Webmail service, known as AOL Mail.

AOL Mail differs from AOL's traditional e-mail program because it doesn't require special software, and it's available for free to anyone, not just AOL subscribers. AOL Mail, like other Web mail programs, runs over the Internet using standard Web browsers such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, et cetera. AOL Mail users simply go to, enter their login information and start sending e-mails.


You can still download AOL's all-in-one Internet software and use the built-in e-mail program (the latest is called AOL Desktop and it's free). For the purposes of this article, we're going to focus on the Web mail version of AOL Mail.

AOL launched AOL Mail as part of its move from a subscriber-based service to a Web portal. By 2005, Yahoo, MSN and Google had already established themselves as free Web portals where visitors could catch up on news and access Web-based e-mail, IM and calendar programs [source:].

For AOL to compete in the Web portal race, it needed to up the ante, so it released AIM Mail with 2GB of free storage, a large number at the time. AOL now offers unlimited storage space with all AOL Mail accounts.

In this HowStuffWorks article, we're going to explain exactly how AOL Mail works, from setting up an account to the service's basic and advanced features. Let's get started.


Getting Started

AOL Mail lets users to preview messages in a double-paned view, as well as easily access their buddy or to-do lists.
Image courtesy of AOL

To get started with an AOL Mail account, go to and click on the button that says "Get FREE AOL Mail." You'll then be asked to choose an e-mail address (example: and password for your account. If you already have an AIM screen name, you can use your existing screen name and password to log into AIM Mail. You'll automatically be given an AIM Mail address based on your screen name (example:

When you first log into AOL Mail, the main part of the screen is taken up with scrolling headlines from AOL News. All of the actual e-mail functions are located on the left side of the screen.


There you'll see a list of icons and folders, the first being Inbox. Your inbox is where all of your received e-mails are stored. Click on the inbox icon and you'll be taken to the inbox view, a chronological list of received e-mails from newest to oldest.

To read an e-mail in the inbox, click on it, and it'll open. All of the basic actions for responding to and managing e-mail are located at the top of the window:

  • Reply lets you write a message back to the sender or to all recipients
  • Forward lets you forward the e-mail along to another party
  • The Action button is a pull-down menu with advanced organizational options like marking a message as new, flagging a message, moving it to other folders, printing it, et cetera
  • Delete sends the message to your Trash folder, also located on the left-hand side
  • Spam sends the message to your Spam folder and will help AOL Mail identify future spam

To write an e-mail, either hit "Reply" to an existing message or the "Compose" button at the screen's top left to create a new message. AOL Mail comes with a rich text formatting palette that allows you to change fonts, text and background color, text alignment and more. Those tools are located right above the large text box.

You can attach an image or any other file using the Attach File button. And you can spell check your message with the Spelling button at the top of the window. Click on misspelled words to see suggested corrections. When you're satisfied with your message, press the Send button at the top of the screen. If you're not ready, you can press the Save Draft button to save the message in your Drafts folder on the left.

Below the Trash folder are two icons for Contacts and Calendar. Contacts is the same as an address book in other e-mail programs. When you click on Contacts, a new window will open where you can add new contacts, fill in their e-mail addresses and other contact information, and organize them into lists.

AOL Mail features include a calendar so users can manage their schedules.
Image courtesy of AOL

Click the Calendar button to open the integrated calendar application. Hit the New Event button to add an event, appointment or meeting to the calendar. You'll be asked to name the event, set the date and time, indicate whether it repeats (daily, weekly, et cetera), and set up a reminder alert. You can also add an event description and a location that automatically links to Mapquest.

Now let's look at some of the newer and more advanced features of AOL Mail.


Advanced Features

AOL Mail offers a variety of tools
Image courtesy of AOL

AOL Mail offers many advanced features, including panels, which can be found on the mail screen's right side. Panels are quick links to other online services provided by AOL or its partners. Here's information about the most useful panels:

  • The AIM panel opens an embedded AOL Instant Messenger window on the screen's right side of the screen. You can configure AOL Mail to automatically log you into AIM when you open the e-mail program. The AIM panel includes all of the basic AIM features, namely your Buddy List and the ability to send IMs, start chat sessions or send text messages.
  • The To Do panel opens up your To Do list, to which you can add new tasks and due dates. There is also a To Do link on all received e-mails. If the subject of the e-mail is something you need to follow-up on, simply click the To Do link and an entry will be added to your To Do list.
  • The Events panel is tied to the Calendar application. Upcoming Calendar events appear in the Event panel. Like the To Do function, there's a Calendar link in every received e-mail. Click the link to create a Calendar entry, which will appear both in the Calendar application and the Events panel.
  • A Blog link is located next to the Calendar and To Do links. This button creates an entry in your AOL Journal, a free blog service included with all AOL Mail accounts. After you press the Blog link, fill in the subject and body of the blog posting, plus any relevant tags, then press Save. You can share your blog with the public or limit it to your buddies.

AOL Easy Transfer

Use this free service to import all your contacts and old e-mails from another e-mail application. Enter your old e-mail address and password, and your e-mails and contacts will transfer into your new AOL account within 24 hours. It can also alert your contacts about your address change and forward e-mails to your AOL account for 30 days.


Easy transfer allows users to import contact information from other e-mail programs.
Image courtesy of AOL


Other new features are located on the Settings menu. The Settings link is at the top right side of the AOL Mail screen. In Settings, under General, there's a check box for "Use a reading pane to view mail." You can read mail in your inbox without opening each individual message. Instead, the screen splits in half with your inbox above and a preview area below called the reading pane.

The Filters option lets you add rules for automatically organizing and archiving received mail. For example, e-mails from your boss will go to your Work folder. Or e-mails from your ex-boyfriend will go to the Trash folder. You can also create new filters when reading a received e-mail. Open the e-mail, click the Action button and scroll down to "Create a Filter."

Also in Settings is Mobile Mail. Here you can enter your cell phone number to receive a text message with a link to download a free copy of AOL Mobile Mail. You can send and receive e-mails directly from your cell phone using your AOL Mail or AIM Mail address.


Frequently Answered Questions

What type of email account is AOL?
AOL is a web-based email service.
Is AOL email safe?
AOL email is safe if you take proper security measures. Be sure to use a strong password and avoid clicking on links from unknown senders.