Email aliases are the easiest path to privacy—and an organized inbox

And setting them up is a snap.

Laptop typing
Email aliases put multiple addresses at your fingertips.Marvin Tolentino via Unsplash

We all deal with a daily deluge of email, which means we jump at anything that can improve the efficiency of our inboxes. In that spirit, consider email aliases, a useful feature found in popular services like Gmail, Microsoft Outlook, and Apple Mail.

Aliases are alternative addresses that still direct to your original inbox. Essentially, you get a new address without having to go through the hassle of setting up a new account with its own login credentials. And these alternative identities have lots of uses, including organizing your inbox and protecting your privacy.

How email aliases work

Email filter
An alias makes it easy to filter incoming messages.David Nield

In general, email aliases act as different "fronts" to your main email address, although the exact details vary from service to service. These variations will arrive at the same inbox as messages to your main address, while keeping that original moniker hidden from view. That said, the real application here is not anonymity, but easy filtering.

For example, if you sign up for a lot of email newsletters, consider doing so with an alias. That way, you can quickly filter the incoming messages sent to that alias—these are probably low-priority, so you can have your provider automatically apply specific labels, mark them as read, or delete them immediately. Alternatively, a filter might prioritize messages sent to the alias you give out to friends and family, or those sent to the alias you use for work emails. This approach gives you a lot of flexibility for managing your inbox.

Bear in mind that recipients can usually look at one of your aliases and use it to figure out your main email address. So in situations where anonymity is critical, you might need to set up a whole new account.

Still, if hiding your identity doesn't matter as much, aliases are much easier to configure than whole new accounts. Here's how to set them up in Gmail, Outlook, and Apple Mail.

In Gmail

Gmail filter
Adding a filter in Gmail.David Nield

You don't need to jump through any hoops to set up an alias in Gmail. Just add some periods and plus symbols to the addresses you give out. When you tack on a plus sign followed by a word, the Google service will ignore the added text, and it overlooks periods altogether. For example, let's say your email is johnsmith@gmail.com: Messages addressed to john.smith@gmail.com, j.o.h.nsmith@gmail.com, johnsmith+hello@gmail.com, and johnsmith+message@gmail.com will all show up in your usual Gmail account.

Although the end result is the same, this gives you a quick and effective way of filtering messages. Going back to the John Smith example, you might always do your online shopping through the john.smith@gmail.com alias. When these messages arrive, Gmail might automatically label them "shopping" or "receipts." You could sign up for email newsletters with the moniker johnsmith+news@gmail.com, and a filter might mark them read and send them straight into the Updates tab.

To set up a filter, head to your Gmail settings: Open the web portal, click the cog icon in the top-right corner, and pick Settings. Choose Filters and blocked addresses > Create a new filter, enter your chosen alias in the To field, and hit Create filter. Use the next dialog to decide what should happen to messages sent to this address—you can add labels, flag them with stars, mark emails as important, mark them as read, or instantly archive messages, among other options. Finally, click Create filter.

Giving out aliases is easy, but if you want to send Gmail messages from these addresses, you'll have to tweak the settings once more. Open Settings > Accounts and Import, scroll down to Send mail as, and click Add another email address. Then type out the email address, tick the Treat as an alias box, and click Next Step. From now on, whenever you compose an email, you'll be able to select your alias in the From field.

In Outlook

Outlook alias
You can create new Outlook aliases from the service's website.David Nield

On Outlook, aliases work similarly to the way they do in Gmail. You can also create completely new @outlook.com addresses within your primary account, which gives you more options if you want to use aliases to maintain anonymity.

With Microsoft's free webmail service, you can still make up variations on your full address using those plus symbols, but periods won't work the way they do in Gmail. For example, to go back to John Smith, you can use aliases such as johnsmith+news@outlook.com and johnsmith+work@outlook.com, but you can't rely on john.smith. Again, you don't have to specifically create these aliases—just hand them out, and they'll work automatically.

To set up a filter for your tweaked email addresses, click the cog icon on the top right, followed by View all Outlook settings. Under the Email tab, click Rules > Add new rule. Name your potential filter, select To and your email alias as the condition, and then decide on the action to take. For instance, you might tell Outlook to immediately delete alias-addressed messages, move or copy them to certain folders, delete them, mark them as read, label them as spam, categorize them, forward them to another email address, and so on. Click Add another action to process the incoming message in multiple ways, or Add an exception to exclude certain messages from the filter. When you're happy with the actions that an alias-addressed email will receive, click Save.

Unlike with Gmail, you won't be able to send messages from these variations on your original email address. However, Outlook does let you add a completely new @outlook.com address inside your primary account. If your requested address is available, you get to manage both johnsmith@outlook.com and johnsmithalias@outlook.com from the same account—messages addressed to both will arrive at the same inbox, and you can send messages from both as well. So if you want to use aliases to achieve anonymity, Microsoft's email service has an edge over Gmail in this department.

To add this kind of alias, visit this Outlook page on the web. Look under the Create a new email address and add it as an alias heading and enter your new address there. You can have up to five aliases per account, as long as you pick addresses that nobody else has claimed first. Once you've established these aliases, they will work in the desktop version of Outlook, as well as the Mail application that comes with Windows. To create new ones though, you need to follow these steps in your web browser, not the desktop app.

You can filter incoming messages sent to these aliases the same way you filter those sent to DIY aliases made with plus signs. To actually send emails from your added addresses, just click From when you're composing a message and select whichever moniker you prefer.

In Apple Mail

iCloud alias
Creating aliases in the iCloud web interface.David Nield

The Apple Mail alias system works very similarly to the Microsoft Outlook one. Without changing any settings, you can toss pluses into your address, and messages sent to johnsmith+work@icloud.com will still end up in the johnsmith@icloud.com inbox. However, you can't send emails from these aliases. To get that ability, you can create up to three completely new @icloud.com email addresses that all funnel messages into your original inbox.

Let's start with those plus-sign aliases. To filter messages sent to those addresses, head to iCloud Mail's web portal, click the cog icon on the bottom left, and choose Rules > Add a Rule. Enter your alias in the top field, change the label to is address to via the drop-down menu, and decide what you want to do with the message: You can send it to a folder, forward it, mark it as read, and more.

Those DIY aliases are easy to set up, but you can't send messages from them. For that, you can create a brand-new alias—a different email address managed from your original account—and send messages from it. First, click the cog icon followed by Preferences. From the Accounts tab, choose Add an alias and enter your chosen address. If it's available, it's yours. Finally, you can tell Mail to apply a label to any messages that arrive at this address.

That's not the only filter, of course—the same rules you applied to plus-sign aliases will also work for stand-alone ones. And you can send messages from them: When you compose a new email, your available aliases will appear as options in the From box. This holds true whether you're writing a message from the web or from the macOS desktop app. To further add and manage aliases from your Mac, open the Mail app and choose Mail > Preferences > Accounts.