How do I add an account?”

This apparently simple question can mean several different things.

First of all, Mozilla's Thunderbird is an email client, or program or application. It does not provide email addresses or an email server. So references to "Thunderbird account" don't really make any sense. You don't have an account with Mozilla corp.

So let's recap how email works.

Let's say you are Mr User, and your internet connection is provided by isp.com. They also provide you with a bundle of email accounts, one of which may be mr-user@isp.com. You may well use this same address to make your connection to the internet, though it is most likely your router or modem knows it and you have forgotten it.

In this case, your ISP is also your email provider.

The first step in adding an account to an email client is to create the account. So, mr-user@isp.com already exists. If we require a separate account for Mrs User, then you need to set that up first with isp.com. You may be able to do this for yourself, or you may need to ask your ISP to do it for you.

When you run Thunderbird for the first time it asks for an account to be set up. At any time afterwards, you can start the account addition process by hand, via File|New|Existing Mail Account...

It asks for your name (that's whatever name you want to be known by to your email correspondents), the email address for the account we are setting up (e.g. mr-user@isp.com) and the account's password.

Now there's one item here that you haven't yet been asked for. Email accounts also have a user name, but in most cases this is the email address. Occasionally it's just the first part of your email address (i.e. mr-user); occasionally it's a totally different word, usually defined for you by the email provider.

Thunderbird will go ahead with setting up the account. It will try to use your email address as the username, and if that's not what your mail provider wants, no matter; we'll have a chance to put it right.

How does Thunderbird know what to use when setting up your account? It has several resources:

If there is no definitive reference, Thunderbird will try common mail server names, such as mail.isp.com, pop.isp.com, imap.isp.com. If your ISP does something a bit odd, such as having regional servers, (e.g. mailserver.eastcoast.isp.com) then there's no reliable way for Thunderbird to guess this, so it will fail and invite you to add in the right things. I suggest that you don't guess; all of what you need to know will be published somewhere, such as your mail provider's website.

Whilst trying to discover the server name, Thunderbird will also try to find out what protocols it offers, and what security options it supports. Given a choice, Thunderbird will select IMAP in preference to POP - but you can override this before creating the account. It will also select TLS, SSL or STARTTLS if they are available; these are systems that encrypt the connection between you and your email server. The main benefit here is that your login and password are also encrypted and so cannot easily be “sniffed” by malicious third parties.

If Thunderbird cannot find a secured connection, it will fall back to regular, unsecured POP or IMAP and show you a startling red screen warning you. Sadly, unsecured connections are still all too common and if your mail provider doesn't offer a secured connection, there's little you can do other than accept the risks and complain, or suggest politely that they should take your privacy and security a little more seriously and offer this service. It is almost certainly available on their server software, but they may have chosen to disable it as running with unsecured connections makes their support job easier.

If you want or need to set up your account by hand, the Create Account button will stay stubbornly greyed out until you have set all the options, including the port, security and authentication. TB reads any of these being set at their default, or “automatic” as an invitation for it to test things on your behalf.

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