Google's Gmail and Microsoft's Outlook.com are the two most popular free email services in the world, and either one is a perfectly good choice for your primary email account. As long as you're willing to settle for an address in someone else's domain, that is.
For those who prefer a personalized email address that uses a custom domain they own, the options from either company have historically required a paid business account (G Suite from Google, Office 365 Business from Microsoft) using a complex, almost overwhelming set of administration tools designed for full-time network administrators. You also have to be willing and able to configure DNS records and mail exchange handlers, a process that can seem as esoteric as anything they teach at Hogwarts.
So imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered a well-hidden feature that allows anyone with an Office 365 Home or Personal subscription to attach a personalized email address to that account, with up to 50 GB of email storage for that account as well as support for email encryption. The web-based interface is ad-free, and you can use any email client, including the Windows 10 Mail app or the Outlook program included with Office 365, to access your account.
If you have a subscription to Office 365 Home, you can share that subscription with up to five people, each of whom also gets to create a personalized email address in your custom domain.
You have to pay an annual fee to register and manage the domain, but there are no extra charges as long as your Office 365 subscription is active.
(It's worth noting that Microsoft's official documentation for these "Premium Outlook.com features for Office 365 subscribers" doesn't mention the personalized email address. Instead, those details are in a separate FAQ: "Get a personalized email address in Office 365.")
So, what's the catch? There are three:
First, you are required to use GoDaddy to purchase or manage your custom domain. There's no way to connect a domain from another registrar to this account. And GoDaddy's prices are not exactly competitive. I paid $12 and change for the first year of my .com domain, but renewals are a pricey $18 a year, and you'll have to pay another $10 a year if you want your contact information to be confidential, making for a $28 annual bill after the year-one promo offer expires.
By contrast, Google Domains charges a flat $12 for a .com domain, with privacy protection as a no-cost option. Likewise, Namecheap charges $13 for a .com domain and promises that its WhoisGuard privacy protection service is "free forever."
(If you already own a domain that you want to use with your Office 365 subscription, you'll need to transfer it to GoDaddy first. After the transfer is complete, you can attach that domain to your Office 365 consumer subscription.)
Second, Microsoft already saw you calculating how much you could save by ditching your expensive corporate account for this much cheaper option. The license terms for Office 365 consumer subscriptions explicitly state that "[t]he service/software may not be used for commercial, non-profit, or revenue-generating activities." Likewise, the Microsoft Services Agreement specifies that Outlook.com is "for your personal, noncommercial use, unless you have commercial use rights under a separate agreement with Microsoft."
Of course, there's no technical check that will stop you from switching a small business over to the premium features of Office 365 Home in Outlook.com, but that license agreement should frighten off most prudent business owners.
Finally, you get one and only one personalized email address per mailbox. This feature doesn't support creating additional aliases using your custom domain beyond the first one you create for each mailbox.
If you currently have an Office 365 Home or Personal subscription that's associated with an Outlook.com mailbox (specifically, an email address ending in @outlook.com, @hotmail.com, @live.com, or @msn.com), here's how to add a personalized email address:
- Sign in at Outlook.com using the email address associated with your Office 365 consumer subscription.
- Click the gear icon to the left of your profile picture to open the Settings pane, then click View All Outlook Settings at the bottom of that pane.
- In the Settings dialog box shown above, click Premium (1) and then click Get Started (2).
- That option takes you to the Personalize Your Email Address dialog box, shown here. Click Get A Domain if you want to buy a new domain; click the small I Already Own A GoDaddy Domain link at the bottom of the dialog box to attach a domain you already own.
- Follow the prompts to purchase or attach a domain at GoDaddy, and then enter the name you want to use for your personalized address.
You might have to wait a few minutes for GoDaddy and Outlook.com to complete the connection, but you can check the status any time by opening Outlook.com again, signing in with the Microsoft account associated with your Office 365 subscription, and going to Settings > Premium > Personalized Email Address. As the owner of the subscription you can see all the users associated with your subscription.
Any user with whom you've shared your Office 365 Home subscription can go to that same settings page after signing in with their Microsoft account to create their own address in your new shared domain.If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it's not just your imagination. Microsoft first rolled this feature out as a standalone Outlook.com Premium subscription back in 2016, but closed the program in late 2017. For the handful of readers who still have one of these subscriptions, Microsoft sent out a notice this week that it will shut down the Outlook.com Premium dashboard at the end of February 2020 and will not renew those subscriptions when they expire.
If you already have an Office 365 Home or Personal subscription and you want to attach a custom domain, the extra cost, even at GoDaddy's inflated prices, is probably worth it, especially if you have other shared users who also would benefit from having a personalized email address.
The alternatives are a G Suite account or an Office 365 Business Essentials subscription, both of which cost $5 per user per month and don't include the Office 365 desktop apps. An Office 365 Business Premium subscription, with email and the desktop apps, costs $12.50 per user per month. At those prices, don't be surprised if some small businesses with one to five users decide to tempt the Microsoft licensing gods.