Why can’t I access my email?

Being unable to access email is frustrating, but it’s usually temporary – and there may be workarounds

Wednesday, 16 August, 2023

Although instant messaging apps have eroded its popularity, email remains an essential communication tool.

From marketing missives and business correspondence to security warnings and login credentials, email is central to many online activities.

As such, being unable to access email is both frustrating and worrying.

However, few of us understand the challenges of storing emails on remote servers in data centres, or the complexities of making those messages instantly accessible on any device.

Consumers are often unaware of why they’re suddenly unable to access or manage their inbox – especially when outages happen without warning…

A case study

One Sunday in mid-June, Virgin Media customers across the UK discovered they were unable to send or receive messages via the company’s proprietary email service.

Virgin was initially coy about the reason, merely acknowledging a “problem”, but the lack of accessibility dragged on throughout Monday.

Estimated fix times came and went. By Tuesday, some customers could send messages but not receive them, or vice versa.

Many people reported that their entire email histories had vanished, by which point the estimated fix time had been put back to Friday afternoon.

Issues of historic messages disappearing still hadn’t been fully resolved the following Friday, when botched maintenance triggered a second nationwide email outage.

As before, it took over a week for most of these problems to be resolved, in which time email services were taken offline for entire nights at a time.

Virgin customers (and people with legacy accounts from Virgin-owned brands like ntl) were still reporting folder losses and Outlook issues more than a month after the initial problems arose.

How can I avoid being unable to access email?

Inspired by the above events, our first recommendation is to avoid ISP-linked email accounts.

These tend to be basic services with limited storage and – in some cases – limited technical support.

That’s especially true when email accounts aren’t available to new customers. Virgin stopped offering new email services years ago, but still needs to service its legacy accounts.

If you leave an ISP, any linked email accounts may be automatically deleted after a certain amount of time, or you might need to start paying to retain access.

While ISPs are often taken over and rebranded, creating confusion (and sometimes technical errors), software giants like Microsoft are unlikely to ever change the name of their free email services.

Alternatively, a small monthly fee will secure you a proprietary email account on Google’s world-leading servers, protected by its excellent spam filtering algorithms.

This is a far better option for small businesses than a generic account. Which sounds more professional and trustworthy – yourname@yourbrand.co.uk, or yourbrand@mail.com?

Specialist software firms and email providers are also less likely to experience outages or server issues than companies who provide email as an add-on service to their core offerings.

Troubleshooting tips

If your email account is offline on your preferred or usual device, try accessing it through webmail – a website login rather than relying on a software program or app.

Outlook is especially prone to synchronisation issues that prevent messages being accessed, whereas webmail lets you view live inbox and sent folder data. It’s basic, but reliable.

Using another device might also be advisable in case your issue is platform specific – this is a good reason to keep key passwords written down somewhere for reference.

If the problem recurs on a second device, search the Down Detector website for live updates on your email provider.

Bear in mind email support teams may know little more than you. Don’t contact them if there’s a reported outage, since they’ll be instructed to repeat the same official line to everyone.

A periodic check on progress is fine, but constantly refreshing your device won’t bring email back online any quicker – though it will increase your stress levels.

As soon as you’re back online, check your Sent and Archive folders to ensure historic messages haven’t been erased, which may happen as data is transferred between servers.

Send test messages to and from another email account you have access to. If two-way communication is restored, your email issues are hopefully over.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!