How to read e-mail message headers – the basics

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Email Fundamentals: How to Read Email Message Headers

Reading the headers of an email message can reveal very useful information for Exchange Server administrators who are diagnosing problems.

Email message header information includes details such as the route that the email took (ie which email servers were involved in the transmission of the message), who sent it, who it was addressed to, and whether the email message was scanned for spam or viruses.

This is useful for both internal and external email messages. As just one real world example, I often need to use email message header information to diagnose message delivery delays.

How to Access Email Message Header Information in Outlook

Each version of Microsoft Outlook lets you access the email message headers, but they do it in slightly different ways.

To read the email message headers in Outlook 2013 click on the arrow next to Tags in the ribbon menu.


To read the email message headers in Outlook 2010 click on the arrow next to Tags in the ribbon menu.

The message options will appear with the email message header information towards the bottom.

Reading Email Message Headers in Notepad

First let’s take a look at how difficult it actually can be to read the raw message header information that you get out of a message in Outlook. If you copy the message header information into Notepad will look like a complete mess.

Even though it is is quite messy and difficult to read you can still see useful information in the message headers. First there is the basic information about the email message itself.

Then there are the email servers that the message passed through on it’s way to the destination. To follow these in order start at the bottom and read upwards.

These lines are generally in the following format:

Received: from servername (IP address) by servername (IP address) with MTA-name; timestamp

When a message passes over several hops this can get a bit confusing to read, especially when the timestamps are all from different time zones. Fortunately there are some useful tools you can use to present the email message header to you in a much easier format to read.

Reading Email Message Headers Using Header Analyzer Tools

Here are three online tools you can use analyze email message headers. For demonstration purposes I’m using the message headers from a spam email message that I recently received in a mailbox in my test lab.

Microsoft Remote Connectivity Analyzer

The Microsoft Remote Connectivity Analyzer includes a Message Analyzer tool. Paste the message headers into the field provided and click Analyze headers to produce the report.




MXToolbox also has a section of the website for analyzing message headers. Again simply paste the header information into the field provided and you get a nice, graphical report out of it.



Google Apps Toolbox

Finally there is the Google Apps Toolbox which includes a Messageheader analyzer tool that has similar functionality to the others.



As you can see reading email message headers provides you with a lot of very useful information for diagnosing email problems. You can retrieve email messages easily using email clients such as Outlook, and then use any of the third party message header analyzer tools to produce an easy to read report from that message header data.

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