Can I Tell If Email I Sent Has Been Read by the Recipient?

I sent an email to a friend and he claims never to have gotten it. I don’t believe him; things he’s said led me to believe that he did get it and that he did read it. Is there a way I can tell for sure?

I’m amazed at the number of questions I get that boil down to people not trusting each other. Not that there isn’t cause, I suppose, with spam, phishing, and viruses running all over the place. But this seems like the simplest case of all ‘ was your email read or not?

The answer to your question is no, there is no way to tell for sure that your email has been delivered or has been read.

I always get a lot of pushback on that.

It’s all about certainty

There are plenty of solutions that work sometimes, or in some situations, or if the stars are aligned just right.

When they work, they can tell you that an email was delivered and even that it was opened. But they cannot tell you for certain that an email was not delivered or not opened.

In other words, if you hear that it’s been opened, great, you know it’s been opened. But if you hear nothing … you know nothing. It could have been opened or read … or not.

And hearing nothing is the norm.

Delivery confirmation

Delivery confirmation is a feature that requests an automated return email when a message is delivered.

Almost all email clients now ignore those requests for privacy reasons.

In other words, they may occasionally work, but most often do not. If you get no confirmation in reply, it means absolutely nothing.

Read receipt

Like delivery confirmation, a read receipt is a request to the recipient’s email client: “Please email me when this message has been opened.”

Again, almost all email clients ignore those requests for privacy reasons.

On occasion they may work, but generally don’t. If you get no read receipt, it means absolutely nothing one way or the other.

Images in messages

One approach to see if email has been opened is to include a picture, and then notice when that picture is fetched. I might create an HTML email that includes a picture of my dog, with that image file stored on my server. When you open the mail, the picture is fetched from the server, and I can use server logs to see that you opened the mail.

This technique has been so misused by spammers that almost all email clients now don’t display images unless you explicitly ask for them.

If the pictures aren’t displayed, the server isn’t notified, and there’s no way to tell that the email was opened. While this might work more often than other techniques, hearing nothing (once again) tells you nothing.

For the record: every service that claims to tell you whether an email has or has not been opened with 100% accuracy uses this technique or something similar, and is thus at least misleading you about their accuracy. There’s simply no way to be 100% accurate. If they require additional infrastructure, like a special mail-viewing program, or if they send people to a website to read your message, then it’s no longer email. Those techniques also act as an obvious disincentive to getting your message read, as they’re also used by spammers, phishers, and hackers.

Opened is not read

So, all our techniques thus far to see if email was delivered or opened fail most of the time. There’s simply no 100% accurate way to tell if an email has been delivered or opened.

Let’s say for a moment there was. Let’s say we could tell that email was delivered and opened. Even then, how could you possibly tell that a person actually read it?

You can’t.

Even if the person has it open on their computer, there’s no way to tell that they’ve actually read it. Unless, of course, they take the time to reply to you and tell you that they did. (Though even then, they could be lying.)

This is a major update to an article originally posted October 3, 2005

Originally published as Can I Tell If Email I Sent Has Been Read by the Recipient? on Ask Leo!