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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.

outlook-2013-message-headers

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

To read the email message headers in Outlook 2007 click on the arrow next to Options 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.

exrca-header-analyzer

exrca-header-analyzer-report

MXToolbox

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.

mxtoolbox-header-analyzer

mxtoolbox-header-analyzer-report

Google Apps Toolbox

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

googleapps-toolbox-header-analyzer

Summary

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.

Paul is a Microsoft MVP for Office Servers and Services. He works as a consultant, writer, and trainer specializing in Office 365 and Exchange Server. Paul is a co-author of Office 365 for IT Pros and several other books, and is also a Pluralsight author.
Category: Exchange Server

17 comments

  1. Sean Lewis says:

    In Outlook 2010 the headers have been moved to the ‘File’ Tab of an email opened in its own window, select ‘File’ and then under the Info section click Properties’ to view the message headers.

    hope this helps

  2. William Gannon says:

    Hey Paul !

    Nice article- sorry for posting a question on and old thread but have you ever noticed the contents of the headers and their values when the Cache on option is selected ?

    In Outlook 2007 If I turn on cache (Tools / Account settings / Change / Check the Use Cached Exchange Mode box) email headers in the SENT box are not populated, with cache off the header contains emailid information.
    Do you have any clues as to why ? – it is causing a problem with a tool we use here.

  3. Casey says:

    How can I determine when an email was created? My boss stated that she sent an email to the staff on a Thursday but the staff didn’t receive until Friday. I believe she is lying. The sent time indicates it was sent on Friday at 4:09 and it was received by me on Friday at 4:09. Is the scenario she describe possible.

  4. Sai Prasad says:

    There is a MessageHeaderAnalyzer app that can be imported into Outlook 2013 and just a 1 Click drop down on the app – it gives the header info with a neat view; (App uses testexchangeconnectivity.com’s Message header Analyzer in the back-end)

  5. gabor salai says:

    header parsing, and mail-server-hops received from … received from … may it be parsed on EXCHANGE SERVER?
    i want to create FILTER based on suspicious mail-from servers included in mail delivery path
    pisibli power-shell script on Exchange server?

  6. Don says:

    Hello,

    Is any way to determine from the e-mail headers what device sent an email if the account is on microsoft exchange?

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