Best Secure Email 2020: Which Provider Is Right For You?

Best Secure Email 2020: Which Provider Is Right For You?
Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock

Sheila Olson
October 16, 2019

Email today is like sending a postcard—the contents are visible as it makes its way through the internet. Secure email is like putting your letter in an envelope. The contents can only be seen by the sender and receiver. The best secure email services encrypt your messages so that only recipients with the proper authentication or key can read.

Why use secure email? Until 2017, Google, the world’s largest email provider, was using information uncovered in your emails to target its advertising. Although Google officially stopped the practice, many third-party apps that work with Gmail still read your emails and store your personal information.

The best secure email services are user-friendly, can be used even with recipients who don’t have encryption, protect your anonymity and don’t track your personal data. (Note: As many are based in Europe, payment plans are sometimes in euros—consult current exchange rates for U.S. dollar prices.)

If you’re ready to upgrade your email privacy, these are some of the best secure email services to try.

Best secure email 2020

ProtonMail

Cost: Free version, premium plans start at $5/month or $48/year

ProtonMail is based in Switzerland and all your data is stored on Swiss servers, which means it’s protected by some of the strictest privacy laws in the world. The company encrypts data at the browser or app level, so your emails are encrypted before they reach the servers. Since ProtonMail doesn’t store your encryption keys, it’s impossible for anyone, including the NSA, to read your emails even with a warrant or court order. It also doesn’t log your IP address when you access your account, so you are truly anonymous.

ProtonMail has spam filtering and allows you to whitelist and blacklist contacts. There’s also a great optional feature that sets an expiration date on your emails—they vanish, like a Snapchat image, on the date you specify. If you send encrypted emails to recipients not using ProtonMail, they need to enter a password in order to view them. However, unlike most other secure email services on this list, you can include a password “hint” that makes it easy for the recipient to guess. This feature lets you avoid the hassle of sending the password via a second channel.

ProtonMail doesn’t require an email address to sign up, although you can use one as an account recovery option if you forget your password. They also accept cryptocurrency if you want to remain anonymous. Opening an account is fast and easy and your initial welcome emails are packed with helpful information about encryption and tips and ProtonMail tutorials.

Pros:

  • Easy-to-use email interface that works with desktop and mobile browsers, as well as apps for iOS and Android.
  • Maximum privacy protection and anonymity with the option to choose a Swiss domain, further limiting the ability of government entities to seize your messages.
  • Self-destruct option for messages..
  • The password hint feature is convenient compared to other shared password options.

Cons:

  • Daily send limits with the free accountmay be a problem for heavy email users.
  • Safari users must disable privacy settings to use ProtonMail..
  • Some password managers don’t work with ProtonMail.
  • The storage limit is just 500 MB with the free plan which may not be enough if you get a lot of images or video attachments.

Mailfence

Cost: Free basic plan with premium plans from €2.50 a month

Mailfence says it launched its email system after Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about widespread government surveillance. The Mailfence secure email system does not engage in any tracking or traffic logs and end-to-end encryption means that only you and the recipient can read your encrypted emails. Because the company is based in Belgium, they are not subject to comply with data requests from foreign authorities, including U.S. gag orders and subpoenas, the company said.

Mailfence is a browser-based email system; there is nothing to install, and it works with all devices. Mailfence has perhaps the most clean and intuitive interfaces of all secure email services tested. It uses OpenPGP encryption and offers digital signatures and two-factor authentication. You can easily import contacts from other email clients such as Gmail and Outlook or via a CSV file. Mailfence stands out from other secure email providers with its suite of tools including calendar, docs and groups. There is no identity verification to open an account; you only need an email address.

Pros:

  • Beginners and tech-averse people will find it easy to use.
  • Many options to customize your email settings..
  • Useful resourcesif you are new to encrypted email and want to learn more.
  • Accepts cryptocurrency if you want to remain completely anonymous.

Cons:

  • You need an email account to activate your Mailfence account, so unless you already have an anonymous email account, you can’t open an anonymous Mailfence account.
  • Currently offers no mobile apps.
  • Only 500 MB of storage with the free plan.

Tutanota

Cost: Free plan with premium options

Tutanota is headquartered in Germany, which is covered by EU General Data Protection Regulation. It’s a free, open-source secure email product, with premium plans that featureadditional user accounts storage, custom domains and aliases. Tutanota’s privacy and security features are similar to ProtonMail, with encryption and decryption taking place at the device level. You have the option to enable two-factor authentication for additional protection. You aren’t required to verify your identity to open an account, making it totally anonymous. You do, however, need to come up with a very long and complicated password to pass the strength-checker.

Tutanota has a unique feature which elevates it to the top tier of best secure email providers: you can send an encrypted email to someone not using the program, and with the correct password, the receiver has the option to send an encrypted reply to you.

One important note: if you forget your account password, it’s very difficult to reset your account. When you sign up, you’re given a recovery code, which you should write down and keep in a safe place. Without that code, there is no way to recover your account and all your emails will be lost.

Of note, the company’s website says plans are in the works to create an encrypted replacement to G-Suite; there will be a calendar, notes and cloud storage.

Pros:

  • Free plan includes 1 GB storage, with premium option to upgrade to 10 GB.
  • Web version as well as iOS and Android apps.
  • A premium plan also adds aliases to mask your real email address; the fee is about $6 a month for up to 20 aliases.
  • Recipient can encrypt the reply even if they don’t use Tutanota.

Cons:

  • The search feature in the free account is limited to just the past four weeks of emails.
  • You have to set and share the password for encrypted emails through another channel.
  • Emails aren’t optimized in the mobile app. You have to turn your phone or scroll sideways to see the whole message.

Hushmail

Cost: $49.98 yearly subscription

Hushmail is one of the oldest secure email providers; it’s been around since 1999. It’s a Canadian company, so your data is protected by their strict privacy laws. It is a web-hosted service, so you don’t need to download anything to get started. It’s one of the most convenient secure email providers as you can use it with existing email apps, such as Mac Mail, Outlook and Thunderbird. There’s also a Hushmail iOS app. Account verification is done with a text message, so you need to provide a phone number to get started.

Hushmail supports most desktop and mobile browsers and has automatic spam filtering. They also use two-factor authentication to protect your account from unauthorized logins. With Hushmail, you have the option to send encrypted or unencrypted emails simply by checking a box when you compose your message.

Pros:

  • You can use with existing email apps.
  • Option to send encrypted or unencrypted emails.
  • You can create an unlimited number of aliases to mask your email address. This is helpful if someone uses a reverse email lookup to find your identity.
  • iPhone app lets you bypass the authentication process if you enable face or touch ID.
  • Premium plan comes with 10 GB of storage.

Cons:

  • No free plan, although you can try it out for free for two weeks without entering your credit card information.
  • No Android app.
  • If you forget your passphrase, there’s no way to reset or recover it. You have to create a new account, but the company does transfer the remainder of your subscription to the new account.
  • The company does track IP addresses and some user activity.
  • No spell-check when you compose an email.

CounterMail

Cost: Multiple plans starting at $29 for six months

Countermail is probably the best secure email service if you have hardcore privacy needs. Based in Sweden, CounterMail uses no-disk servers that operate using CD-ROMs. This approach prevents hard drive leaks, man-in-the-middle attacks and trojan horse attacks. On its website, the company states there is no known cryptographic or computational way to break its OpenPGP encryption.

CounterMail is extremely secure and protects both your data privacy and your identity. Unfortunately, all the security features make it a bit difficult to use—and you can only use encryption with other CounterMail users. Creating an account was the easiest of all services tested. You only need a username and password and it only takes about a minute.

Pros:

  • Highest rated encryption and security protocols of all secure email services tested.
  • Optional USB feature which blocks access to your account unless your USB dongle is inserted into your computer or device.
  • You and a friend or family member can sign up for a free one-week trial to test out the encryption—however, the free trial only works with other CounterMail users.
  • Safebox feature acts as a secure password manager where you can bookmark websites and store your login credentials.

Cons:

  • No iOS support yet.
  • User interface is dated, inelegant and lacking in features.
  • Basic plan only comes with 400 MB of storage.

Posteo

Cost: Basic plan is about $1.25 a month (billed in euros), optional paid upgrades.

Posteo is another German company that focuses on privacy, security, and its green credentials; the bright green color scheme is prominently featured in the user interface. You only need a username and password to open an account, and while they don’t accept cryptocurrency for payment, they do anonymize all payments so they can’t be traced to an account.

Posteo is the least expensive, full-featured secure email service tested. The basic account includes a shareable calendar, address book and notes, all of which can be encrypted. There are a lot of advanced optional security features you can configure if you understand security settings. There is also a one-click migration function that lets you add data from up to three email accounts into folders on Posteo. The help section on the website is very thorough and easy to understand.

If you want PGP end-to-end encryption, you need to install the MailVelope add-on. Posteo uses an open-source email client called Roundcube, but if you don’t like it, you can also use Posteo with any email client you prefer. Posteo does not track any information, so your emails are completely private and anonymous.

Pros:

  • Inexpensive, full-featured secure email service.
  • IMAP/POP3 compatibility makes it easy to synchronize email across all your devices.
  • Encrypted calendar, notes and address book are included in the basic account.
  • Fast, simple and anonymous to open an account and payments are also anonymized.
  • Multiple security features can be configured to create the level of privacy you want.

Cons:

  • The experience on mobile browser is subpar.
  • There are no .com email addresses.
  • Spam filterdeletes messages it determines are spam, so no way to retrieve legitimate emails mistaken for spam.
  • No free trial, but you can cancel for a full refund within 14 days.

Runbox

Cost: Multiple flexible price plans based on features starting at $19.95/year

Runbox is a Norwegian company which means your data is covered by the EU and Norway’s strict privacy laws. Runbox encrypts all data going in and out of your email account, although unencrypted data is stored on its servers. This is not as scary as it sounds as Norway allows secure email providers to delete all of your information at your request. Runbox does not keep any traffic logs or otherwise track your activity.

Runbox is unique in the way its accounts are organized. You start with a main account and add “Sub-accounts” which can be used for family members’ email accounts, your own aliases or your other email accounts. Runbox works with all other email providers and it’s very easy to import your email and contacts from any email account and manage them from one central inbox. Getting started is easy and you can even use Runbox to register and host your own domain.

Runbox isn’t a full end-to-end encryption solution, but it is a great option for secure email storage. Your emails won’t be read, scanned or hacked or can be completely erased at your request.

Pros:

  • User interface is very similar to G-Suite business email, which is easy to use if a bit dated.
  • Import wizard and one-click email synchronization make it very easy to switch to a new email provider.
  • Up to 100 aliases and 25 GB of storage come with each main account.
  • You can try all the features with a 30-day free trial.

Cons:

  • Webmail client only—no mobile apps.
  • Emails stored on the servers are not encrypted.
  • If you’re not accustomed to the G-Suite, you might find the interface a bit clunky and hard to get used to.

Kolab Now

Cost: About $4.50 a month (the service is priced in Swiss francs)

Kolab Now is based in Switzerland and uses open-source code, which means it can be audited for vulnerabilities and security issues. Beyond secure email, Kolab Now offers a full suite of secure tools including document sharing and storage, a shareable calendar, task list and notes.

Although many of the other secure email services listed here offer some business-friendly features, Kolab Now markets itself as both a individual privacy solution and a secure business alternative to Google’s G-Suite and Microsoft Office.. Kolab Now works with most operating systems and syncs across all your devices. And in September, the company has launched full end-to-end encrption options via its Kolab Now Webclient.

Pros:

  • Shines as a collaborative tool for freelancers and small business; the text messaging system and social group functions are a secure replacement for Slack.
  • Completely integrated product—when you get an invitation by email, your calendar is automatically shown to check if you have conflicts. You can create tasks from an email which are automatically added to your tasks or calendar events.
  • Works with Android and iOS devices, and syncs with multiple email clients.

Cons:

  • Cheapest plan is only email, which makes it one of the pricier options. To get the other tools, the price is closer to $9 a month.
  • Customer service is via email or a portal on the site where you can send messages. Response time can be slow.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.