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How Fast Does Email Travel?

The Speed of Email

We all know that email is fast. You can send important documents through the virtual systems, and you more or less expect them to arrive instantaneously.

Yet, whenever we’re waiting for important emails, it seems like things move a lot slower.

That brings up an important question. How fast does email actually travel? How long does it take to get to a recipient, and why is it always slower when it matters more?

With the popularity of our CEO's blog post from years and years ago, we decided to get some updated stats on this topic.

The Speed of Light

For the most part, when you send an email, it travels along fiber optic cables to its destination. Because of this, the email is actually carried on light signals, meaning that it moves around the world at the speed of light.

Light travels at around 186,000 miles per second, which means it can do 7 complete laps around the world in a single second.

Using these numbers, we can conclude that email gets around the world really fast. If you send an email to the farthest place in the world from where you are right now (which would be halfway around the world), then light could get there in 0.07 seconds. For the most part, that’s how long it takes the email you send to travel through those fiber optic lines.

While that sounds impressive, you’ve seen it take longer than 0.07 seconds to receive an email. That’s because your email has to be routed and resent a few times along its journey (even if you’re sending it from the phone in your hand to the computer on your desk), and that adds time to the journey.

The Speed of Processing

The speed of processing is considerably slower than the speed of light. In order for an email to reach the correct destination, it has to be routed through the right mail servers and network nodes. The signals between these processes are usually run on fiber optic cables, so distances are still traveled very quickly, but the email gets stopped and processed at each node.

Basically, a handful of different computers have to intercede at different parts of the email’s journey, and this adds time to everything. Processing is still very fast, so this aspect doesn’t add a whole lot of time, but processing is slower than the speed of light.

On average, all of the processing and routing for your email takes about 0.1 to 0.15 seconds.

An email can still travel halfway around the world in less than 0.2 seconds, which is literally faster than the blink of an eye.

Why Does Email Take So Long Then?

That all sounds good and well, but it also seems off. We’ve all sent emails to ourselves, and it takes longer than 0.2 seconds to receive them. Even worse, when you’re waiting on a confirmation email to fix an account problem so you cancel your stolen credit card, it always takes longer than that. Usually, it takes a few minutes to get those emails.

What’s the deal?

Well, this isn’t actually based on the speed of sending the email. Instead, the total time it takes you to receive your email is based on delivery speeds. Email servers get a lot of traffic, and sometimes, you have to wait in line before your mail is delivered to your personal device.

The email likely made it to the mail server in less than a second, but sorting the mail at the server can take quite a bit longer.

You can think of a physical post office as a fair analogy. Let’s say you have a P.O. box at your local post office. Even after the mail is delivered to that office, it takes a while to sort the mail and deliver it to your specific box. Sometimes, you might be waiting for mail for an entire day after it gets to your local post office.

Email servers are run by computers and work quite a bit faster, but the concept is similar. Sorting email at a mail server requires a lot of communication and coordination, and those complications can add time to the process.

So, even though your email can travel the world in well under a second, sorting the mail often takes a few minutes.

Additional Learning Center Resources