MAIL(1) BSD General Commands Manual MAIL(1)
mail, mailx, Mail -- send and receive mail
mail [-dEIinv] [-a header] [-b bcc-addr] [-c cc-addr] [-r from-addr]
[-s subject] [--] to-addr ...
mail [-dEIiNnv] -f [file]
mail [-dEIiNnv] [-u user]
mail is an intelligent mail processing system which has a command syntax
reminiscent of ed(1) with lines replaced by messages.
The options are as follows:
-a Specify additional header fields on the command line such as "X-
Loop: foo@bar" etc. It can be also used to override MIME headers
mail adds by default to each outgoing mail, see Character sets
and MIME below. You have to use quotes if the string contains
spaces. This argument may be specified more than once, the head-
ers will then be concatenated.
Send blind carbon copies to bcc-addr.
Send carbon copies to list of users. cc-addr should be a comma
separated list of names.
-d Causes mail to output all sorts of information useful for debug-
-E Don't send messages with an empty body.
-f Use an alternate mailbox. Defaults to the user's mbox if no file
is specified. When quit, mail writes undeleted messages back to
-I Forces mail to run in interactive mode, even when input is not a
terminal. In particular, the special ~ command character, used
when sending mail, is only available interactively.
-i Ignore tty interrupt signals. This is particularly useful when
using mail on noisy phone lines.
-N Inhibits initial display of message headers when reading mail or
editing a mail folder.
-n Inhibits reading /etc/mail.rc upon startup.
Use from-addr as the from address in the message and envelope.
Overrides any from options in the startup files.
Specify subject on command line (only the first argument after
the -s flag is used as a subject; be careful to quote subjects
$ mail -f /var/mail/user
except that locking is done.
-v Verbose mode. The details of delivery are displayed on the
-- End of options. Any further argument is treated as a direct re-
Note: For security reasons the -- separator is strongly recom-
mended for scripts that need to send mails to addresses obtained
from untrusted sources (such as web forms).
At startup time, mail will execute commands in the system command file,
/etc/mail.rc, unless explicitly told not to by using the -n option.
Next, the commands in the user's personal command file ~/.mailrc are exe-
cuted. mail then examines its command line options to determine whether
the user requested a new message to be sent or existing messages in a
mailbox to be examined.
To send a message to one or more people, mail can be invoked with argu-
ments which are the names of people to whom the mail will be sent. You
are then expected to type in your message, followed by a control-D ('^D')
at the beginning of a line. The section below, Replying to or
originating mail, describes some features of mail available to help you
compose your letter.
In normal usage, mail is given no arguments and checks your mail out of
the post office, then prints out a one line header of each message found.
The current message is initially set to the first message (numbered 1)
and can be printed using the print command (which can be abbreviated p).
Moving among the messages is much like moving between lines in ed(1); you
may use + and - to shift forwards and backwards, or simply enter a mes-
sage number to move directly.
Disposing of mail
After examining a message you can delete (d) or reply (r) to it. Dele-
tion causes the mail program to forget about the message. This is not
irreversible; the message can be undeleted (u) by giving its number, or
the mail session can be aborted by giving the exit (x) command. Deleted
messages, however, will usually disappear, never to be seen again.
Commands such as print and delete can be given a list of message numbers
as arguments to apply to a number of messages at once. Thus delete 1 2
deletes messages 1 and 2, while delete 1-5 deletes messages 1 through 5.
Messages may also be selected using one of the following categories:
* all messages
$ last message
:d deleted messages
:n new messages
:o old messages
:r read messages
:u unread messages
Thus the command top, which prints the first few lines of a message,
could be used in top * to print the first few lines of all messages.
Replying to or originating mail
You can use the reply command to set up a response to a message, sending
it back to the person who it was from. Text you then type in, up to an
end-of-file, defines the contents of the message. While you are compos-
ing a message, mail treats lines beginning with the tilde ('~') character
specially. For instance, typing ~m (alone on a line) will place a copy
of the current message into the response, right shifting it by a single
tab-stop (see the indentprefix variable, below). Other escapes will set
up subject fields, add and delete recipients to the message, and allow
you to escape to an editor to revise the message or to a shell to run
some commands. (These options are given in the summary below.)
Ending a mail processing session
You can end a mail session with the quit (q) command. Messages which
have been examined go to your mbox file unless they have been deleted, in
which case they are discarded. Unexamined messages go back to the post
office (see the -f option above).
Personal and system wide distribution lists
It is also possible to create personal distribution lists so that, for
instance, you can send mail to "cohorts" and have it go to a group of
people. Such lists can be defined by placing a line like
alias cohorts bill ozalp jkf mark kridle@ucbcory
in the file .mailrc in your home directory. The current list of such
aliases can be displayed with the alias command in mail. System wide
distribution lists can be created by editing /etc/aliases, (see
aliases(5)); these are kept in a different syntax. In mail you send,
personal aliases will be expanded in mail sent to others so that they
will be able to reply to the recipients. System wide aliases are not ex-
panded when the mail is sent, but any reply returned to the machine will
have the system wide alias expanded as all mail goes through an MTA.
Recipient address specifications
Recipient addresses (any of the "To", "Cc" or "Bcc" header fields) are
subject to expansion when the expandaddr option is set.
An address may be expanded as follows:
o An address that starts with a pipe ('|') character is treated as
a command to run. The command immediately following the '|' is
executed with the message as its standard input.
o An address that starts with a '+' character is treated as a
o An address that contains a '/' character but no '!', '%', or '@'
characters is also treated as a folder.
o If none of the above apply, the recipient is treated as a local
or network mail address.
If the expandaddr option is not set (the default), no expansion is per-
formed and the recipient is treated as a local or network mail address.
Character sets and MIME
Generally mail does not handle neither different character sets nor any
other MIME feature. Especially it does not perform any any conversions
between character sets while displaying or sending mails.
Starting from April 2017, however, as a Debian extension this version of
mail adds a few MIME headers to every outgoing mail in order to indicate
that the mail is sent as 8-bit plain text data that uses character set
encoding detected from the current locale(7) settings. The -a command-
line option can be used to override those headers, for example:
$ mail -a 'Content-Type: text/plain; charset="ISO-8859-1"'
sets header indicating legacy character encoding.
(Adapted from the "Mail Reference Manual".)
Each command is typed on a line by itself, and may take arguments follow-
ing the command word. The command need not be typed in its entirety --
the first command which matches the typed prefix is used. For commands
which take message lists as arguments, if no message list is given, then
the next message forward which satisfies the command's requirements is
used. If there are no messages forward of the current message, the
search proceeds backwards, and if there are no good messages at all, mail
types "No applicable messages" and aborts the command.
- Print out the preceding message. If given a numeric argument n,
goes to the nth previous message and prints it.
= Prints the currently selected message number.
? Prints a brief summary of commands.
! Executes the shell (see sh(1) and csh(1)) command which follows.
alias (a) With no arguments, prints out all currently defined aliases.
With one argument, prints out that alias. With more than one ar-
gument, creates a new alias or changes an old one.
(alt) The alternates command is useful if you have accounts on
several machines. It can be used to inform mail that the listed
addresses are really you. When you reply to messages, mail will
not send a copy of the message to any of the addresses listed on
the alternates list. If the alternates command is given with no
argument, the current set of alternate names is displayed.
chdir (cd or ch) Changes the user's working directory to that speci-
fied, if given. If no directory is given, then changes to the
user's login directory.
copy (c) The copy command does the same thing that save does, except
that it does not mark the messages it is used on for deletion
when you quit.
delete (d) Takes a list of messages as argument and marks them all as
deleted. Deleted messages will not be saved in mbox, nor will
they be available for most other commands.
dp (also dt) Deletes the current message and prints the next mes-
sage. If there is no next message, mail says "No more messages."
edit (e) Takes a list of messages and points the text editor at each
one in turn. On return from the editor, the message is read back
exit (ex or x) Effects an immediate return to the shell without modi-
fying the user's system mailbox, his mbox file, or his edit file
file (fi) The same as folder.
folder (fo) The folder command switches to a new mail file or folder.
With no arguments, it tells you which file you are currently
reading. If you give it an argument, it will write out changes
(such as deletions) you have made in the current file and read in
the new file. Some special conventions are recognized for the
name. # means the previous file, % means your system mailbox,
%user means user's system mailbox, & means your mbox file, and
+folder means a file in your folder directory.
List the names of the folders in your folder directory.
from (f) Takes a list of messages and prints their message headers.
(h) Lists the current windowful of headers. To view the next or
previous group of headers, see the z command.
help A synonym for ?.
hold (ho, also preserve) Takes a message list and marks each message
therein to be saved in the user's system mailbox instead of in
mbox. Does not override the delete command.
ignore Add the list of header fields named to the ignored list. Header
fields in the ignore list are not printed on your terminal when
you print a message. This command is very handy for suppression
of certain machine-generated header fields. The Type and Print
commands can be used to print a message in its entirety, includ-
ing ignored fields. If ignore is executed with no arguments, it
lists the current set of ignored fields.
inc Incorporate any new messages that have arrived while mail is be-
ing read. The new messages are added to the end of the message
list, and the current message is reset to be the first new mail
message. This does not renumber the existing message list, nor
does it cause any changes made so far to be saved.
list (l) List the valid mail commands.
mail (m) Takes as argument login names and distribution group names
and sends mail to those people.
mbox Indicate that a list of messages be sent to mbox in your home di-
rectory when you quit. This is the default action for messages
if you do not have the hold option set.
more (mo) Takes a message list and invokes the pager on that list.
next (n) (like + or CR) Goes to the next message in sequence and types
it. With an argument list, types the next matching message.
(pre) A synonym for hold.
Print (P) Like print but also prints out ignored header fields. See
also print, ignore, and retain.
print (p) Takes a message list and types out each message on the user's
quit (q) Terminates the session, saving all undeleted, unsaved mes-
sages in the user's mbox file in his login directory, preserving
all messages marked with hold or preserve or never referenced in
his system mailbox, and removing all other messages from his sys-
tem mailbox. If new mail has arrived during the session, the
message "You have new mail" is given. If given while editing a
mailbox file with the -f flag, then the edit file is rewritten.
A return to the shell is effected, unless the rewrite of edit
file fails, in which case the user can escape with the exit com-
Reply (R) Reply to originator. Does not reply to other recipients of
the original message.
reply (r) Takes a message list and sends mail to the sender and all re-
cipients of the specified message. The default message must not
A synonym for reply.
retain Add the list of header fields named to the retained list. Only
the header fields in the retain list are shown on your terminal
when you print a message. All other header fields are sup-
pressed. The Type and Print commands can be used to print a mes-
sage in its entirety. If retain is executed with no arguments,
it lists the current set of retained fields.
save (s) Takes a message list and a filename and appends each message
in turn to the end of the file. The filename in quotes, followed
by the line count and character count is echoed on the user's
saveignore is to save what ignore is to print and type. Header
fields thus marked are filtered out when saving a message by save
or when automatically saving to mbox.
saveretain is to save what retain is to print and type. Header
fields thus marked are the only ones saved with a message when
saving by save or when automatically saving to mbox. saveretain
set (se) With no arguments, prints all variable values. Otherwise,
sets option. Arguments are of the form option=value (no space
before or after =) or option. Quotation marks may be placed
around any part of the assignment statement to quote blanks or
tabs, i.e., set indentprefix="->".
shell (sh) Invokes an interactive version of the shell.
size Takes a message list and prints out the size in characters of
source The source command reads commands from a file.
top Takes a message list and prints the top few lines of each. The
number of lines printed is controlled by the variable toplines
and defaults to five.
Type (T) Identical to the Print command.
type (t) A synonym for print.
Takes a list of names defined by alias commands and discards the
remembered groups of users. The group names no longer have any
(u) Takes a message list and marks each message as not being
unread (U) Takes a message list and marks each message as not having
unset Takes a list of option names and discards their remembered val-
ues; the inverse of set.
visual (v) Takes a message list and invokes the display editor on each
write (w) Similar to save, except that only the message body (without
the header) is saved. Extremely useful for such tasks as sending
and receiving source program text over the message system.
xit (x) A synonym for exit.
z mail presents message headers in windowfuls as described under
the headers command. You can move mail's attention forward to
the next window with the z command. Also, you can move to the
previous window by using z-.
Here is a summary of the tilde escapes, which are used when composing
messages to perform special functions. Tilde escapes are only recognized
at the beginning of lines. The name "tilde escape" is somewhat of a mis-
nomer since the actual escape character can be set by the option escape.
Add the given names to the list of carbon copy recipients but do
not make the names visible in the Cc: line ("blind" carbon copy).
Add the given names to the list of carbon copy recipients.
~d Read the file dead.letter from your home directory into the mes-
~e Invoke the text editor on the message collected so far. After
the editing session is finished, you may continue appending text
to the message.
Identical to ~f, except all message headers are included.
Read the named messages into the message being sent. If no mes-
sages are specified, read in the current message. Message head-
ers currently being ignored (by the ignore or retain command) are
~h Edit the message header fields by typing each one in turn and al-
lowing the user to append text to the end or modify the field by
using the current terminal erase and kill characters.
Identical to ~m, except all message headers are included.
Read the named messages into the message being sent, indented by
a tab or by the value of indentprefix. If no messages are speci-
fied, read the current message. Message headers currently being
ignored (by the ignore or retain command) are not included.
~p Print out the message collected so far, prefaced by the message
~q Abort the message being sent, copying the message to dead.letter
in your home directory if save is set.
Use string as the Reply-To field.
Read the named file into the message.
Cause the named string to become the current subject field.
Add the given names to the direct recipient list.
~v Invoke an alternate editor (defined by the VISUAL option) on the
message collected so far. Usually, the alternate editor will be
a screen editor. After you quit the editor, you may resume ap-
pending text to the end of your message.
Write the message onto the named file.
~x Abort the message being sent. No message is copied to
~/dead.letter, even if save is set.
~? Prints a brief summary of tilde escapes.
Execute the indicated shell command, then return to the message.
Pipe the message through the command as a filter. If the command
gives no output or terminates abnormally, retain the original
text of the message. The command fmt(1) is often used as command
to rejustify the message.
Execute the given mail command. Not all commands, however, are
Insert the string of text in the message prefaced by a single ~.
If you have changed the escape character, then you should double
that character in order to send it.
~. Simulate end of file on input.
A number of options can be set in the .mailrc file to alter the behavior
of mail, controlled via the set and unset commands. Options may be ei-
ther binary, in which case it is only significant to see whether they are
set or not; or string, in which case the actual value is of interest.
The binary options include the following:
append Causes messages saved in mbox to be appended to the end rather
than prepended. This should always be set (perhaps in
Causes mail to prompt you for the subject of each message you
send. If you respond with simply a newline, no subject field
will be sent.
askbcc Causes you to be prompted for additional blind carbon copy recip-
ients at the end of each message. Responding with a newline in-
dicates your satisfaction with the current list.
askcc Causes you to be prompted for additional carbon copy recipients
at the end of each message. Responding with a newline indicates
your satisfaction with the current list.
Causes new mail to be automatically incorporated when it arrives.
Setting this is similar to issuing the inc command at each
prompt, except that the current message is not reset when new
Causes the delete command to behave like dp; thus, after deleting
a message, the next one will be typed automatically.
debug Setting the binary option debug is the same as specifying -d on
the command line and causes mail to output all sorts of informa-
tion useful for debugging mail.
dot The binary option dot causes mail to interpret a period alone on
a line as the terminator of a message you are sending.
Causes mail to expand message recipient addresses, as explained
in the section Recipient address specifications.
from Causes mail to use the specified sender address in the "From:"
field of the message header. A stripped down version of the ad-
dress is also used in the message envelope. If unset, the mes-
sage will not include an explicit sender address and a default
value will be added by the MTA, typically "user@host". This
value can be overridden by specifying the -r flag on the command
hold This option is used to hold messages in the system mailbox by de-
ignore Causes interrupt signals from your terminal to be ignored and
echoed as @'s.
An option related to dot is ignoreeof which makes mail refuse to
accept a control-D as the end of a message. ignoreeof also ap-
plies to mail command mode.
keep Setting this option causes mail to truncate your system mailbox
instead of deleting it when it's empty.
Messages saved with the save command are not normally saved in
mbox at quit time. Use this option to retain those messages.
metoo Usually, when a group is expanded that contains the sender, the
sender is removed from the expansion. Setting this option causes
the sender to be included in the group.
Setting the option noheader is the same as giving the -N flag on
the command line.
nosave Normally, when you abort a message with two interrupt characters
(usually control-C), mail copies the partial letter to the file
dead.letter in your home directory. Setting the binary option
nosave prevents this.
quiet Suppresses the printing of the version when first invoked.
Reverses the sense of reply and Reply commands.
If this option is set, then a message-list specifier in the form
"/x:y" will expand to all messages containing the substring 'y'
in the header field 'x'. The string search is case insensitive.
If 'x' is omitted, it will default to the "Subject" header field.
The form "/to:y" is a special case, and will expand to all mes-
sages containing the substring 'y' in the "To", "Cc" or "Bcc"
header fields. The check for "to" is case sensitive, so that
"/To:y" can be used to limit the search for 'y' to just the "To:"
Don't send messages with an empty body.
Setting the option verbose is the same as using the -v flag on
the command line. When mail runs in verbose mode, the actual de-
livery of messages is displayed on the user's terminal.
Option string values
EDITOR Pathname of the text editor to use in the edit command and
~e escape. If not defined, /usr/bin/ex is used.
LISTER Pathname of the directory lister to use in the folders com-
mand. Default is /bin/ls.
MBOX The name of the mbox file. It can be the name of a folder.
The default is "mbox" in the user's home directory.
PAGER Pathname of the program to use in the more command or when
the crt variable is set. The default paginator more(1) is
used if this option is not defined.
REPLYTO If set, will be used to initialize the Reply-To field for
SHELL Pathname of the shell to use in the ! command and the ~!
escape. A default shell is used if this option is not de-
VISUAL Pathname of the text editor to use in the visual command
and ~v escape. If not defined, /usr/bin/vi is used.
crt The valued option crt is used as a threshold to determine
how long a message must be before PAGER is used to read it.
If crt is set without a value, then the height of the ter-
minal screen stored in the system is used to compute the
threshold (see stty(1)).
escape If defined, the first character of this option gives the
character to use in the place of ~ to denote escapes.
folder The name of the directory to use for storing folders of
messages. If this name begins with a '/', mail considers
it to be an absolute pathname; otherwise, the folder direc-
tory is found relative to your home directory.
indentprefix String used by the ~m tilde escape for indenting messages,
in place of the normal tab character ('^I'). Be sure to
quote the value if it contains spaces or tabs.
record If defined, gives the pathname of the file used to record
all outgoing mail. If not defined, then outgoing mail is
not so saved.
screen Size of window of message headers for z.
sendmail Pathname to an alternative mail delivery system.
toplines If defined, gives the number of lines of a message to be
printed out with the top command; normally, the first five
lines are printed.
mail utilizes the HOME, LOGNAME, USER, SHELL, DEAD, PAGER, LISTER,
EDITOR, VISUAL, REPLYTO, MAIL, MAILRC, and MBOX environment variables.
If the MAIL environment variable is set, its value is used as the path to
the user's mail spool.
/var/mail/* post office (unless overridden by the
MAIL environment variable)
~/mbox user's old mail
~/.mailrc file giving initial mail commands; can
be overridden by setting the MAILRC en-
/tmp/R* temporary files
/usr/share/bsd-mailx/mail.*help help files
/etc/mail.rc system initialization file
The mail utility exits 0 on success, and >0 if an error occurs.
fmt(1), newaliases(1), vacation(1), aliases(5), mail.local(8),
newaliases(8), sendmail(8), smtpd(8)
The mailx utility is compliant with the IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 ("POSIX.1")
The flags [-iNnu] are marked by IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 ("POSIX.1") as being
The flags [-eFH] are marked by IEEE Std 1003.1-2008 ("POSIX.1") as being
optional, and are not supported by this implementation of mailx.
The flags [-abcdEIrv] are extensions to the specification.
A mail command appeared in Version 3 AT&T UNIX. This man page is derived
from the Mail Reference Manual originally written by Kurt Shoens.
Usually, Mail and mailx are just links to mail, which can be confusing.
BSD March 16, 2018 BSD