Best alternative to Gmail and iCloud for email, calendars, and contacts

If you have a Google or Apple account, they control and limit – each in their own way – what you can and can't do with your communication, data, and domains. Learn how to take full control of your email, calendars, and contacts with FastMail.

A lot of people still use an Apple iCloud or Google account for electronic communication, event management, and maintaining their address book. Two of the main reasons these services are used are because they’re convenient and free, but that convenience and lack of cost come with trade-offs and risks.

FastMail is a Gmail and iCloud alternative that doesn’t track you and will get you closer to owning your data again.

Problems with Gmail and iCloud

  1. No Custom Domain – Neither Gmail or iCloud support the use of custom domains. Using a custom domain is more professional and allows you to move your email to another service. (G Suite supports custom domains, and I will address that later in this article.)
  2. Account Suspension – Google and Apple can lock you out of your account at any time. Regaining access to it is usually difficult and time-consuming. Also, since neither service allows custom domains, you may lose access to your email addresses forever.
  3. Advertising and Privacy – Apple’s iCloud service doesn’t show ads, and there aren’t many privacy concerns. However, Google’s Gmail does show ads, and there are privacy concerns because of the way they show ads based on how they track your activity on the web. Also, Google claims they don’t scan messages in Gmail but here’s an example of where they do.

What about G Suite?

G Suite supports custom domains, doesn’t include advertising, and has better support than Gmail (one assumes) in the off chance your account gets suspended. However, G Suite goes well beyond email, calendars, and contacts. It includes a full suite of productivity and collaboration apps.

Since using G Suite is a commitment to using the Google ecosystem for just about everything, I see it as being antithetical to the intention of this article, which is to choose a service that is privacy-focused and offers you the most amount of choice, flexibility, and control. For example, in the corporate environment I work in, I use G Suite for just about everything. But for my endeavors, I prefer to use a mix of services and apps like Ulysses, Apple Pages and Numbers, Dropbox, and other non-Google resources.

Why FastMail is the best alternative to Gmail and iCloud

FastMail has been around for a long time. They started in 1999, which is just two years after Google Search came into existence.

FastMail has spent twenty years optimizing and perfecting email delivery, and they’ve done it by using open source, industry standard software and protocols. So it should come as no surprise that their service lives up to their name. They have very fast email.

I’ve been using FastMail for well over a decade and have found them to be more reliable than any other managed service I’ve ever used. Within the context of switching from Gmail or iCloud to FastMail, these are the compelling reasons to consider them:

How to set up a FastMail Account

Here are some tips on the best way to set up a FastMail account. These are all things that you could eventually figure out on your own, but this will save you some time and ensure you do it right the first time.

Create a FastMail account

While this is an obvious step, there’s one choice that may trip you up. By default, the email address part of the signup form has you choosing from one of their domains. It also has an option right below it that says, “Use my own domain.” Since you’re setting up an account so you can use your own domain, this may seem like the best choice. It is not!

Signup Form
FastMail Signup Form

I’ve found from experience that choosing an email address that is tied to one of FastMail’s domains is the best choice. It’s essentially treated as a username, and it allows you to get started quickly without having to worry about having your own domain working yet. Later, after you’ve transferred your data and added your domains, you can switch it from their domain to one of your own if you want.

Import data

This section assumes you are migrating an existing account to FastMail. If you’re not migrating any data and are simply creating a new email account that’s never existed before, you can skip this part.

FastMail provides data import tools that can be accessed from the main navigation.

Data Import
FastMail Data Import

Import email messages

When I’ve migrated email accounts in the past, I’ve had to add the new account alongside the old account in my email client. Then I had to manually recreate my folders, select all messages in each folder, and drag them to the folders in the new account. It was a tedious process that could take a long time depending on the speed of the internet and the number of messages I had.

FastMail has a tool that will automatically migrate all of your messages to the new account. To use it, you will need the IMAP settings for your email account.

Depending on your security settings, you may need to create an app-specific password for the tool to access and migrate your data.

Import Email
Email message migration tool

Import calendars

Before you can import calendars into FastMail, you will first need to export them from iCloud or Google Calendar. If you’re using iCloud, you can export them individually from the Calendar app. Similarly, you can export calendars individually from Google Calendar in the settings for each calendar.

Once you’ve successfully exported your calendars, if you plan to have more than one calendar, you will need to create the additional ones in FastMail first. Then, using the Import tool, find and select your exported calendar file and choose which FastMail calendar you want it to be imported into. Repeat that step for any additional calendars you want to import.

Import Calendar
Import calendars into FastMail

Import contacts

Similar to calendars, contacts need to be exported before they can be imported. Both Google and Apple support CSV and vCard formats. The recommended format is vCard. If you export as a CSV you will have to manually map the contact fields.

Once you’ve successfully exported your contacts, use the Import tool to upload the file and then check Fastmail’s Contacts app to make sure everything was correctly imported.

Add domain

If you are planning to use a domain that’s being used with an existing email account, make sure you complete the data import process before proceeding. Otherwise, you may permanently lose access to your messages. Also, before you proceed with adding your domain to FastMail, make sure you have the ability to add DNS records for your domain.

In your FastMail account, go to Settings > Domains and then click on the Add Domain button. FastMail provides two different options for setting up your domain’s DNS records. The first option is to make FastMail your DNS servers for your domain. While that option will ensure that the DNS records for your email are set up correctly, it may cause problems with your website and anything else that’s using the domain if you don’t configure those records correctly on FastMail. Instead, I recommend the second option, which is adding MX, CNAME, and TXT records to your current DNS servers.

If you go with the second option, you will be adding the following MX servers:

If you want to support email addresses that use a subdomain of the domain you’re adding, add additional entries with a wildcard. I use Cloudflare for my DNS servers, and this is what my DNS records look like.

MX Records
FastMail MX records in Cloudflare

After you add the MX records and FastMail has detected the changes, go to the Edit view for the domain on FastMail. You will need to add three CNAME records for DKIM. DKIM helps the receiving system know your message is not spam. You will also need to add a TXT record for SPF. Adding FastMail to the SPF record for your domain allows receivers to know their servers are authorized to send email messages for your domain.

FastMail may not pick up on the new DNS records immediately, so keep checking the Edit page until it says DKIM and SPF are set up correctly.

DNS Records Found
Successful domain added to FastMail

Create aliases

After you create your account and add your domain, you can then set up aliases. FastMail allows you to set up unlimited aliases that can send email messages directly to your account or forward to another email address. To create an alias, go to Settings > Aliases and click on the New Alias button.

Enter the name for the alias and select the domain for it. By default, the alias will send email to your FastMail account. However, you can forward it to any email account you want.

New Alias
Adding email alias in FastMail

Add account to desktop, smartphone, or tablet

FastMail supports standard server names and ports for email, calendars, and contacts. If you’re adding your account to your desktop computer, you will need to create an app-specific password. To create an app-specific password, go to Settings > Password & Security and click on the New App Password button. Select a device or Custom… to enter the name of your device. Then select what the password will be able to access if you want it to be different from the default choice.

App-Specific Password
Creating an app-specific password in FastMail

A password will be generated and you can enter your server details manually into your email, calendar, and contacts app.

If you’re using macOS or iOS, there’s a much easier way to add your account. FastMail provides an auto-configuration file that you can download and install on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad. Right-click the Open this configuration file link and save the .mobileconfig file to your computer.

Account Configuration
Account auto-configuration file for macOS and iOS

On your Mac, double-click the file and install the profile when prompted. Your account will automatically be added and will be accessible via the Mail, Calendar, and Contact apps.

Each device requires its own password. After you’ve set up your Mac, create another app-specific password, save the file to your computer, and then send the .mobileconfig file to yourself via Messages. Tap and install the profile on your device and your account will automatically be set up on your iPhone or iPad just like your Mac.

🎙 Paul Jarvis discusses his book Company of One