Categories let you identify–and thereby manipulate, group, and search for–items by that identification. You can use them to flag an email, contact, or task in a task-oriented way and then use that information to facilitate the way you work. The problem is, this feature is missing in IMAP accounts. The good news is categories are still there; the bad news is you’ll have to jump through a few hoops to make them accessible. In this article, I’ll show you how to assign categories when using IMAP accounts.

Note: Categories, at least for now, can cause issues when syncing–so I can’t promise that your devices will sync and display them properly. Perhaps that’s why Microsoft removed the interface options. But most people report that they’re working fine for them. If you’re using Mail 365, the feature is available for existing messages in your Inbox. I’m working with Office 2016 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but the instructions will be similar for Outlook 2010 and 2013.

What’s IMAP?

Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) retrieves email information. IMAP allows access from multiple devices, which many of us are now using. The main difference between IMAP and the earlier Post Office Protocol (POP) protocol is syncing. POP downloads email to a local client and then deletes the message(s) from the server. In today’s mobile world, POP is no longer adequate for many of us. Microsoft also has its own brand-specific protocols: MAPI, Exchange Server, and Exchange ActiveSync. In addition it offers in-the-cloud access across multiple platforms and products.

If you have Outlook 2010 or later and you let it configure your account, you probably have an IMAP account. You can quickly see what type of account you have by clicking the File tab and choosing Account Settings from the Account Settings dropdown. Your account protocols will appear in the Account Settings dialog, as shown in Figure A. Be careful not to change any settings while checking.

Figure A

Outlook sets most accounts to IMAP.

If you’re familiar with Outlook’s Categories feature, you know that it’s an option in the Tags group. If that option isn’t there, it’s almost certain that you have an IMAP account. Outlook versions 2010 through 2016 will (usually) force you into the IMAP camp. You can convert an IMAP account to a POP3 account, but you’ll lose the in-the-cloud syncing capabilities. It’s also a tedious process and I don’t recommend it.

Access categories

For better or worse, categories aren’t available via the interface for existing messages–and that’s a problem because that’s where this feature’s real power lies. Nor can you choose the feature from the right-click submenu. While in Reading Pane view mode, you can’t open the Tags dialog (the dialog launcher isn’t available). If you open an existing email, you can open the dialog, but Categories is unavailable, as shown in Figure B. You can assign a category when creating a new message, but it requires a few extra steps in an IMAP account. We’ll exploit that capability.

Figure B

Categories is dimmed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to convert your IMAP account to a POP3 account to reclaim categories; you can use shortcuts assigned to the categories. To see these shortcuts, open a new message (click New Email in the New group on the Home tab or press [Ctrl]+N). Then, click the Tags dialog launcher. In the resulting dialog, choose All Categories from the Categories dropdown. Outlook will list the default categories (Figure C). If there aren’t any, just use the New option to create them. At this point, you can check a category to assign it to the new email message. After assigning one category to an existing message, you can right-click it in the message window to assign others. It’s a lot of work, but shortcuts eliminate most of those steps.

Figure C

The categories are there, but you have to work to find them.

To quickly assign categories, you must first assign a shortcut to each category you want to use. Then, you can use the shortcuts to do what the interface fails to allow you to do. You’ll assign a shortcut as follows:

  1. Select a category; I selected blue.
  2. From the Shortcut dropdown, choose a shortcut. As you can see in Figure D, I chose [Ctrl]+[F3]. Assigned shortcuts are listed in the dialog, so be sure to check. Of course, you can reset a shortcut if that’s what you want to do. Figure E shows the new assignment.
  3. Click OK and then Close.

Figure D

Choose a shortcut.

Figure E

This dialog will show you the assigned shortcuts.

Using your shortcut

Now you can use the shortcut to assign a category to an existing message. First, close the new message window to return to the Mail window without saving the message. Then, select any email message in the Mailbox pane and press [Ctrl]+[F3] to assign the blue category, as shown in Figure F. If this is the first time you’ve used the category, Outlook will display a prompt allowing you to rename it. Clear the prompt or use it to rename the category. With the message open, you now have access to all the categories by right-clicking the blue category. As you can see in Figure G, I added a red category.

Figure F

Assign a category using the shortcut.

Figure G

Add more categories by right-clicking the existing category.

Once you have categories assigned to your messages, you can use those categories to sort, search, and even generate mail merges. To learn more about this feature, read 10+ ways to get the most out of Outlook categories and Pro tip: Print Outlook contacts by category.

The biggest impediment to shortcuts is memorizing them. If you use only a few and you use them often, you’ll quickly commit them to memory. On the other hand, using them infrequently or having several complicates things (at least for me). My best recommendation is to open the dialog, use PrtScr (button) to capture the screen, and print it via Paint or some other graphics app.

Two alternatives

Once you’ve assigned a category to an email you can right-click to assign others, so memorizing all the categories isn’t always necessary. It depends on how you assign categories. In fact, you might find the Task route more convenient. Simply drag and drop a message onto the Task icon. When Outlook opens the new Task window, you can assign a category by choosing All Categories from the Categories option, as shown in Figure H. Unfortunately, this creates a task, which you might not want.

Figure H

Set a category in the Task window.

You can also set up a dummy category and a rule that assigns that dummy category to all incoming mail. With a category already assigned, just right-click to assign others, avoiding the shortcut route altogether. This alternative assigns a category to every email. It’s overkill, but if it helps you, it’s ingenious.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers’ questions when I can, but there’s no guarantee. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, “Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what’s wrong” probably won’t get a response, but “Can you tell me why this formula isn’t returning the expected results?” might. Please mention the app and version that you’re using. Don’t send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. I’m not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at

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