April 22, 2021

How and when to use the Recall feature in Outlook (and other email systems)

The Recall function in certain email systems allows senders to pull messages back if sent…


The Recall function in certain email systems allows senders to pull messages back if sent in error. Learn which systems this applies to and some of the stipulations with Microsoft Outlook email.

Image: iStock/anyaberkut

Outlook’s Recall feature, which ostensibly offers users a way to recall emails they have sent either by mistake, with incorrect or inappropriate information or in the heat of a bad moment, has been around for some time across numerous versions. Its usage was especially common when the “press Ctrl-Enter to send” problem was well underway (this can be disabled in Options and every place I’ve worked recently has done so via policies) … and also hilarious.

SEE: 69 Excel tips every user should master (TechRepublic)

Why hilarious? In the past it hasn’t been entirely reliable, and instead of NOT recalling the message, recipients have received a new message stating the sender tried to recall the prior email, generally sitting right below the recall attempt notification.

As you can imagine, the first thing anyone is going to do when being told the sender tried to pull that email back is immediately open the email to see what they wanted to hide or take back. Invariably a sheepish “please permanently delete my prior email” message would appear, especially if the source was an HR rep.

The Recall function has improved (you can also recall and replace a message with the updated version), and I’ve tested it successfully myself, but there are some stipulations. It works only if you’re on a Microsoft 365 or Exchange account in the same organization.

Microsoft provides some guidelines on how to use it though the guidelines are overly wordy, as they usually seem to be. 

In a nutshell, if the message has not been read, your recall will most likely succeed (barring some unforeseen Office glitch) and the recipient won’t see the message but will be told you deleted it.

SEE: Windows 10: Lists of vocal commands for speech recognition and dictation (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

If they read the message, you’re out of luck and the recipient will be told you want to recall the message, which is still intact in their inbox. You’ll be told the recall failed. You do get one thing in your favor: If they open the Recall notification first, the original message gets deleted, also with a notification you removed it. 

If the recipient has rules to move emails to another folder and your original email did indeed get moved and the recall message goes into a separate folder, the recall attempt will fail. Your obvious best case scenario is that both messages end up in the same folder but email rules can vary based on subject lines and other criteria. However, if the recipient has opened the original message you still cannot recall it.

I tested this out myself in Microsoft 365. I sent myself a test message, appropriately called “test.” I did not open this message.

I then went to my Sent Items folder and clicked the More button to the right then chose Actions and Recall This Message (Figure A).

Figure A

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I got the Recall This Message dialogue below and clicked OK (Figure B).

Figure B

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I then saw this notification on the sent message (Figure C).

Figure C

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I then received an email with this notification that it worked (Figure D). 

Figure D

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I then tried the process all over again but did open the message before I attempted to recall it.

I received this gloomy notification (Figure E):

Figure E

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As you can imagine, your chances of a successful recall depend on being as quick as possible and having sent the email to as few recipients as possible. 

Can I recall messages in other email applications?

What about other email applications? Some offer a similar second-chance feature. Here’s what I could find.

If you’re using Gmail you can activate the Undo Send section, which gives you up to 30 seconds to take back your message.

Click on the Settings gear icon in the top-right corner.

Select Settings.

Under the General tab look for the “Undo Send” section.

Hit the drop-down menu next to it and select your Send cancelation period of preference. Again, 30 seconds is the limit.

Default email client users on Android and iOS are out of luck, and so are users of Yahoo Mail; no option exists to recall messages. 

However the Gmail app on mobile devices allows a 10 second time window after sending mail to tap Undo to pull it back (Figure F).

Figure F

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