Outlook Categories and Color Categories

Last reviewed on February 9, 2014

Applies to Microsoft Outlook 2010, Outlook 2007, Outlook 2003 and older

Outlook has always supported categories, in Outlook 97 through Outlook 2003, they were simply Categories. Outlook 2007 introduced Color Categories by merging the short-lived colored flags with categories. This page sums up a few things I’ve learned about Outlook categories and color categories, with suggestions for using and managing categories along with troubleshooting tips.

You can assign one or more categories to any Microsoft Outlook item and consistent use of categories makes it easier to locate specific items.

Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010 do not use the registry for a master category list; they are stored in the default message store (mailbox or pst). If you are setting up a new system and using your old pst the color categories will be available on the new system. You may need to right click on the root folder (Outlook Today), choose Properties and click the button to Upgrade to color categories. This will assign random colors to the categories.

You can use Group policy to push Categories out to users, merging new categories with their existing categories. In the Group Policy Editor (with the Outlook 2007 or 2010 ADM files installed), look under Miscellaneous.

To print a list of the category names and their colors, we have a macro and instructions Print a list of Categories and their Colors.

How to Upgrade to Color Categories in Outlook 2007/2010 (video tutorial)

Unlike with older versions, you cannot paste a comma separated list of categories into the master category dialog and add them all to the Outlook 2007/2010 master list. With the exception of the All Fields page of an Outlook contact, the only way to add categories to items is using the Category picker menu or dialog. You can use the All fields page to bulk add categories to Outlook 2007 or Outlook 2010.

Outlook 2003, 2007, 2010 | Managing Categories | FAQ: Color Categories
Master Category List | Keeping Categories Consistent | How To | Category-based Mail Merge
More Fun with Categories | Things You Can’t Do with Categories | Color Names
Tools | More Information

Color Categories and IMAP Accounts

Color categories are not available in IMAP accounts by default, since they are not supported on all IMAP servers. However, there is a way to add color categories to IMAP messages. See Outlook Categories, Flags, and IMAP Accounts for more information and the workaround.

Outlook 2003, 2007, 2010

Assigning Categories to Sent Email | Categories in Shared Folders
Bulk Add Categories in Outlook 2007/2010

Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010 disable the ability to assign a category to mail before sending it. This change was made to prevent user data from “leaking”. For example, if you use a category named “PITA Customer” you would not want it included on email sent to customers. (Yes, this type of scenario really happened, more than once.)

Assigning Categories to Sent Email

Color categories are removed from Outlook 2003/2007/2010 items sent by email. If you need to include the category on a one time basis, drag the item to the hard drive, zip it and email the zip file. The recipient will drag the item to a folder in their Outlook and if using Outlook 2007, can add the categories to their master list by using the Upgrade to color categories option in the root folder properties.

If you need to include the categories all the time, use the SendPersonalCategories registry entry.

This key works with Outlook 2003 and 2007 as well as 2010, you’ll need to use the correct path in the registry for your version. This can also be set using Group Policy – look for it in the Office adm files, under Outlook > Miscellaneous.

Create the key or path if it does not exist.

DWORD: SendPersonalCategories
Value Data: 1 to keep categories on sent mail, 0 to not include categories

If you don’t want to edit the registry yourself, download and run the registry file for your version of Outlook:

Outlook 2003 regOutlook 2007 regOutlook 2010 reg

Note that the categories will be included on the sent message and the recipient will be able to see the category (unless the recipient uses a rule to remove categories from messages they receive).

Categories in Shared Folders

Only categories are visible on items when you share folders on Exchange server – colors are per user. Other users will see your categories in a white color (unless its already in their color category list).

Not in master listTo add a category that is not in your master list, to your master list, select it (so its highlighted) and click the New button. Outlook will assign the next unused color – change the color and set a shortcut key, if desired, then click Save.

Managing Categories

To add, remove, rename, or assign shortcuts to categories, expand the category selector and choose All Categories from the end of the menu to open the Color Category dialog, shown below.

Select the category on the left then the appropriate button in the dialog to add, edit, delete categories, or assign colors or shortcuts to categories.

Use the Color Category dialog to edit categories

You cannot add categories in bulk using this dialog.

Bulk Add Categories in Outlook 2007/2010

While you can bulk add categories to any item in older versions of Outlook by typing in the category field, in Outlook 2007/2010, you need to use the category menu or dialog to select categories.

Also possible in older versions, you could type (or paste) a comma-delimited list in the master category dialog then add the list to your master list. While this is not possible to do from the master category list in Outlook 2007/2010, it is possible to type a list of categories and add them to the master list.

  1. Open a contact form and switch to the All Fields page.
  2. Select Frequently used fields from the Select from menu, then type (or paste) a comma-separated list of categories into the Category field.
  3. Next, right click on the top level of your data file (where Outlook Today is) and choose Properties
  4. Click Upgrade to Color Categories button

Bulk add categories using the All fields dialog

FAQ: Color Categories

Q: How do I reset the categories?

A: In Outlook 2007 or Outlook 2010, you can remove the categories you added and restore the defaults using the cleancategories switch. Close Outlook and type or paste the following command in the Start Search field (Windows 7) or in the Run command (WinXP):

outlook.exe /cleancategories

This will remove all categories from the master category list and restore the default category placeholder names (Red Category, Blue Category etc). This will not remove the categories from individual items. To remove categories from Outlook items, create a search folder to find the items that have categories assigned then remove the categories using Select All, then right click and choose Clear All Categories.

If you decide you want to restore the categories to the master list (and haven’t deleted them from the items yet), use Upgrade to color categories.

In Outlook 2003, go to Edit menu, Categories, Master Category List. Click Reset and close the dialog.

Q: How is the Category list organized?

A: When you expand the Categories button, the flyout is ordered by the most recently used categories. If you click All Categories to open the Color Categories dialog, the list should be alphabetical.

Master Category List

The master category list is not a separate file, but instead is part of the Windows Registry. Each user has a different category list. Outlook 2007 does not store color categories in the registry.

To back up the Master Category List in Outlook 97/98:

  1. Run Regedit and go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\8.0\Outlook and select the Categories key.
  2. Choose Registry | Export Registry File to make a copy of the Categories branch of the registry.

To back up the Master Category List in Outlook 2000:

  1. Run Regedit and go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\9.0\Outlook and select the Categories key.
  2. Choose Registry | Export Registry File to make a copy of the Categories branch of the registry.

To back up the Master Category List in Outlook 2002:

  1. Run Regedit and go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\10.0\Outlook and select the Categories key.
  2. Choose Registry | Export Registry File to make a copy of the Categories branch of the registry. Note that this list is in Unicode encoding and is not compatible with earlier versions of Outlook.

To back up the Master Category List in Outlook 2003:

  1. Run Regedit and go to HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Microsoft\Office\11.0\Outlook and select the Categories key.
  2. Choose Registry | Export Registry File to make a copy of the Categories branch of the registry. Note that this list is in Unicode encoding and is not compatible with versions other than Outlook 2002.

To use any of these methods to move categories to another computer using a compatible version of Outlook, you’ll need to change the version number in the key before importing.

You can use this exported branch to distribute a category list to other Outlook users. See the MSKB article How to Migrate Custom Categories to Other Users. CAUTION: Using a .reg file to propagate a category list does not update a user’s own list; instead it completely replaces it. I personally do not recommend this method, because it eliminates much the utility of the Category feature for users. See the next section for what I think is a better method.

If you remove a category from the master list, any items marked with that category are not affected. In the Categories dialog box, that category is listed as “(not in master list).”

Also see:

Keeping Categories Consistent

I’m convinced that many people worry too much about keeping the Master Category List consistent from user to user, when what they really want is to keep the categorization of the items themselves consistent. It is critical to remember that the category set on an individual item is totally independent of the user’s Master Category List.

For example, you can set a category of Blue on an item, then delete Blue from your personal Master Category List. The item is still categorized as Blue. In the Categories dialog, you should now see its category as “Blue (not on master list).” Anyone who has never had Blue on the master list will see the same thing.

Yes, it would be nice if Microsoft had made this easier, but the real issue usually is making category assignment consistent. In a public folder, consider handling that with a custom form that forces users to pick from an “official” list of categories. I’ve put together a sample form at Required Categories Contact Form.

Another approach would be to use code behind the form to make category assignment automatic based on the value of other fields in the form.

One situation where the Master Categories list makes a difference is when you are working with a large folder and dragging a large number of items between categories. When a category is not in the Master List, you risk losing the original categories from items added to new categories. You can avoid problems by dragging fewer items at a time or select the items, right click and choose Categories.

How To …

To filter a folder on multiple categories …
On the More Choices tab in the Filter dialog, type the names of the categories separated by “AND” Do not use the Categories button.

For example, to display contacts who are in both the Personal category and the Business category, type in “Personal AND Business.”

In Outlook 2007, use the Advanced tab to create the filter. Use Categories for the Field, select contains as the Condition and enter the category names, separated by AND in the Value field.

The QueryBuilder can be used to create the AND filter if you use Outlook 2002, 2003 or 2007. See Using QueryBuilder for more information.

Remove Categories From Messages

To remove categories from incoming messages, create a rule and choose the condition to “clear messages’s categories”.

If you use an older versions of Outlook, Rules Wizard doesn’t have an option to remove categories from messages you send or receive, it can only add more categories. You’ll need to use VBA to remove categories.

Private Sub Application_ItemSend(ByVal Item As Object, Cancel As Boolean)
      Item.Categories = ""
End Sub

Visit OutlookCode for assistance with Outlook programming.

Category-based Mail Merge

Note that this section does not apply to Outlook 2003/2007/2010. In any of these newer versions you can filter or group by category, select the contacts in the category and start the mail merge using Tools, Mail merge.

You can’t use categories directly as selection criteria for a Word mail merge in Outlook 97 and Outlook 98. (It is added in Outlook 2000 — but works only if each item has only one category assigned to it.) That does not mean that it can’t be done, though. It just takes a bit of extra effort. Here are several methods:

Method #1:

Select Contacts by category using a filter, copy all matching items to a new Contacts folder, add that folder to the Outlook Address Book, and use it as the mail merge source. See the MSKB article Q160521: Categories Unavailable to Mail Merge in Word. Also see Helen Feddema’s Code Sample 48 for a VBScript routine to do the copying to another folder for you.

Method #2:

You can use Excel to drive a bulk mailing based on a category. See the Microsoft article Using Microsoft Excel To Do a Bulk Mailing in Microsoft Outlook.

Some of the third-party mail merge tools also support merging by category.

More Fun with Categories

See Microsoft Exchange and Outlook Distribution Lists for details on how to use categories to create instant Personal Distribution Lists.

You can use categories in Rules Wizard rules, both as part of conditions and as actions, assigning one or more categories to an item. For example, I used to use an autoresponder to handle subscription requests for my Exchange Messaging Outlook newsletter and marked the incoming requests with a category of “Response sent.”

If you create a new Outlook item from another item, the categories carry over. Back to the autoresponder example: I manage the mailing list in a Contacts folder that uses a custom form. New items are created by dragging the incoming message to the folder. When the new recipient is created, it has the category of “Response sent.” This also works with replies and forwards; as long as you send in RTF format, the recipient will see any category you apply. However, if you send a message with a category via the Microsoft Network service, it may remain in the Outbox unsent. See the MSKB article Q163176: MSN Mail Not Sent with Category or Contact Attachment.

Helen Feddema’s Code Sample 55 demonstrates how to use an Outlook form to display all contacts by category. It’s up to you to take the next step of writing code to do something with all those contacts.

Also see:

Things You Can’t Do with Categories

You can’t create a view that shows both categories and subcategories. In other words, the Categories field can be used for grouping just once. What you might try is a set of categories that themselves include a subcategory: Friends – Good, Friends – Very Close, etc.

You can’t search and replace a category directly without writing code. However, you can select a bunch of categories, then right-click, choose Categories from the pop-up menu and work with the Categories for the entire group of items.

Problems and Issues

We have a report that GoContactSync (an Outlook/Gmail sync utility) resets the master category list. Categories are not removed from the Outlook items, but the categories are shown as “not in master Category”.

Color Names

Although knowing the names of the colors is less than useful for most users, they are in the Object model as OlCategoryColor. The 25 color names are as follows.

BlackDark MaroonDark RedGreenPurple
BlueDark OliveDark SteelMaroonRed
Dark BlueDark OrangeDark TealOliveSteel
Dark GrayDark PeachDark YellowOrangeTeal
Dark GreenDark PurpleGrayPeachYellow
White: No color assigned.

To print a list of the category names and their colors, see Print a list of Categories and their Colors.


Categories Administrator for Outlook/Exchange

Categories Administrator was specifically designed for users to easily administer Master and Individual Contact Categories in Outlook/Exchange/BCM. Add, rename, merge, remove, delete, import, and create categories in Outlook/Exchange/BCM. Create a query and then map it to the selected contacts.

Categorize Plus

Categorize Plus enables users to categorize and search Outlook items using a selectable menu hierarchy. Categorize Plus also allows user to automatically process emails by creating Category Actions. In addition, Categorize Plus will automatically assign categories to items as they arrive in your Inbox or any other folder that you choose. Categorize Plus also includes a dock-able Category Editor that is used to quickly edit item categories and commands to copy/paste categories and to undo/redo categorizations. Available in both Free and Paid versions and works with Outlook 2003/2007/2010.

Category Importer

Category Importer for Outlook, exports your Master Category List (MCL) to a text file that you can easily import on another PC. Free

Category Manager

Category Manager allows sharing of color categories; it adds a sidebar to the folder view as well as opened items, in which you can group your categories and assign them lightning fast; and it adds a reminder, which optionally prompts you if you forget to assign a category. Version 3.0.4

Category Organizer

Category Organizer adds a sidebar to Outlook allowing instant access to your categories. Select a contact and instantly see the categories assigned, need to make changes, easy just use the checkboxes. Set filters to show only the items in specific categories.

CategorySet Plugin for Outlook2013

This first release displays all categories in one menu and contains all of the basic functionality of the new "Categorize" button for Outlook 2013.

CodeTwo CatMan

CodeTwo CatMan allows sharing of Outlook categories with other users on the local network. Centralized management using a shared configuration file. Version 3.0.1

Exchange Category Exporter

For Mac users. Export contacts from a specific category in Outlook 2011 or Entourage.

Exchange Category Manager

Exchange Category Manager is a plug-in for Exchange server 2010. Without any interaction to the user's pc or Outlook it enables you to manage the Outlook categories and colors that are available to the users in Outlook 2007 and higher. You can define an unlimited number of groups with different users. Each group can have it's own set of categories and colors that the user can choose from. Per user group you can either add categories to the existing list that a user has in Outlook or replace everything with the predefined list. As it integrates with Exchange server directly the users do not have to do or install anything, their category list is simply automatically managed.

ReliefJet Essentials for Outlook

The updated version of ReliefJet Essentials for Outlook adds many new features including support for Quick Text with hotkeys and expandable macros. New utilities added like Add BCC to Messages and Redirect Messages. All utilities can be integrated with Outlook Rules. A command line tool for Outlook professionals and administrators is also provided. More than 70 tools and utilities are now included.


Taglocity for Outlook enables users to assign unlimited keyword "tags" to any Outlook items such as email, contacts, calendar entries, etc. Instead of forcing content into conventional folder structures that too rigid, each tag essentially acts as a virtual folder, thus reducing the need for folder hierarchies. To help improve organizational efficiency, Taglocity can also automate common tasks by running actions when tags are set, such as turning email into appointments, assigning additional tags, or automatically moving messages into specified folders. Version 2.0

Written by

Diane Poremsky
A Microsoft Outlook Most Valuable Professional (MVP) since 1999, Diane is the author of several books, including Outlook 2013 Absolute Beginners Book. She also created video training CDs and online training classes for Microsoft Outlook. You can find her helping people online in Outlook Forums as well as in the Microsoft Answers and TechNet forums.

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