Last reviewed on April 15, 2015   —  47 Comments

Categories and flags are not available in all of my folders in Microsoft Outlook. I can use categories and flags on mail in my POP3 account but categories are not available in my IMAP account and flags are limited to one flag, no reminder. Why?

The IMAP protocol doesn’t support the Category and Flag properties on messages and assigned categories and flags are not synced back to the IMAP server. If you need to use categories, you need to use a POP3 account instead or move the messages to a local pst file. In place of flags (and their reminders), drag the message to Tasks (or Calendar) and set the reminder.

If using IMAP is a requirement, you can either move the mail to separate folders to separate it or use Automatic Formatting (Conditional formatting in Outlook 2010) to highlight messages meeting specific conditions. If you need reminders, drag the message to the Tasks folder and create a task with a reminder.

Categories and Flags in Outlook 2013

If having special “this computer only” folders with reduced capabilities in Outlook 2013 IMAP accounts isn’t bad enough, I’m left scratching my head when I look at the half-removed Flag and Category features users have come to expect in Outlook. There is no reason why full flags and categories shouldn’t work in an ost file, but users are stuck with the IMAP implementation, where flags are limited to on or off and the Categories button is non-existent.

Whether you can add a category an appointment or contact, or add a category or reminder to a task depends on what view you are using and whether you know all the right tricks.

The category picker is missing from appointments. But you can add categories if you assign keyboard shortcuts to at least one category and apply it. Once you add a category to an appointment, you can open the category MRU by right clicking on the category bar in the open appointment.

In Contacts, all of the flag options are available. The keyboard shortcuts work for categories and as with the other Outlook items, once a category is applied, you can right click on it and make changes. You can even add categories from the options dialog (File, Properties). Yes, in the wacky world of Outlook 2013 IMAP accounts, the category picker on the Options dialog is disabled on mail, appointments, and tasks but it works on Contacts.

A user discovered the trick to creating full reminders and color categories on tasks: select more than one. When you right click on one task, you’ll get the short IMAP version of the context menu, with options to Flag, Mark Complete, or Delete. The only option for Categories is Clear All Categories (when you click on the Category column). Select 2 or more tasks and viola! The full flag and category menus appears on the context menu. In an open Task, the Categorize button has one option: clear all but keyboard shortcuts will add categories… and yes, the full category menu is available on the right-click context menu.

The user went on to add “My solution right now is to just have a “dummy” task that I can select with the other tasks I want to change, but it’s a pain to work around a bug like this, especially since Microsoft is expecting me to pay monthly for the software.”

Flags with IMAP accounts

The flag options for IMAP accounts is limitedWhen an IMAP account is configured in Outlook, there is just one option for flags: either flagged or not flagged.

You may occasionally receive an error message when flagging items in IMAP accounts. This error is because Outlook is syncing with the server. Select a different message then switch back to the original message and you should be able to flag messages without error.

The operation cannot be performed because the message has been changed

Message was change error

If you need to set a reminder, drag the message to the Task folder to create a task.

Using Categories with IMAP Accounts Workaround

These instructions are for Outlook 2010 and below or Outlook 2013 when you have a separate pst file for calendar and contacts, in addition to the IMAP data file. Use the instructions in the next section when you use only the IMAP account and use the ‘this computer only’ folder for Calendar and Contacts.

While you can’t change how flags work (except by moving the mail to a local pst), it is possible to trick Outlook into letting you add categories to IMAP messages.

The easy way:

  1. While a viewing a folder in a data file that supports categories, expand the Categories button and choose All Categories to open the Color Category manager.
  2. Edit Color Categories

  3. Add keyboard shortcuts to your categories. Since you are limited to 10, start with the most frequently used categories.
  4. Select (or open) the message and press the shortcut. Yes, the shortcuts work on IMAP messages.

If you need to assign a category that does not have a keyboard shortcut assigned, add a category using a shortcut then open the message and right-click in the category area above the subject field.

Use the infobar to add more categories to IMAP messages

Choose the category from the list before removing existing categories from the message.

In most cases, the category name will “stick” and sync to other computers running Outlook. However, colors are per message store so each computer will have it’s own list of colors. How to Upgrade to Color Categories has instructions on how to quickly add categories to your master category list.

Outlook 2013 with only the IMAP data file

The instructions above are for IMAP accounts in Outlook 2010 and below, or when you have a pst file in a profile with an IMAP account in Outlook 2013. When you don’t have a pst in your profile (and are using the ‘this computer only’ folder for Calendar and Contacts), you can set up category shortcuts using these steps:

  1. Open a Contact (new or existing) and click it’s File, Properties button.
    Open a contact, click file, properties
  2. Click on Categories at the bottom then All Categories.
    Click on Categories, then All Categories
  3. Set up some categories and assign keyboard shortcuts.
    Edit Color Categories
  4. Close the dialog.

Use the shortcuts to assign categories to email, appointments, and contacts. After you add a category to an item, you can click on the Category InfoBar (see screenshot in previous section above) and select other categories.

Use the infobar to add more categories to IMAP messages

Add Category Field to the View

You can customize the Message list view and add the Category field to the view. However, this only allows you to use the quick click category. You can open the message and right click on the category bar to select more categories.

Using Category Shortcuts Video Tutorial

Use VBA to Display Category Options

Paste this into the VB Editor and add it to the toolbar or ribbon. Click the toolbar button to open the Category dialog. Add it to the QAT, ribbon, or toolbar. This works with messages selected in the message list or open message.

Public Sub CategorizeIMAP()
     Dim sel As Outlook.Selection
     Set sel = Application.ActiveExplorer.Selection
    If sel Is Nothing Then
         Exit Sub
     End If
    Dim obj As Object
     Dim selCats As String
     Dim gotCats As Boolean
    For Each obj In sel
         If Not gotCats Then
             selCats = obj.Categories
             gotCats = True
             obj.Categories = selCats
         End If
     Next obj
 End Sub

This simple code can be added to the QAT, toolbar, or ribbon of a message form. Add the following code to the VB Editor and then add a button to the QAT, Ribbon, or Toolbar of a message form. Click the button to open the Category dialog. This code does not work with messages in the message list.

Public Sub ShowCategoriesDialog()
'by Michael Bauer

  Dim Mail As Object
  Set Mail = Application.ActiveInspector.CurrentItem
End Sub

How to use macros

First: You will need macro security set to low during testing.

To check your macro security in Outlook 2010 or 2013, go to File, Options, Trust Center and open Trust Center Settings, and change the Macro Settings. In Outlook 2007 and older, it’s at Tools, Macro Security.

After you test the macro and see that it works, you can either leave macro security set to low or sign the macro.

Open the VBA Editor by pressing Alt+F11 on your keyboard.

To put the code in a module:

  1. Right click on Project1 and choose Insert > Module
  2. Copy and paste the macro into the new module.

More information as well as screenshots are at How to use the VBA Editor

Category Utilities

Category Manager
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


CategorieZ 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.

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.


  1. jon says

    you can set up a rule to flag an incoming email in an imap folder.
    however, conditional formatting based on the flag field not being empty appears not to work in outlook 2010...

    • Diane Poremsky says

      how did your conditional rule read? It works her using the "For follow up field is empty".

  2. jon says

    with the red followup flag being set,
    i have tried advanced view settings imap messages, conditional formatting/condition/advanced:
    followup flag - is not empty
    flag status - equals - followup flag

    neither has any effect.
    this works great with pop mail, but NOT with imap messages.

    • Diane Poremsky says

      Is it a gmail imap? It works fine on an imap account provided by a web host but not my gmail account.

  3. jon says

    i got it....
    the field for imap is "flag status"
    so the conditional formatting is:
    flag status - not equal to - unflagged

    • Diane Poremsky says

      Yeah, that works here too. I tested it on my laptop before, will have to double check what I used.

  4. Glyn says

    Just looking for some advice... i have an email account that is accessed by several machines, all run outlook 2007 but one is connecting by exchange proper, the others use IMAP. we use categories every day, but can't categorise mail on the IMAP ones... i've set shortcuts on the exchange access machine but when i try them on an IMAP machine, they don't do anything. Anybody got any clues?? have i missed something? is there any other workaround available?
    thanks, glyn

    • Diane Poremsky says

      Is there a reason why your can't use Exchange on all the systems? It would eliminate the problems...

      What shortcuts did you set up? The Ctrl+n shortcuts should work in IMAP, but you need to set up the categories on each machine as the master list won't migrate.

  5. Glyn says

    our supplier has restricted us to 1 exchange, i don't know any technical reason...
    how do i set up categories on the machine that uses imap? sorry, never used imap before... i feel like i've just been sent back in time a bit...
    thank you

    • Diane Poremsky says

      It sounds like they are using per-device licensing instead of per user.

      Is OWA enabled? It's not bad, unless you need offline access, then IMAP is better.

      Click the Categorize button (while viewing the default pst) and choose All Categories. Add the categories.

      If you want a list of the category names and their assigned colors, run this macro on the computer that opens the Exchange mailbox.

  6. Glyn says

    yes, owa is enabled, but i need offline mode (not to mention a plugin that needs the outlook client). having said that i will use owa when i want quick access to check something.

    don't have a categorise button on the imap machine??

    have a copy of the macro, i'll run it on the exchange machine


    • Diane Poremsky says

      You should have a local pst that is the default for calendar and contacts - select a folder in it and add the categories

  7. Nick says

    Diane, can you give me a little more detail on the VB editor route for adding categories? I have successfully pasted the code into the VB editor "ThisOutlookSession", and it runs nicely. However i don't understand how to add it to the ribbon now so it shows up as an option with my inbox (IMAP) messages. Please help. Thanks!

  8. Nick says

    thank you for the video on how to add the macros to the ribbon. It worked perfectly. do you have another macro you can recommend for getting the full flag menu for messages in an imap inbox?

  9. Kayleigh says

    Your info has been invaluable thankyou!
    I manage support for my company, and I am now sharing an IMAP account to queue the support tickets with my colleague.
    Using the short cut method has worked beautifully, but it doesn't share over to his display. We'd like to be able to flag emails for each other to say 'his' or 'hers' etc.

    Do you have any further advice?

    Thank you,

  10. Damien says

    Thank you for this. I recently moved from a POP account to an IMAP account and use categories to track the status of emails with suppliers and customers so this little bit of code was a life saver. I only used the first macro. Thanks.

  11. Alejandro Ardila says

    Hello, I have this problem with a client, when he creates a task, he assing categories to it, and then assing the task to other user, when the other user receive the task, this dont have the color categories in the task and if he accept the task the creator of the task loose the color categories too. Is mandatory for the client to maintain the color categories. So i was wandering if there's a way to work aroud this. Thanks

    • Diane Poremsky says

      No, sorry, there isn't a way around it, unless the recipient sets a category or he makes an unassigned copy of the task.

  12. Simon A says

    On this page there is an error message shown (which I am receiving if I take too long to type out the reply to a message in Outlook 365) - "the operation cannot be performed because the message has been changed". But there is nothing written in the article itself about this message that I can see ?
    Any ideas why it's there on the page please ? Or better still, any idea why I am receiving it ?

    • Diane Poremsky says

      It's above the screenshot: "You may occasionally receive an error message when flagging items in IMAP accounts. This error is because Outlook is syncing with the server. Select a different message then switch back to the original message and you should be able to flag messages without error."

      But... that is not the cause when an Office 365 Exchange account is involved. What antivirus do you use? Do you get the error if you restart Outlook in Safe mode? To open Outlook in Safe mode: Close Outlook then hold Ctrl as you click on the Outlook icon. You'll get a message asking if you want to start in Safe mode. Click Ok.

  13. Simon A says

    Thanks for the reply. Sorry my fault, I did not associate that part of it because it's entirely not the case with how it happens with me (i've never flagged an item before).
    I only ever get the message if I reply to an email but take some time to do so (so it's usually a long reply). I try to send, get the error message, cut the text out of the reply, close the email, re-open the email, paste the reply back in and send no problem., only MSE.

  14. Simon A says

    I receive this error when I type a long reply to an email, if I then cut the text out that I have typed, close the email (clicking NO to saving the draft), click REPLY (again) and paste the text in, it will send fine. Thanks.

  15. Lisa says

    Thank you for this post. It answered my question about mail folder flags as well as giving me the effective workaround of dragging the item to Tasks.

  16. Ron J. says

    If I wanted to change my gmail account, which I access with Outlook 2013, from IMAP to POP what cautions do you recommend? I assume if I use a POP account that all of the downloaded emails would be accessed by other computers assigned to the same user in Office 365.

    • Diane Poremsky says

      First: if there are 'this computer only' folders, make sure thye are empty - move any contents to the same folders in a pst file. (Use list view on the calendar.) Then Remove the account and add it as a pop. Yes, other users can pop the mailbox - check the gmail settings (online) - it can control what happens to deleted items and downloaded items and also if all items are downloaded or just newer ones.

  17. Charles Steiger says

    I just upgraded my IMAP to categories today in Outlook 2013 (Office 365 subscription) and the categories are synched between Outlook 2013 and

    Maybe they will soon add the feature for follow-up flags, too?

    • Diane Poremsky says

      I don't know if dates will be added, but I'm off to check this out. :) It will be great if they fixed some other issues too.

    • Charles Steiger says

      I forgot to say that I have seen you in a great number of my search results providing wonderful insight and help with regard to Exchange/Outlook and I think Microsoft Office, too. Thanks for all you do! (coming from someone new to Outlook using 2010 at work and 2013 at home).

  18. Mary says

    Hi Diane,

    I am having trouble with your video above about assigning categories to shortcuts. I can't find the categories tab you are referencing. I have a surface pro and outlook 2013 and would really like to color code my appointments. Please help.

    Thank you.

    • Diane Poremsky says

      What type of email account are you using? If the only account is an imap account you need to use the macro to get access to categories. If you have a pst file set as default, you'll have the category command and can assign a keyboard shortcut to your most used categories.

    • Diane Poremsky says

      When you use Outlook 2013 and only the IMAP data file, the macro might be the best option. You can try this: open a contact (new or existing) and click it's File, Properties button. Click on Categories at the bottom then All Categories. Set up some categories and assign shortcuts. Close the dialog and use the shortcuts to assign categories to email, appointments, and contacts. Once you add a category to an item, you can click on the category InfoBar and select other categories.

  19. Linda V says

    we have just converted to Office 13 from 7 (and previous version before that) somewhere in that legacy, my profile inherited a stack of categories which I have to trawl through to reach the ones I use. I have tried deleting - but they stay on the list. Is there a way to edit the list so it only shows the ones I use. My IT support staff are vague on this problem.

    • Diane PoremskyDiane Poremsky says

      Are they coming back as 'not on master list'? You need to remove the categories from the messages and other outlook items that have the category assigned. Otherwise, they can get added back on the master list. Create a search folder for By Category - collapse all groups, the select a category group that you want removed and click Categories > Clear all. Repeat for each category. If contacts, tasks or appointments have categories, group by category in those folders and remove categories you want removed.

  20. Richard says

    Hello Diane, I have a situation where when I flag a message then close and re-open outlook the message gets unflagged. This is an imap account. Any way to correct this?

    • Diane PoremskyDiane Poremsky says

      It's possible that it is resyncing from the server when Outlook opens it - the flag is not uploaded so it downloads the unflagged copy. Does it happen to all messages or just some? If so sync (do a send and receive) after flagging the message, does the flag stick?

      Which version of Outlook do you use? It might help to delete the imap data file and let outlook create a new one.

  21. web user says

    The idea that the IMAP protocol doesn’t support the Category and Flag properties on messages in Outlook is not entirely true. I use Google Apps for Business and my email is IMAP. The categorize and flag properties work with no problem at all in Outlook.

    • Diane PoremskyDiane Poremsky says

      Are you using the sync utility? That adds some capabilities not found in many imap servers. Outlook flags are stars in Gmail and Categories aren't visible in Gmail but are stored on the message and are visible on other computers.

  22. Greg says

    My co-workers color categories pop up on my calendar items when they add categories to a meeting occurence that they are included on. Is there a way to prevent others categories from populating on my calendar? I do calendar exports to track work time and having to clear their categories off each time is tedious.

    • Diane PoremskyDiane Poremsky says

      You can try settings a rule to remove categories on all incoming items - not sure it will work though.

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