Outlook Categories, Flags, and IMAP Accounts

Last reviewed on November 24, 2014   —  38 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

The operation cannot be preformed because the message has been changed.

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

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.

Please post long or more complicated questions at Outlookforums.

38 responses to “Outlook Categories, Flags, and IMAP Accounts”

  1. jon

    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...

  2. jon

    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.

  3. jon

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

  4. Glyn

    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

  5. Glyn

    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

  6. Glyn

    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


  7. Nick

    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

    Thank you!

  9. Nick

    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?

  10. Kayleigh

    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,

  11. Damien

    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.

  12. Alejandro Ardila

    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

  13. Simon A

    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 ?

  14. Simon A

    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.

    Anti-virus....no, only MSE.

  15. Simon A

    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.

  16. Lisa

    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.

  17. Ron J.

    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.

  18. Charles Steiger

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

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

    1. Charles Steiger

      I mean follow-up flags w/ dates etc.

  19. Mary

    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.

  20. Mary

    It's an aol account, which I believe is an IMAP account. I need idiot proof directions. Thank you for your help.

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