What's a 'bounced' email?

Soft vs. Hard Bounces

When an email is rejected by a recipient's email server, it's called a 'bounce'.

Bounced email is an email that couldn't be delivered (i.e. it 'bounces' back to the person who sent it).

There are different types of bounces that depend on the reason the email bounced.

In layman's terms there are two types of bounces: a 'hard' bounce; and a 'soft' bounce.

Hard Bounces

A hard bounce indicates a permanent reason an email cannot be delivered. While there are many reasons an email address may hard bounce, below are some common reasons this could happen.

  • The recipient's email address does not exist.
  • The domain name (the bit after the @ sign) they gave does not exist or no longer handles incoming email. But it could also be for as simple a reason as there being a typo in the email when it was inputted either by the applicant or by the organisation administrator. 
  • The recipient's email server has completely blocked delivery.


There are very occasionally cases in which valid email addresses can hard bounce.

Soft Bounces

Soft bounces typically indicate a temporary delivery issue to an address and are handled differently than hard bounces by Complyfile. When an email address soft bounces, it will immediately display as a soft bounce in your dashboard.

If an email address continues to soft bounce in additional campaigns, the address will eventually be considered a hard bounce. We'll allow seven soft bounces for an email address before converting a soft bounce into a hard bounce. While there are many reasons an email address may soft bounce, below are some common reasons this could happen.

  • Mailbox is full (i.e. it's over its quota or the amount that it's allowed to accept).
  • The recipient's email server could be down or offline.
  • The email message is too large for the recipient's email inbox.

There are multiple bounce types that you could see in the report for a sent email. All of the bounce messages we receive are sorted into soft bounce categories or, if it's a permanent delivery failure, classified as a hard bounce.

On this page you'll find our definitions for each bounce category and some background information on how our system deals with bounces.

Bounce category definitions

The following categories will not apply to every bounce type out there. We take a simplified approach to bounce message interpretation based on best practices.

NOTE: If you need to know more about a specific bounce in your report, please contact us. We can check our bounce logs for the exact DSN returned and investigate further.

  • General bounce
  • DNS failure
  • Mailbox full
  • Message too large
  • Mail block - relay denied
  • Mail block - general
  • Mail block - spam detected
  • Transient bounce
  • Challenge/response
  • Bounce - but no email address returned
  • Hard bounce

General bounce

This is treated as a soft bounce because we cannot determine the exact reason for delivery failure. Typically this bounce type is associated with a technical issue such as, "Connection timed out," but we will also classify a bounce as "general" if the response from the recipient server is open to more than one interpretation. It could be a non-standard error message, or too vague to be useful.

DNS failure

The recipient's email server is currently unable to deliver your email due to DNS issues on their end. This may or may not be a temporary problem. The error could be due to the mail server being down, or there was a typo when it was set up, or maybe the destination domain doesn't exist.

All we know is that the DNS host is unreachable, therefore we treat this as a soft bounce to allow some time for the problem to be rectified.

Mailbox full

The email server cannot deliver your email because the recipient's inbox is full. Most email applications have a set amount of storage an individual user can use for email. If this quota is exceeded the server will not let any more mail through, but it will also usually alert the mailbox owner so they can do something about it.

So while it may be the case that your recipient hasn't put aside time to make some space, it could also be a sign of an abandoned mailbox. For example, someone sets up a free webmail account just for shopping-related emails, then stops signing in when they start saving for a house.

We treat these as a soft bounce in case it's temporary, but if the issue continues we'll convert it to a hard bounce for you.

Message too large

The size of your email — including all headers, text and images — is larger than the maximum size the recipient's mailbox allows. The bounce message returned doesn't include information on what the size limit is, but we advise you do not send messages bigger than 500Kb.

Mail block - relay denied

Your email has bounced due to a temporary error, which could be on the sending or receiving side. "Relay" simply refers to the transmission of your email from our server to the receiving server, which has most likely been denied due to user error. This type of bounce usually occurs when the sender's message is not authenticated, but it can also be due to a misconfigured server on the recipient side.

Technically speaking this is a hard bounce, but we treat it as a soft bounce because it's often a result of user error, which can therefore be resolved.

Mail block - general

The recipient's email server is blocking inbound mail from our server, which may be due to a blacklisting. A mail block is recorded when the receiving server blocks an email completely; rejecting the message without any attempt to deliver it to the inbox.

The most likely reasons for this block are:

  • Your reply-to address is blacklisted.
  • One of our sending IPs is temporarily blocked.
  • One of our sending domains is temporarily blacklisted.
  • The receiving server only accepts whitelisted senders.

NOTE: You should only try resending this email if the bounce is due to our IP or sending domain being blocked or blacklisted. Please contact us to find out.

Mail block - spam detected

The recipient's email server has blocked your email on the basis that the content resembles spam. This mail block is often triggered by something detected in your email content, but can also be your reply-to address or brand name that has a poor reputation.

We treat this as a soft bounce due to the fact that some mail servers and email providers respond with false or incorrect error codes.

Transient bounce

The recipient mail server can't deliver your email, but will keep trying for a limited period of time. We treat this as a soft bounce, as when the recipient mail server retries the message could be delivered.


The recipient has installed software as an anti-spam measure, that only accepts email from previously authorised senders. If the software doesn't know the sender, a challenge email is returned, requiring a specific action before the original email will be sent to the user.

Since the requested response could be anything, we treat these as a soft bounce.

Bounce - but no email address returned

The recipient mail server bounced your email, but did not indicate which address it was bouncing on behalf of. We've determined the recipient based on the content of the bounce.

Deferred - general delay

A 'Deferred' status means that the recipient mail server indicated to Complyfile that email was being sent too quickly, too much at one time from one sender, etc. and that we should temporarily back-off and slow down sending (basically the recipient's servers asking  to throttle the receipt of email). When this happens, Complyfile will continue to try and deliver the email until it can be accepted or until it ultimately bounces back.

In general, Complyfile will retry delivery for deferred emails every several minutes, though this can vary based on domain/ISP and the type of response we receive from that mail server. Beyond that, we'll continue trying to deliver the deferred message up to 3 days and then mark the emails as having bounced if we're not able to access the receiving server. Then, based on the response we receive from the receiving mail server, the message will either be marked as a hard or soft bounce.

Whitelisting Complyfile's IP addresses

Complyfile emails are sent from Mandrill's shared IP range. This range is continuously updated as Mailchimp add more servers for sending.

We do not recommend whitelisting by IP because Mandrill's shared IPs may change without notice and the recipient would be whitelisting all mail from Mandrill.

If whitelisting by IP is the only option, the recipient domain should check for the most up-to-date IP information in the TXT record for spf.mandrillapp.com. On a Mac or Linux, use the following command to get this information:

dig TXT spf.mandrillapp.com

The record is updated when new IPs are added to Mandrill's sending IP range. If a receiving server is whitelisting the range, we recommended periodic checks to ensure they have the current range used by Mandrill.

Hard bounce

Your email is permanently undeliverable to this email address. The address is either fake, was entered incorrectly, or the user mailbox or domain is no longer active.

We've removed the address from your mailing list and added it to your suppression list which prevents any further emails being sent to the address. This protects your sender reputation and ensures you do not pay to send to dead addresses.

How we categorize bounce messages

Email messages are sent between mail servers using a procedure called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). If there's an error during the transmission a delivery status notification (DSN), otherwise known as a "bounce message," is returned to the sending server to explain why the message wasn't delivered.

There is a standard set of SMTP error codes that everyone uses (numbers like 421, 551, 554), however email providers and mail server administrators can customize the messages that accompany the codes, meaning there is no standard explanation for any particular bounce reason.

For example, the following are all hard bounce error messages:

  • Unknown or illegal alias
  • Address rejected
  • No such user here
  • Bad destination mailbox address
  • Rule imposed mailbox access for <email> refused: user invalid

To save you trying to interpret thousands of different bounce message explanations, our bounce processing tool sorts them into the categories listed above.

Note: Hat-tip to Campaign Monitor for their helpful article categorising the different types of bounced emails, which this help article draws heavily upon.

Did this article help you?