How to Use Gmail: A Brief Tour of Gmail

By Kay FleuryUpdated on March 13, 2018

If you have followed our Gmail course so far (especially our last tutorial on how to create a Gmail account), you now have a brand new Gmail account. Great! So now the question is: how do you get Gmail to work for you? In this tutorial, besides showing you how to log into Gmail, we’ll also go over some of the basic features of Gmail’s interface. You don’t need to remember them all; we’re going to be looking at quite a few of them in more detail in our later tutorials, so you might just want to use this tutorial as a reference.

Logging into Gmail

1. Go to in your web browser of choice. You will be redirected to a screen like the one below.

Gmail sign in screen

2. Click in the box marked “Email” and type in your Gmail email address.
3. Click in the box marked “Password” and type in your password.
4. When you have filled in both boxes, click Sign In.

You are now signed into your Gmail account, and are ready to start using Gmail. In the rest of the lesson, we’ll go over the basics of some of Gmail’s features to help you get started. Remember, we have full step-by-step tutorials on most of these features, so be sure to check some of them out if you want to learn more!

Getting started with Gmail: the 12 main features you need to know

If you successfully logged in, you will see a screen similar to the one below (though it probably won’t be as crowded, if you’re logging in for the first time). Congratulations! You are now at your main “Inbox” screen. Let’s take a look at some of the different areas and buttons that you should be familiar with.

Gmail Inbox

1. Search bar

Click here and type something in, and then press enter or click the blue magnifying glass (or one of the options that appears from the drop-down menu) to search for it. You can find emails based on their sender, recipient, label, subject, and more. You can even search for something on the Internet from here using Google Search.

Gmail search bar

2. Function selector

You’ll mainly click here to switch between your mailboxes and your contacts list. We’ll have a full tutorial on how to use your Gmail contacts list, so if you want some more detailed information, check out our tutorial on Gmail contacts.

Gmail function selector

3. Compose

One of the most important buttons, and one you will use frequently. When you want to write a new email from scratch (as opposed to forwarding or replying to one), this is where you’ll click first.

Gmail Compose email button

Since this is something you’ll be doing a lot with Gmail, be sure to check out our step-by-step tutorial on how to compose and send emails with Gmail.

4. Labels

This shows you some of the different ways that Gmail has organized the emails that you have sent, received, or are planning on sending. Click on one to see the emails associated with that label. Some of them, such as “Inbox,” “Starred,” “Important,” “Sent Mail,” “Drafts,” “Spam,” and “Trash” come as defaults. Others you can create for yourself.

Gmail labels

5. Quick contacts

If you have someone in your contacts list, you can click their name to quickly start a new email with them as a recipient. Or you can click in the box labelled “Search people…” and type in a person’s name to find them in your contacts list if they don’t immediately appear here.

View of Quick Contacts in Gmail

6. Quick selector

Clicking the drop-down menu with the check box inside it (but not the check box itself) allows you to quickly select groups of emails. In addition to deselecting any emails that are already selected, you can select:

  • all of your emails
  • just ones that you’ve read
  • just ones that you haven’t read
  • just ones that you have marked with a star
  • just ones that you haven’t marked with a star
Gmail quick selector

Clicking in the check box inside the button will automatically select all of the emails displayed on the page, or deselect any that you’ve already selected.

7. Refresh

If you’re expecting an email and it hasn’t shown up in your inbox yet, click the Refresh button to tell Gmail to prioritize looking for any new mail that’s coming your way.

Gmail refresh button

8. List skip

By default, Gmail will only display 50 emails in a list at any given time (you can change this in your settings – see the next feature below). Click the left or right arrows to display to the previous 50 emails or next 50 emails (in reverse chronological order), respectively. Additionally, you can also move your mouse cursor over the current vs. total emails indicator next to these arrows and then click Oldest or Newest to skip to either your least-recent or most-recent emails.

Gmail List Skip

9. Settings

Click the gear icon to select options for what your main “Inbox” screen looks like, ask for additional help, let Google know what you think of Gmail, and access advanced options.

Gmail settings button

10. Account

Clicking on your profile picture allows you to select options for viewing and changing the details about your Gmail account, including what your profile picture looks like. You can also switch to another account (if you have more than one), or you can log out of Gmail.

Gmail account

11. Conversations

This is a list of all of your emails with a certain label or within a certain category, based on what you are choosing to view right now. Click on one anywhere in the right side of the screen (i.e. not on one of the three buttons at the far left) to open it.

Gmail conversation-style emails

12. Google Apps

This square grid button opens a pop-up window of all of the Google apps you can access for free with a Gmail account. You can use free cloud-based storage on your Google Drive, use the Google Office Suite for documents, or even store your images with Google Photos. Google has some of the best free apps on the market, so be sure to check them out.

Google Apps button

Sorting your Gmail conversations

“Conversations” is a unique feature of Gmail that automatically groups together emails with the same subject that are sent back and forth between the same people over and over. So even if you get new emails that have different subjects, you’ll always know when you have a new message on a particular topic, and be able to review what has already been said about that topic.

Let’s have a detailed look at how a conversation appears in a message list. When you select an email by clicking in the check box on the left side of it, more options will appear on your screen. You can select one or more conversations at a time, and this is what you can do with them once you have:

Gmail coversation - opened

People and email count

Shows you a few of the people (besides you) who have sent or received emails in this conversation, and how many emails are part of this conversation (if there are more than one).

People involved in Gmail conversation

Subject and preview

Shows you the original subject of the conversation, as well as a short preview of the most recent email received as part of that conversation.

Gmail subject and preview of email

Date received/Attachment included

The date which you received the most recent email in this conversation. There will be a little paperclip icon beside the date if an email in the conversation has an attachment.

Date email was received/if attachment is included in email


Click the check box beside a conversation to select or deselect it (it’s selected here). Selecting a conversation opens up additional options in the menu across the top. You can also select multiple conversations at once.

Gmail selector


Click the star beside a conversation to add a star to it, or to remove a star from it. This is your own personal way of telling yourself which conversations you want to pay special attention to.

Gmail star to favorite a conversation


While you have a conversation selected, click the Archive button (the box with the arrow pointing down, as shown here) to archive it. This removes it from your main inbox, so it won’t get in the way of emails that you need to pay attention to right now. This won’t delete it or remove any labels (other than “Inbox”) from it, though, so you can still find it if you need it again for some reason. If you’ve selected multiple conversations at once, you can archive them all at once.

Gmail Archive button

Report spam

Think someone’s sending you an email just to advertise something or try to run a scam? Select it, and click the Report Spam button (the octagon with the exclamation point in the middle) to send it to your “Spam” folder. This will also alert Gmail, so if they see this email getting reported enough times, they will automatically send it to the “Spam” folder of anyone who receives it. They may even send all messages from that sender to people’s “Spam” folders. So you’ll not only be protecting yourself, but you’ll also be helping to protect everyone who used Gmail!

Gmail Report Spam button

If you send a conversation here by mistake, don’t worry. It will stay in your “Spam” folder for at least 30 days, so you can find it and move it back to your “Inbox” folder. (We’ll have more on moving emails between folders below.)

If you want to learn more about how to stay safe while using Gmail, and more about how Gmail protects you, be sure to check out our tutorial on how to stay safe while using Gmail.


If you don’t need a conversation anymore, but don’t consider it to be junk mail, select it and then click the Delete button (fittingly, represented by a trash can) to send it to your “Trash” folder. If you send a conversation here by mistake, don’t worry. It will stay in your “Trash” folder for at least 30 days, so you can find it and move it back to your “Inbox” folder. (Don’t worry — moving emails between folders is what we’ll be covering next!)

Gmail Delete icon

Move to folder

When you have a conversation selected, click the Move to Folder button (identifiable by the little file folder icon), and then click where you want it to go. This will apply the label that you select to that conversation, while at the same time removing all other labels. This means that you will have to search for conversations with that specific label if you want to find it again. But at least it won’t be cluttering up places where you don’t want it to be.

Gmail Move to Folder button

Apply label

When you have a conversation selected, click the Apply Label button (the little tag shown here), and then click which label you want to apply to it (or remove from it). This won’t remove any other labels from it, so you can still find it in places like your “Inbox” folder, as well as when you search for any messages with that label. Use this feature to help remind yourself what your conversations are about, while still keeping them in places where you can get at them.

Gmail Apply Label button


Clicking More while you have a conversation selected will give you additional options. Besides marking or unmarking a conversation with a star or importance sticker, you can do things like mark the conversation as being read or unread, create an email filter based on the conversation, or stop yourself from getting any more emails in this conversation.

Gmail More Options button

How to get the most out of Gmail emails

Now, let’s take a look at what a conversation looks like when you open it. Some of the features are the same as when you select them from the main inbox, so we’ll just point out the new ones for you.

Gmail email - opened

Back to inbox

When you’re done looking at a conversation, click the Back to Inbox button (the arrow that turns left) to go back to your main “Inbox” screen, right where you left off.

Gmail Back to Inbox button


You can click the “importance” sticker beside a conversation’s subject to either add it or remove it and tell Gmail that this conversation is important or unimportant, respectively. (This helps make your conversations a bit easier to find when you search for them.) You can also click on the name of any label that this conversation has to search for all conversations with that label, or click the “X” beside a label to remove it from this conversation.

Gmail Subject/Importance/Labels

Expand All/Collapse All, Print All, and Open in New Window

Click the Expand All/Collapse All button (the box with the arrow pointing straight up or straight down, as shown here) to open up all emails in this conversation so that you can read them, or shrink them all back to previews so that you can pick which ones you want open at any one time.

You can also click the Print All button (the printer icon) to print all emails in the current conversation. Make sure that your printer is on and connected to your computer, and that you’ve set it up correctly. There’s also an Open in New Window button (the box with a diagonal arrow) that you can click to move this conversation to its own window, leaving you free to do something else in your main window.

Gmail Expand/Collapse/Print All buttons


Here you can see some information on the people who have sent or received emails in this conversation.

Participants in your Gmail email

Collapsed email

This is a previous email in the conversation that has been shrunk to a preview, in order to let you concentrate on other emails in this conversation (or at least the most recent one). Click on the sender’s name or the date it was sent to open it up so that you can see its full contents. Click in either of these places again to collapse the email again.

If there are several emails within a conversation, some may be collapsed so that you can’t even see their previews. Simply click [X] Older Messages to expand these emails into their preview forms. You can expand them further from there.

Collapsed email

Message details

Click the arrow beside the list of an email’s recipients to see further details about that particular email. These include the email addresses of its sender, recipient(s), or carbon copy recipient(s); when it was sent, its subject, and why Gmail thinks it’s important or unimportant.

Gmail message details button - see more information about the email


Notice that you can click the star beside an individual email to add a star to it or remove a star from it, as opposed to doing so for the entire conversation.

Gmail star icon - favorite a conversation

Email options

Click the arrow on the right highlighted in the screenshot below to bring up a list of options for an individual email. You can reply to it, forward it, print it, create a filter based on it, add its sender to your list of contacts, delete it, report it as junk mail, or try to translate it or unscramble it if you can’t read it. Click the button to the left of the arrow to apply the currently-selected action to your email (by default, it’s “Reply”).

Gmail email options

Show/hide trimmed text

If there’s a part of the conversation that gets repeated over and over, like an email that’s being replied to or someone’s signature, Gmail may hide it just to make emails easier to read. You can click the Show Trimmed Content button (represented by an ellipsis, “…”) to display or hide any of this content.

Gmail Show/Hide Trimmed Text button

Reply box

You can click in this box and then click the arrow that appears in the top-left corner to choose to reply to an email, forward it, or send a reply to it to every member of the conversation. Then click in the main box and type your message, and click the Send button to send it off (or click the Discard Draft button, represented by the trash can, to delete your message).

Note that, by default, this action will be applied to the most recently received email in the conversation. You can respond to a specific email by using the “Email Options” button mentioned above.

Gmail Reply box

We’ve also got step-by-step tutorials in our Gmail course on how to reply to emails, how to forward emails, and how to unsend an email in Gmail. Be sure to check them out if you want some more detail on some of these functions.

Okay, now that you know how to log into Gmail, and have a general idea of what each of its main screens look like and what can be done on each of them, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty of how to make Gmail do specific things.