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HTG Explains: What’s the Difference Between CC and BCC When Sending an Email?

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The CC and BCC fields when sending email work similarly. CC stands for “carbon copy,” while BCC stands for “blind carbon copy.” While these terms may have been immediately obvious when email was invented, they’re antiquated today.

CC and BCC are both ways of sending copies of an email to additional people. However, you can also send copies of an email to additional people by specifying multiple addresses in the To field.

Carbon Copying Explained

The abbreviation CC comes from “carbon copy.” By placing a sheet of carbon paper between two pieces of paper, the pressure from writing on the first piece of paper will push the ink from the carbon paper down onto the second piece of paper, producing an additional copy of the document. Like a physical carbon copy, a CC is a way of sending additional copies of an email to other people. Some people refer to CC as “courtesy copy,” which better describes what a CC actually is. CC is often used as a verb, as in “I CC’d him on the email.”

carbon-copy-on-paper

Image Credit: Holger Ellgaard on Wikimedia Commons

CC vs. BCC

When you CC people on an email, the CC list is visible to all other recipients. For example, if you CC bob@example.com and jake@example.com on an email, Bob will know that Jake also received the email, while Jake will know that Bob also received the email.

BCC stands for “blind carbon copy.” Unlike with CC, no one can see the list of recipients on the BCC list. For example, if you have bob@example.com and jake@example.com in the BCC list, Bob won’t know that Jake received the email, and Jake won’t know that Bob received the email.

Someone on the BCC list can see everything else, including the CC list and the contents of the email. However, the BCC list is secret – no one can see this list. (If a person is on the BCC list, they’ll see only their own email on the BCC list.)

To vs. CC

The To and CC fields work similarly. Whether you put four email addresses in the To field or put one email address in the To field and three in the CC field, the four people will all receive the same email. They’ll also be able to see every other recipients’ email address.

When it comes to email etiquette, the To field is generally used for the main recipients of your email. The CC field is used to send a copy to other interested parties for their information. This isn’t a concrete rule, and usage of To and CC can vary.

For example, let’s say your boss wants you to email a customer in response to a complaint. You’d put the customer’s email address in the To field and your boss’s email address in the CC field, so your boss would receive a copy of the email. (If you didn’t want the customer to see your boss’s email address, you’d put your boss’s address in the BCC field instead.)

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When to Use CC and BCC

CC is useful when:

  • You want someone else to receive a copy of an email, but they aren’t one of the primary recipients.

BCC is useful when:

  • You want someone else to receive an email, but you don’t want the primary recipients of the email to see you’ve sent this other person a copy. For example, if you’re having a problem with a fellow employee, you might send them an email about it and BCC the human resources department. HR would receive a copy for their records, but your fellow employee wouldn’t be aware of this.
  • You want to send a copy of an email to a large amount of people. For example, if you have a mailing list with a large amount of people, you could include them in the BCC field. No one would be able to see anyone else’s email address – if you CC’d these people instead, you would be exposing their email addresses and they’d see a long list of CC’d emails in their email program. You could even put your own email address in the To field and include every other address in the BCC field, hiding everyone’s email address from each other.

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BCC, Replies, and Email Threads

Note that BCC doesn’t function like CC when it comes to email threads. For example, if you send an email to bob@example.com and BCC jake@example.com, Jake will receive the original email you send. However, if Bob replies, Jake won’t get a copy of Bob’s reply – Bob’s email program can’t see that Jake ever received the email, so it doesn’t send him a copy of the reply.

Of course, you can continue to BCC Jake on future emails or forward him a copy of the reply. it’s also possible that Bob could erase Jake’s email from the CC field and reply directly to you if you CC’d Jake instead. However, people are much more likely to receive all replies in an email thread if you CC them. You’ll have to keep them in the loop if you’re BCC’ing them.


In practice, a lot of this can come down to email etiquette and different people will use these fields differently – particularly the To and CC fields. Don’t be surprised if you see them used differently.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 11/3/12

Comments (29)

  1. Paul

    “Antiquated” ? What the? In your not so humble opinion, I daresay. Just because you don’t use, doesn’t mean everyone else doesn’t. And the fact that you feel the need to explain what carbon paper is? Who do you think you’re talking to? You assume we’re all uneducated idiots?

  2. Brent

    Seriously, Paul. Take a deep breath. Now exhale slowly.

    Like any beginning tutorial this one covers some basics. If you’ve been sending corporate email for years it probably seems unnecessary but how many 18 year Ole’s have ever seen a sheet of carbon paper?

  3. Aaronoroff

    Especially as carbon paper was superseded by NCR sets (that’s “No Carbon Required”, not “National Cash Register”) quite some time ago. Remember we had to insert the carbon paper the right way round between each sheet? And when we moved on to NCR we had to remember to put a stiff board under the one you were working on otherwise you went straight through to the next set!

  4. buh-zilla

    From the article: “You want someone else to receive an email, but you don’t want the primary recipients of the email to see you’ve sent this other person a copy. For example, if you’re having a problem with a fellow employee, you might send them an email about it and BCC the human resources department. HR would receive a copy for their records, but your fellow employee wouldn’t be aware of this.”

    This might be the shakiest advice I’ve encountered at HTG. Be very cautious using BCC in a business setting lest you end up with the label “sneak” or “weasel” (or worse). A quick web search of the terms “BCC” “email ettiquette” will yield better advice.

  5. Michael

    HTG:

    In reading the piece on CCs and BCCs, how does one send an email to multiple recipients but, when they receive it, the TO field indicates “unknown recipients”

  6. Sandy Bergman

    You didn’t mention the reply vs reply all.

    If you just want to make sure your reply only goes to the “to” and CC people, use reply.

    If you suspect there might be a BCC list or person, use “reply all” to get your reply to all persons that might be out there to get your opinion or your take on the email.

  7. Vadim

    Thanks for this simple but an eye opening article. I never got around to learn that in details but now it is clear. Love HTG articles. Thanks Chris

  8. MGtrek

    @ Sandy – Using “Reply” only goes to the addresses listed in the “to” field. “Reply all” goes to addresses listed in both the “to” and “cc” fields. The addresses listed in “bcc” are always hidden from the recipients listed in “to” and “cc”.

    One caveat – Someone receiving an email because they are listed as a “bcc” can ‘reply’ or ‘reply all’. Obviously that would blow their cover. Hence, it is always a good idea to let the people in the ‘bcc’ list know they are on it so they lay low.

  9. MGtrek

    “bcc” is also a nice way to personalize an email. Let’s say you are having a party. By putting all of the addresses in the ‘bcc’ field, each person gets an invitation with only their name listed. You may have sent out one invitation to 15 people, but each one thinks you did it just for them.

    (Before you do, check out how your system handles emails without a ‘to’ recipient. Some of them add “unknown recipient” in the ‘to’ field. You may have to play around with adding your own name in the ‘to’ field so that it looks more personal.)

  10. jeepmanjr

    I use BCC for all email and all recipients. I also delete the email address trail from all email before I forward. I wish everyone would do this.

  11. Wiredog

    Another email abbreviation I have found people misunderstanding is RE:. Many of my younger colleagues think it means “reply” though it is really “Regarding”. Of course we all know FWD means “delete without reading.”

  12. selfassuredwithnorealknowledgebase

    @HTG: “In reading the piece on CCs and BCCs, how does one send an email to multiple recipients but, when they receive it, the TO field indicates “unknown recipients”

    That is what shows when you use BCC.

  13. Chris R

    The term is “large NUMBER of people” not “large amount of people”

  14. kim

    In an effort to protect recipients from email address viruses .hackers and spammers, I always use BCC
    and for years I have wished I could make it a default in thunderbird so I don’t have to physically change the fields fro TO to BCC. That way I would never forget.Any ideas?

  15. Kurt

    My company encourages BCC when sending an email with a Distribution List to prevent a recipient from using Reply All thereby sending their reply to everyone on the DL and creating an “email storm”. CC and BCC are certainly not antiquated.

  16. Dic

    And we also lie low, not lay low.

  17. Lori

    Seriously? When email was invented?

    CC and BCC are from the good old days BEFORE email. Apparently while the dinosaurs still ruled the Earth…

  18. nedly

    @Wiredog. RE: Has been an established standared in correspondence since before anyone reading this was around, nevermind email. Never saw it misinterpreted. FWD does not delete anything. The message stays where it is and a copy is sent the desired link. Was the latter supposed to be a joke?

    @Dic. Oh really? Sounds as though you need to improve your social life! %-(I)

  19. Art€

    Thanks guys for a clear explanation! What I miss; is perhaps the ability to be able to send or FWD forward emails to other people. I make it a golden rule to send (if I ever Forward an e-mail) to any other recipient in the BCC field with the TO field with my own e-mail address.

    I then take the trouble to delete ALL other references in the original e-mail to the other persons; i.e. e-mail address’s and any other information that was sent to me.

    In this way I feel that I am reducing any risk of ‘laying a SPAM’ trail; that is ALL any any e-mail can be ‘fished’ (or phished) from the net and when there is only ONE recipient on the e-mail then it is not worth the spammers efforts. However if an e-mail contains 10’s or even 100’s of e-mail address’s then it is worth there effort.
    I would like to think EVERYONE would do the same; to protect not only my e-mail address but everyone else’s!!

  20. Add

    Mr.V.A.Shiva, the founder of email explains the why Cc and Bcc were added,

    http://techland.time.com/2011/11/15/the-man-who-invented-email/

  21. Jim Kray

    Two reasons to send BCC instead of CC:
    1) It’s poor etiquette to give out all your recipients’ email addresses (they may not want everyone on your list to know their email) and
    2) Spammers can harvest these emails and you end up making their job easier.

  22. tony

    I thought NCR was non-carbon replicating

  23. hverne

    Although you implied it, I think a clearer explanation would be “The TO field is for the people who you would want to take action on the information in the message”

  24. tony

    I was prepared to snark about who still needs to know this, then I realized most people don’t know equivalently basic like +4 on zip codes.

  25. mkcoboe

    Hi Sandy and MGTrek,

    Reply – sends a message to the sender only.

    Reply All – sends a message to the sender, to everyone on the ‘To’ list and to everyone on the ‘CC’ list, excluding yourself.

    The ‘BCC’ list, since it is not distributed with the original email, plays no part.

    I agree that use of BCC is v good for anti spam purposes.

    Also nothing is more annoying for a recipient than having to plough past a mammoth distribution list just to get to get to the message content, especially if that is short. That effect is even worse if one’s PA prints the email off !!

  26. kura

    Love it, HTG. I’ve never really understand them.
    Very nice article indeed.

  27. Damien

    We get clients who’ll regularly send us tenders with the heading Dear Supplier;

    It’s fairly obvious they’ve BCC’d in several suppliers but do not wish for us to know who our competitors actually are.

    Also seen lots of bulk sales emails where there isn’t a single recipient. I presume they’re just putting their whole mailing list in the BCC to send their marketing email out without giving away their database of emails.

  28. Mark H. Priest

    Actually, since carbon paper has not been used since the advent of the computer and email programs. With that said…cc now stands for “courtesy copy” & bcc stands for “blind courtesy copy.

  29. Hogar the Wise

    This article was very educational. Thanks!

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