What is an SPF record?

A Sender Policy Framework (SPF) record is a type of Domain Name System (DNS) record that can help to prevent email address forgery.

Spammers can falsify email headers so it looks like they’re sending from an email address at your domain. They can pretend to be you, allowing them to phish your users for private account information, or otherwise abuse your reputation. When they hijack an email account, they alter the email header details to show the messages they’re sending are coming from the true owner of the account. This can result in the account owner receiving replies and bouncebacks for mail they never sent.

Adding an SPF record can help prevent others from spoofing your domain. You can specify which mail servers are permitted to send email on behalf of your domain. Then, when incoming mail servers receive email messages from your domain name, they compare the SPF record to the outgoing mail server information. If the information doesn’t match, they identify the email message as unauthorized, and will generally filter it as spam or reject it.

Regardless of where your domain is registered you can add an SPF record through your DNS records.

Adding an SPF record

Skunkworks does not create SPF records for our clients as it goes against our "hands-off philosophy" to client emails. Instead your firm’s I.T. provider or mail administrator should create an SPF record for your firm. Once created, either your I.T. department or Skunkworks can then enter the record into your domain’s DNS records.

If you want help in crafting an SPF record, you may want to use an online SPF record creation tool in combination with the information below.

If you want to test your SPF records for compliance with the RFCs, you may want to use an online SPF testing tool.

SPF record format

SPF records are typically defined using the TXT record type. There’s also an SPF record type, but it’s deprecated, and you should always have at least the TXT record definition present, even if you use the SPF type.

SPF records are defined as a single string of text. Here’s an example record:

v=spf1 a mx ip4: include:_spf.google.com ~all

The SPF record always starts with the v= element. This indicates the SPF version that is used. Right now the version should always be spf1 as this is the most common version of SPF that is understood by mail exchanges.

One or more terms follow the version indicator. These define the rules for which hosts are allowed to send mail from the domain, or provide additional information for processing the SPF record. Terms are made up of mechanisms and modifiers. The following mechanisms are defined:

  • all
  • include
  • a
  • mx
  • ip4
  • ip6
  • exists

Note: The ptr type is also defined but shouldn’t be used.

There are two modifiers defined:

  • redirect
  • exp

SPF mechanisms

The following mechanisms define what IP addresses are allowed to send mail from the domain:

  • a
  • mx
  • ip4
  • ip6
  • exists

A mail server will compare the IP address of the sender against the IP addresses defined in the mechanisms. If the IP address matches one of the mechanisms in the SPF record then follow the result handling rule. The default handling rule is + or pass.

The include mechanism allows you to authorize hosts outside of your administration by specifying their SPF records.

The all mechanism matches any address. This is usually used as the last mechanism which defines how to handle any sender IP that did not match the previous mechanisms.

All mechanisms may specify qualifiers for how to handle a match:

  • + for pass
  • - for fail
  • ~ for soft fail
  • ? for neutral

As previously mentioned, the default handling rule is pass, which is the same as the + qualifier.

SPF modifiers

Modifiers are name/value pairs (separated by an = sign) that provide additional information. Modifiers should appear at the end of the SPF record. A modifier may not appear more than once and unrecognized modifiers are ignored.

The redirect modifier is used to point to another SPF record to use for processing. This is used when you have multiple domains and want to apply the same SPF content across those multiple domains. Redirects should only be used if you control both domains, otherwise an include is used.

The exp modifier is used to provide an explanation in case of a - (fail) qualifier is present on a mechanism that is matched.

SPF record limitations

Each fully-qualified name may have at maximum one SPF record, defined as a TXT record or as an SPF record type.

Although the SPF record type is deprecated, it’s still supported by some name servers. In the future they may discontinue serving SPF records, so you should always have a TXT record whose content is the same as the record using the SPF type.

There are various limitations on the number of items and lookups permitted in an SPF record:

  • SPF records may not have more than 10 mechanisms that require DNS lookups. These are the include, a, mx, ptr, and existsmechanisms.
  • When evaluating the mx mechanism, the number of MX records queried is included in the overall limit of DNS lookups. Each mx mechanism must not result in querying more than 10 address records.
  • The ptr mechanism is also included in the overall limit. Each ptrmust not result in querying more than 10 address records.

Tips for SPF records

Since you may only have one SPF record per fully-qualified name, if you need to add additional modifiers you should add them to your existing SPF record if it’s present.

SPF records are most often specified on your naked domain name. If you need to exceed the number of modifiers allowed in a single SPF record, you may need to send some of your messages from subdomains below your naked domain. For example, if a third-party SaaS sends mail on your behalf, you may need to send email from something.yourdomain.com for that provider. This is especially true if you have multiple SaaS providers that send email on your behalf.