Virtual Users

There are many ways to configure Dovecot to use virtual users. If you have no idea how you want your users to be configured, select some HOWTO and follow its instructions.

Users are often categorized as being either system users (in /etc/passwd) or virtual users (not in /etc/passwd). However from Dovecot’s point of view there isn’t much of a difference between them. If a passwd lookup and a SQL lookup return the same userdb information, Dovecot’s behavior is identical.

Password and user databases

Dovecot supports many different password databases and user databases. With virtual users the most commonly used ones are LDAP, SQL and passwd-file. The databases usually contain the following information:

  • Username

  • Password

  • UNIX User ID (UID) and primary UNIX Group ID (GID)

  • Home directory and/or mail location

Usernames and domains

Dovecot doesn’t care much about domains in usernames. IMAP and POP3 protocols currently have no concept of “domain”, so the username is just something that shows up in your logs and maybe in some configuration, but they have no direct functionality.

So although Dovecot makes it easier to handle “user@domain” style usernames (eg. %n and %d variables), nothing breaks if you use for example domain%user style usernames instead. However some authentication mechanisms do have an explicit support for realms (pretty much the same as domains). If those mechanisms are used, the username is changed to be user@realm.

And of course there’s no need to have domains at all in the usernames.


The password can be in any format that Dovecot supports, but you need to tell the format to Dovecot because it won’t try to guess it. The SQL and LDAP configuration files have the default_pass_scheme setting for this. If you have passwords in multiple formats, or the passdb doesn’t have such a setting, you’ll need to prefix each password with {<scheme>}, for example {PLAIN}plaintext-password or {PLAIN-MD5}1a1dc91c907325c69271ddf0c944bc72.


The most important thing you need to understand is that Dovecot doesn’t access the users’ mails as the dovecot user! So do not put dovecot into the mail group, and don’t make mails owned by the dovecot user. That will only make your Dovecot installation less secure.

So, if not the dovecot user, what then? You can decide that yourself. You can create, for example, one vmail user which owns all the mails, or you can assign a separate UID for each user. See System users used by Dovecot for more information about different ways to allocate UIDs for users.


Unless you’re using shared mailboxes and multiple UIDs, it doesn’t really matter what GIDs you use. You can, for example, use a single GID for all users, or create a separate GID for each user. See System users used by Dovecot for more information.

Home directories

Home directory is a per-user directory where Dovecot can save user-specific files.

  • Dovecot’s home directories have nothing to do with system users’ home directories.

  • It’s irrelevant if it’s under /home/ or /var/mail/ or wherever.

  • If you have trouble understanding this, mentally replace all occurrences of “home directory” with “mail user’s private state directory”.

And in particular:

  • Never configure your userdb to return the same home directory for multiple users, this will break things.

  • Home directory must be an absolute path, don’t even try to use relative paths, these do not work.

Some uses for home directory are:

  • By default Sieve scripts are in a user’s home directory.

  • The Duplicate mail check database is in a user’s home directory. Suppression of duplicate rejects/vacations won’t work if home directory isn’t specified.

  • Debugging: If an imap or pop3 process crashes, the core file is written to the user’s home directory.

Home vs. mail directory

Home directory shouldn’t be the same as mail directory with mbox or Maildir formats (but with dbox/obox it’s fine). It’s possible to do that, but you might run into trouble with it sooner or later. Some problems with this are:

  • Non-mailbox files may show up as mailboxes.

  • Or a user might not be able to create mailbox with some wanted name, because there already exists a conflicting file or directory.

    • e.g. with Maildir if you have .dovecot.sieve file, user can’t create a mailbox called “dovecot.sieve” (i.e. “dovecot” mailbox that has a “sieve” child)

  • And vice versa: If user creates “dovecot.sieve” mailbox, Dovecot will probably start logging all kinds of errors because the mailbox directory isn’t a valid Sieve script.

  • If you ever intend to migrate to another mailbox format, it’s much easier to do if you can have both old and new mail directories under the user’s home directory.

Ways to set up home directory

The directory layouts for home and mail directories could look like one of these (in the preferred order):

  1. Mail directory under home, for example:

  • home=/var/vmail/domain/user/

  • mail=/var/vmail/domain/user/mail/

  1. Completely distinct home and mail directories:

  • home=/home/virtual/domain/user/

  • mail=/var/vmail/domain/user/

  1. Home directory under mail, for example:

    • Maildir: - home=/var/vmail/domain/user/home/ - mail=/var/vmail/domain/user/

    • mbox: There’s really no good and safe way to do it.

  2. The home directory is the same as the mail directory.

If for example home=/var/vmail/domain/user/ and mail=/var/vmail/domain/user/mail/, set:

mail_home = /var/vmail/%d/%n
mail_location = maildir:~/mail

LDAP with relative directory paths

If your LDAP database uses e.g. mailDirectory = domain/user/, you can use it as a base for home directory:

user_attrs = .., mailDirectory=home=/var/vmail/%$

Then just use mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir.

Mail location

If your users have varying locations for mail location, which cannot be represented by templating, userdb can return the mail field to override the default mail_location setting. Normally this is not needed, and it is sufficient to have the setting in config file.

Dynamic passwd-file locations

In the following example users are expected to log in as user@domain. Their mail is kept in their home directory at /home/<domain>/<username>/Maildir.

The usernames in the passwd and shadow files are expected to contain only the user part, no domain. This is because the path itself already contained %d to specify the domain. If you want the files to contain full user@domain names, you can change username_format to %u or leave it out.

Note that the default auth_username_format is %Lu.

mail_location = maildir:/home/%d/%n/Maildir
passdb {
  driver = passwd-file
  args = username_format=%n /home/%d/etc/shadow
userdb {
  driver = passwd-file
  args = username_format=%n /home/%d/etc/passwd

static userdb

Many people store only usernames and passwords in their database and don’t want to deal with UIDs or GIDs. In that case the easiest way to get Dovecot running is to use the static userdb:

mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir
passdb {
  driver = pam
userdb {
  driver = static
  args = uid=vmail gid=vmail home=/var/mail/virtual/%d/%n

This makes Dovecot look up the mails from /var/mail/virtual/<domain>/<user>/Maildir/ directory, which should be owned by vmail user and vmail group.