Mail and Packages

The U.S. Postal Service

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is the government-rsponsored organization that transports and delivers letters and packages. It also offers other useful services, described here. Numerous post offices and post office branches are situated throughout the country. To find the one nearest you, go to USPS, and insert your address.

Post Office Boxes

For a moderate fee, you can rent a mail box at the post office of your choice. The box is secure and has its own key. You will have to go to the post office to get your mail, but this is a good idea if you
  • have to move frequently,
  • don’t want to give out your home address freely,
  • share housing and want to guarantee privacy for your mail, or
  • just want to get your mail faster.

To rent a post office box, you will need
  • two forms of identification, at least one with a photo;
  • a street address (which you will need to change if you move); and
  • your first payment, plus a deposit for each key you take.

Fees vary, depending on the size of the box and the location of the post office. More details.

Sending Mail

The U.S. Post Office is generally the cheapest and most reliable way to send letters and packages.
  • Most letters fit into a business-size or smaller envelope and require one first-class stamp for delivery within the United States or to a military address.
  • Larger envelopes,
    • letters weighing more than one ounce, and
    • international mail

cost more.

You can check postage costs
online or take your item to a post office where a clerk can help you.   

You can buy stamps
  • at post offices;
  • at many supermarkets and drugstores;
  • by mail; or
  • online.

You can pay for most purchases in cash, by check, or by credit or debit card.

To send a letter, address, seal and stamp your envelope and drop it into any metal box marked U.S. Postal Service, or the appropriate slot at your local post office.
  • If you live in a rural delivery area, you can put stamped letters into your mailbox. The mail carrier will pick them up.
  • Put a return address on everything, just in case (see below).

Most mail gets to its address within a few days.
Post offices are open during business hours.
  • In cities, a few post offices are open part of the day on Saturdays and Sundays.
  • On government holidays, post offices usually follow Sunday schedules.

Transferring Money or Valuables and Paying Bills

It is perilous to send cash through the mail. If necessary, you can purchase a Postal Money Order for a small fee. Postal money orders are easily cashed and are universally accepted for paying bills. You can use this service
  • if you do not have a checking account, or you don’t want to use a check;
  • if you are sending money to someone who cannot readily cash a check.

Protecting or Speeding Up Your Mail

You may want to pay extra for one or more of these services if you are sending an important document, such as your passport or birth certificate. Each service gives extra information and security:
  • Delivery confirmation tells you the date and time your mail was delivered.
  • Certified mail will get you a receipt stamped with the date of mailing and a serial number you can use to check the progress of your mail online. You cannot use certified mail for international letters.
  • Signature confirmation includes delivery confirmation and offers the option to get a mailed or faxed letter with a copy of the recipient’s signature.
  • Return receipt is a post card that you fill out at the time you mail the letter. The post card comes back to you showing the signature of the person who received it.
  • Restricted delivery confirms that only the person specified (or an authorized agent of that person) received the mail.
  • Registered mail is for valuable or irreplaceable items, like your passport or a certified copy of your birth certificate. You can send registered mail internationally. See the USPS Web site for details.
  • Insured mail protects you financially. If the USPS loses something valuable that you have mailed, it will reimburse you for its value.
    • If you insure a package, remember to keep both the USPS insurance certificate and the receipts showing when you bought the item and how much you paid for it.
    • If you are sending items of uncertain value, such as used clothing, it’s much harder to prove what they are worth.
  • Express mail. Depending on the time you get your item to the post office, express mail promises next-day delivery to many places, including military addresses.
    • Express mail is delivered on Sundays and holidays, when regular mail is not.
    • Express mail is automatically insured and will provide signature proof of delivery upon request.
    • If an express mail item does not arrive at the promised time, you get your extra fees back.
  • Collect on delivery (C.O.D.). The USPS collects the postage and price of an item from the person receiving the mail. The recipient must have ordered the mail and must pay an additional fee either in cash or by check.

Sending Packages

The USPS will deliver packages weighing up to 70 pounds and measuring up to 108 inches in combined length and distance around the biggest part.

Small items like CDs, videos, books, and photos may fit in padded envelopes or boxes especially designed for them. You can buy these envelopes and boxes at the post office or online.

The USPS also sells standardized “Flat Rate” boxes that ship for fixed rates, regardless of weight.  Rates depend on the the size of the box and the shipping address, which is simplified to three zones: within the U.S.; to Mexico or Canada; and everywhere else in the world. If you use these boxes, it’s easy to calculate shipping costs ahead of time.

For best results:
  • Pack anything breakable with great care. Do not crowd breakable items. Use plenty of newspaper, bubble wrap, or foam “peanuts” to cushion them.
  • If you are not using USPS packaging and want to wrap your package, use special packaging paper.
  • Packing supplies, such as bubble wrap, foam “peanuts,” heavy wrapping paper, and tape are available at post offices and office supply stores.
  • If you reuse a box, be sure it is strong and in good condition. Cover over any addresses other than yours and the recipient’s.
  • Seal everything with tape. Post offices don’t accept packages tied with string. Most will offer you tape if they think your package is not well enough wrapped.

Packages take longer than envelopes to deliver.

If you are not using “Flat Rate” shipping, postage cost depends on a combination of the weight and shape of the package, the distance it must travel, and how quickly you want it to arrive.
  • The postal clerk will usually offer you two or more options at different prices.
  • If you know the weight of the package, you can find the postage cost online ahead of time.

Receiving Mail

Except on holidays, the USPS will deliver mail to your home, post office box, or rural delivery box Monday through Saturday. Usually. Sometimes there is a problem.
  • Missing postage. If the stamp falls off, even though parts of the cancellation mark are left, the post office won’t deliver the item. If there isn’t enough postage, the item will go back to the sender.
  • Mechanical disaster. Every once in a blue moon, you may get a neatly sealed plastic bag that contains pieces of an envelope with accompanying fragments of letter, with an apology from the USPS for the machine that mangled it.
  • Human error.
    • Incorrectly addressed mail will not be delivered. A wrong ZIP code or apartment number will get mail returned to the sender.
    • Correctly addressed mail may end up by error in the wrong person’s mailbox. The recipient may note the mishap on the envelope and put it back in the mail, where it may wander or lie around for quite a while before it finally gets to you. A less conscientious recipient might simply throw it out.

If you are expecting mail that does not arrive within a reasonable time, contact the sender and let him know. It’s possible the letter was not sent promptly, but it’s also possible that it was lost.

Receipt and redelivery

If there is mail for you that
  • requires your signature to confirm receipt, or
  • won’t fit in your mailbox, and
you are not home when the carrier delivers it,
you will get a notice offering to redeliver the mail, and telling you when the mail will be available at a local post office for you to pick it up.

If you work during business hours, it’s usually easier to pick up this kind of mail at the post office than to lose a day’s work waiting at home for the mail carrier to come.
  • Check the notice for the date the item will be back at the post office—sometimes the carrier will try two or three times to deliver it before turning it in; and
  • Be sure to note which post office will have the item, since it is sometimes not the post office you usually use.
  • Expect to be asked for your photo ID when you pick up the mail.

Holding Mail While You Are Away

The USPS will take an order from you to hold your mail while you are away and offer to deliver it all to you when you return. It’s a good idea to have your mail held, to prevent an overflowing mail box advertising that you are not at home; but this service sometimes does not work well. So consider the following:
  • Is there a neighbor or family member who can take your mail in while you are away?
  • If not, ask the post office to hold the mail, but try to find someone to check to see whether it is actually doing so. Sometimes mail will come despite the hold.
  • The post office may not resume service on the date requested. If this happens, you will have to make the necessary phone calls, or even a trip to the post office, to get the service started up again.
  • When you order the mail held, you can choose to pick up your back mail at the post office rather than having the mail carrier deliver it. You will be asked for your photo ID. Allow time to stand in line and then wait while the clerk searches the back room for your mail.

Post Office Problems

The USPS is a huge organization with thousands of outlets. It handles hundreds of millions of items every day. By and large it works well, and postal employees are friendly and helpful; but from time to time there are problems.

Poorly trained or impolite workers.  Post office workers vary widely in civility, competence, and efficiency. Do not take it personally if a worker is
  • Unprofessional: “Oh no, I don’t know how to do this!” is an actual quote from a real post office experience.
  • Overruled by another worker: “No, you shouldn’t have accepted this ID.”
  • Rude: “This isn’t an address. You’re not getting a box for it.”

If you run into this kind of trouble, you can usually work through it. Ask to speak to a supervisor. Focus on getting the problem solved. Tell the supervisor what the problem is and ask how to fix it. For example, “I’m not in a permanent residence right now. What should I say about my address?”

Lost or damaged packages. It’s a good idea to insure any packages that have value. The cost is small, and if the contents are damaged in transit or lost, you can file a claim and get reimbursed for the loss. If you don’t insure the package, the post office is much less likely to be able to help you.

Commercial Mailing and Shipping Services

Commercial mailing services will rent you a mailbox; pack, wrap, and ship your packages; and provide a street address if you need one to receive official documents or open a bank account. They tend to be more expensive than the USPS, but they provide some services not available at the post office.  They are concentrated in urban and suburban areas and may not be available in less heavily populated parts of the country. Here is information about the two largest companies.

UPS and Mailboxes, Etc.

United Parcel Service (UPS) will pack, as well as ship your package. Its basic business is national, international, and freight shipping services.
  • UPS will accept larger and heavier packages than USPS and will take responsibility for delivery of packages shipped out of the country.
  • Its local stores also offer notary service and basic office supplies.
  • Mailboxes, Etc., operates through UPS. You can rent a postal box at UPS stores and receive letters there. Rental rates are higher than USPS rates.  However, you will get a street address to which packages can be shipped.
  • In addition to stores, UPS services are available at self-help drop boxes and a couple of national office-supply chains.
  • UPS will deliver even to locations that are not on its computer, trusting the local driver to know the address in question. But UPS outlets that receive packages for shipping may not be readily available in rural areas.
  • For information about locations of outlets, shipping rates, and using the service, you can to go


FedEx, or as originally named, Federal Express,  distinguishes itself by emphasis on speedy delivery, especially of business documents.
  • Its mail service is comparable to USPS’s registered and express mail services.
  • FedEx, like UPS, packs and ships freight and packages internationally, and ships larger and heavier packages than the USPS will accept.
  • FedEx will accept C.O.D. (collect on delivery) shipments.
  • FedEx will work to specified delivery times—such as evening or weekend.
  • Additional fees accrue for C.O.D. and special delivery services. For some ZIP codes, FedEx will increase its delivery charges.
  • FedEx has numerous drop-off locations, stores, and outlets, and it will also arrange to pick up packages and documents at your location. Information about specific prices and services.