Sending a letter may seem like a simple task. You get your letter, put it in an envelope, scribble an address on it, stick a stamp on, and put it in the post. Sure, simple. Unless you’ve never done it before. Or maybe you’ve just never sent a letter in the United Kingdom and are wondering if it’s different. Every country’s mail delivery service has its own unique traits, so here’s your handy guide to sending mail in the UK.
Firstly, the UK’s mail delivery system is known as Royal Mail. With origins dating back over 500 years to 1516, the Royal Mail service may be one of the oldest postal systems still in existence. The service was originally created to operate only for the King and the Court to ensure letters were delivered between London and Edinburgh, in order for King James I to help maintain his control over both England and Scotland.
These days, Royal Mail is an international business operating across 44 countries and nation states worldwide. The company employs around 162 000 people, handling and delivering around 13 billion letters and around 1.3 billion parcels this year.
The Royal Mail service operates six days a week; don’t get your hopes up for getting a letter delivered on a Sunday morning.
For a full, detailed guide on how to send a letter, refer to our guide How to Send a Letter. For the cliff notes version, follow this:
Prepare Your Letter
Choose your envelope based on how durable, large, and professional it needs to be while keeping in mind that bigger, heavier, and more awkwardly shaped ones will cost more.
Enclose Your Letter and Seal the Envelope
Address the Envelope – Recipient
Write the recipient’s address clearly on the front of the envelope (more details on this later)
Address the Envelope – Sender
Write your return address clearly on the back of the envelope
Choose the Right Postage
Decide how much postage you need for your letter, based on how quickly it needs to reach its destination, its size and weight, and how far it actually has to travel – the faster, heavier, bigger, and farther it has to go, the more expensive it will be (also more on this later)
Pay for the Postage
Purchase stamps from any post office, online at royalmail.com, or from many various retail stores such as grocery and drug stores
Stick your stamps on the upper right-hand corner of the front of the envelope
Mail Your Letter
Stick it in a post box or take it to a post office to have your letter mailed.
Once you’ve carefully prepared your letter and sealed it in an envelope, you’ll need to clearly address it. When filling out the UK recipient’s address, it should be written clearly on the bottom left corner of the front of the envelope in this format:
House number and street name
Local area or village name
TOWN (print in capital letters)
FULL POSTCODE (print in capital letters)
Here are two helpful pictures from Royal Mail’s website to help you:
For the return address, to get your letter returned to you if it doesn’t make it to its intended destination; write it clearly on the back of the envelope underneath ‘Return address’, like this:
Don’t use full stops or commas
Start each line on the left; don’t centre the lines
Always include a postcode when you can; you can use Royal Mail’s Postcode finder for help
You can add a line for an organisation name
Be sure to leave a generous margin of roughly 1.5cm (½ inch) around the entire address
Handwritten: use a pen or ink that is clear against the colour of the envelope, not pencil or anything easily smudged, and a text size similar to a font size of 10-15
Printed: use a font which is easy to read, a colour that stands out against the label/envelope, and a font size of 10-15
You don’t need to write the name of the county if you’ve included the town and postcode (i.e., for Arnold in Nottinghamshire, you don’t need to write ARNOLD NOTTINGHAMSHIRE NG5 6TH, just write ARNOLD NG5 6TH). However, you’re more than welcome to include it if you’d like to.
In 1959, postcodes are introduced on a trial basis in Norwich, then rolled out nationally from 1965-1974, giving a postcode to every British address. There are now approximately 1.8 million-unit postcodes in use with each postcode covering an average of about 15 properties. These codes are made up of two parts: the Outward Code and the Inward Code, separated by a space.
According to postcodeaddressfile.co.uk,
The Outward Code (NG5 6PQ) contains the area and district to which the mail is to be delivered, enabling mail to be sorted to the correct local area for delivery. The first two letters are for the county; NG representing Nottingham, and the number is the postcode district, telling the sorting office which delivery office the mail should go to (it’s also an indicator of how far from the city centre it is).
The Inward code (NG5 6PQ) is used to sort the mail into the local area delivery office, with the number identifying the sector in the postal district (which local area the mail should go to) and the letter defining one or more (up to 80) properties in that sector (which postal route will deliver the mail).
In the beginning, when King Charles made the postal service available to the general public way back in 1635, the receiver of the letter had to pay to get it. For years, until 1840, the sender had it easy and was able to avoid paying for postage. It was in that year that Sir Rowland Hill introduced the Penny Black, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. In its first year, 68 million stamps featuring Queen Victoria were used.
Previously, postage rates were quite complex, based on the distance and number of sheets in a letter; Hill decided it should be made simpler by suggesting adapting the rates to a low uniform cost based on weight, and prepaid by the sender. Centuries later, stamps are still the currency in the postal world. However, it has gotten a bit more complicated since those early days of the stamp.
Postage prices depend on:
The size and weight of your item
When you want your item to arrive
Whether you want to track your item or get confirmation of delivery
Use the Royal Mail’s price finder tool to help you get a price for your letter. If you’re still unsure, simply visit your nearest post office to get them to weigh the letter and tell you exactly how much it will cost.
In 2004, more than 160 years after the Penny Black was created, Royal Mail launched the UK’s first digital stamp with an online postage system called SmartStamp®, aimed mainly at small businesses. Two years later, online postage was launched which allowed the general public to pay for, download, and print their own stamps.
Fun fact: The UK is the only country in the world that doesn’t have its name on its stamp as it’s the inventor of the postage stamp. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has appeared on more than 180 billion copies of stamps since she approved Machin’s design of her on postage stamps in 1966.
Letters include greeting cards, personal letters, postcards, and bills. The maximum weight is 100g, maximum length 24cm, maximum width 16.5cm, and maximum thickness/depth 5mm.
Large letters include A4 documents, certificates, magazines, CD or DVD in cases, some large greeting cards. The maximum weight is 750g, maximum length 35.3cm, maximum width 25cm, and maximum thickness/depth 2.5cm.
To send a letter in the UK, you can choose between UK Standard, UK Signed, or UK Guaranteed options. The Royal Mail website breaks down their postage options like this:
UK Standard mail includes Royal Mail 1st Class and 2nd Class options; the difference between two being delivery time and postage cost. Note that the cheapest way to send anything over 2kg in weight is via Parcelforce Worldwide service. For exact postage prices, refer to the Post Office site here.
Send a letter from 70p and a small parcel from £3.55
Aim to deliver the next working day, including Saturdays
Includes compensation cover up to £20
20kg maximum weight
Send a letter from 61p and a parcel from £3
Aim to deliver in 2-3 working days, including Saturdays
Includes compensation cover up to £20
20kg maximum weight
When you post at a Post Office branch, online delivery confirmation is available for small and medium parcels. Although this is not a tracked service, you can check online to confirm when your parcel has been delivered or attempted to be delivered on the post office page here.
UK Signed mail includes Royal Mail Signed For (starting at £1.81) and Parcelforce Worldwide express48 (starting at £12.12) options. These services are useful when you want to know that your important item has arrived safely as you’ll get a signature from the recipient when your item’s delivered.
Royal Mail Signed For:
Available with Royal Mail 1st and 2nd Class services
Signature taken on delivery
Online delivery confirmation
Includes up to £50 compensation
A recognised, eligible service for the eBay Seller Protection programme
Prices start at £1.81 for letters up to 100g (find the prices to send different sizes here)
Parcelforce Worldwide express48:
Track the full journey of your item
Know it’ll only be delivered with a signature
Get Saturday delivery for an extra £9
Includes up to £100 compensation
Option to buy additional cover up to £2500
30kg weight limit
Prices starting at £12.12 (find the prices to send different parcel sizes here)
UK Guaranteed options include Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed by 9am and 1pm, and Parcelforce Worldwide express9, express10, expressAM, and Express24 services.
Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed:
Guaranteed 9am or 1pm delivery
Guaranteed Saturday delivery for additional cost
Track & Trace – follow your item from when it leaves your hand to delivery
Signature on delivery – see it online 10 minutes later
Maximum weight limit: 20kg for 1pm delivery, 2kg for 9am delivery
Cover for valuable items or late delivery
Up to £500 compensation included for delivery by 1pm, up to £50 for delivery by 9am
Optional additional cover up to £2500
Optional consequential loss cover up to £10 000
You’ll be refunded if your item isn’t there on time, providing you have your proof of posting and claim within 14 days of posted
Parcelforce Worldwide express24:
Fully tracked services from when it leaves your hand to delivery, from just £16.49
Only delivered with a signature
Includes up to £100 compensation
Optional additional cover up to £2500
Send items up to 30kg to most destinations
Parcelforce Worldwide express9, express10 and expressAM:
Guaranteed delivery by 9am, 10am or noon the next working day, starting from £19.49
Send individual parcels up to 30kg (up to 1.5m in length; length and girth combined should not exceed 3m)
No weight limit for your full consignment of parcels
Includes loss or damage cover up to £200
Option to buy extra cover
Get a full refund if your parcel isn’t delivered on time
In 1853, post boxes are introduced to the British mainland after being trialled on the Channel Islands the year before. In these early days of post boxes, it was up to local surveyors to design, manufacture, and erect the boxes, meaning no standard pattern of box was issued. As you can imagine, this led to a wide variety of styles of boxes found on the mainland. In basic form all boxes were vertical ‘pillars’ with a small slit to receive letters, but that’s about all these boxes had in common. Altogether, the Letter Box Study Group has identified, described, and catalogued around 800 different types of post box (according to https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/royal-mail-post-boxes/heritage-agreement-for-royal-mail-post-boxes/).
Later, in 1859, the colour for all post boxes was standardised as green and featured an insignia of the monarch at the time. Unfortunately, there were many complaints about this over the years, due to the difficulty in finding these inconspicuous green boxes. So, in 1874 the standard colour was changed to red, which has stayed the same with a few exceptions – i.e., the gold painted boxes in the hometowns of Great Britain’s London 2012 Olympic Games gold medal winners.
More info can be found in https://www.postalmuseum.org.
Pillar box avenue at the Postal Museum Store, found at https://www.postalmuseum.org/collections/highlights/letter-boxes/
According to Royal Mail, there are over 115 000 post boxes in the UK, with 98.3% of all addresses in the UK less than half a mile from one of these post boxes. This post box finder can help you locate the nearest one to you.
The display on the post box will tell you if the collection has been made and when the next one will be. This table from Royal Mail shows the time period when final collections will be made at post boxes:
|Area||Monday - Friday||Saturday|
|Commercial Area||9am - 7.30pm||7am - 1.30pm|
|Town & City Area||9am - 6.30pm||7am - 1.30pm|
|Rest of UK||9am - 5.30pm||7am - 1.30pm|
|Deep Rural||9am - 4pm||7am - 1.30pm|
|Business Boxes (Franked Mail only box)||6pm - 7.30pm||N/A|
Please note: some exceptions may apply for some post boxes.
Every country has its own unique traits in regards to their mailing systems. Royal Mail’s main differences to other countries are their addressing formats and their many types of mail sending options. For more information and all things Royal Mail, visit their site at www.royalmail.com.
Published on 12/16/2020
Last modified on 12/21/2020