You may have noticed that handwritten mail seems to be making a slight comeback after years of being overshadowed by the speed and ease of email. However, despite this slow return to the communication forefront, sixty percent of adults have sent fewer than five handwritten letters in the past decade. So, if you’re part of that statistic, you may be wondering how to send a letter, or need a reminder of the details, or may just want to learn a little bit more about the process. If so, this step-by-step guide is just the tool for you.
You only need four things to send a letter: an envelope, a pen, a stamp, and of course, your letter.
Unlike the early days of the postal service, when envelopes and stamps did not yet exist, these days you need to choose what envelope to put your letter in. Gone are the days when you could simply fold the paper and seal it shut; now you need an extra piece of paper to hold and protect your mail.
So, first thing’s first: you need to get the letter ready to send. While this may seem like the most straightforward thing you can do, there are (maybe surprisingly) multiple factors you need to consider. For instance:
- Durability: The envelope needs to be strong enough to hold whatever contents are inside. A thin envelope could be destroyed in transit if what it contains is fairly heavy in comparison to the envelope itself. Ever put a bunch of printed photographs into an envelope which wasn’t quite big enough for the stack of pictures? You don’t want these photos scattered all over the sidewalk just because you didn’t choose the right envelope for the job.
- Size: The envelope’s size should match that of its contents. If a letter can be folded into thirds and mailed in a business-size envelope, perfect! If it can’t be folded, you’ll need a bigger envelope, and contrarily, if the paper or note is smaller, choose a little envelope.
- Purpose: Why are you mailing this letter? If it is for business reasons, such as mailing a resume and/or cover letter, you won’t want to send it in a colourful envelope with decorations; you will want a professional-looking envelope. Alternatively, if you’re sending a personal birthday card to a friend, you wouldn’t want it in a white commercial envelope. Pick the envelope style which suits your intended recipient.
- Destination: Where is the letter going? If it isn’t traveling far, there is less need to worry about how tough it is; whereas if it is headed overseas, you’ll want a sturdier envelope to ensure it won’t be damaged en route.
- Cost: Keep in mind that postage cost depends on the size, shape, and weight of your item. You can save money by sending mail which fits through letter slots; envelopes larger than letter-size will be charged package rates.
- Shape: In order for your envelope to fit through the automated mail-processing machines, they must be flat. If they don’t fit, they are considered non-machinable and will cost extra to send. This includes any envelopes with clasps, strings, or buttons, as well as lumpy, unusually shaped square or vertical envelopes.
The Premier Paper Group has this handy Essential Guide to Envelopes to give you even more advice on the matter. For more information on envelope requirements, including size and weight, check your country’s postal service website.
If you are mailing a postcard, they can be written on directly and posted without an envelope. That is, unless you have glued an attachment onto it, or added any projecting parts, which will then require the postcard to be enclosed in an envelope and mailed as a letter.
Take note that postcards mailed as letters will be charged the price of postage for a letter, not the postcard price.
While on the topic of postcards, it may be worthwhile to mention that I have personally been told by a postal worker that I am better off mailing postcards as a letter, as postcards quite frequently get lost in the mail; in fact, lost items remain the most common cause of complaint Royal Mail receives. Letters are more likely to be successfully delivered than postcards, according to the lovely postal worker I spoke with.
While this may be due to factors such as (a) people writing their message first, not taking into account how small postcards are, thus running their message into the area where the recipient address is supposed to go, and not having enough space to neatly write the address down… or (b) the postcard getting a bit wet and blurring the ink to an undistinguishable state… or (c) postcards being non-machine-readable, thus requiring manual processing… putting a postcard into an envelope sort of negates the point of sending one, no?
Once you’ve completed the first step of choosing your envelope, fill it with your letter (or whatever content you’re sending) and seal it by either:
A) Lik ‘n’ Stik: Licking the edge of the envelope to moisten the glue, then pressing it shut to seal it.
B) Lik ‘n’ Stik: Wetting a sponge or cloth with a bit of water to moisten the glue, then pressing it shut to seal it.
C) Self Seal: Aligning the top and bottom flaps of the envelope, then apply pressure to seal it.
D) Zip Seal: Peeling off the backing (removable waxed tape) to expose the adhesive, then pressing it shut to seal it.
E) Any Seal: Placing a small amount of tape along the edge of the seal to ensure it won’t open along the way.
The most important part of the envelope is the recipient and their address – who and where is it going to?
Start by writing the name and address of the recipient on the front of the envelope, right in the middle. Be sure to include their full name or company name, apartment or house number and street name, city, state/province, and zip/post code, with each deserving their own line – there should typically be just three lines. For example:
House/Flat Number, Street Name
Town/City, State/Province and Post/Postal/Zip Code
So, your recipient address should appear something like this:
However, every country seems to have their own little unique address traits. For instance, US zip codes may be 5 or 9 digits. If it’s 9 digits, you need to add a hyphen to separate the 5th and 6th digits. Conversely, don’t ever use a hyphen for a Canadian postal code, it’ll cause delays. Again, best to confirm with your country’s postal service guidelines.
If you aren’t sure of the post code, many countries have free online tools to help you, such as Royal Mail’s in the UK, or Canada Post’s page, or the USPS tool, or Australia Post’s, or… you get the point.
For international mail, include the country name in full on the bottom line in capital letters; for the UK, write UNITED KINGDOM.
You are welcome to use the two-letter post code for the province if you prefer. Or, if you’d rather take up more space and use more ink, write it all out. For example, in Canada, you may use NS instead of Nova Scotia. If this seems lazy to you, you clearly don’t live in a province like Prince Edward Island (PEI) or Saskatchewan (SK).
Adversely, for US addresses, you should always use the 2-character state symbol rather than the full state name. I suppose the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” is a bit wordy in comparison to “RI”.
In order to ensure it reaches its destination, use clear, printed writing in dark ink. You don’t want the postal employee as confused as a patient trying to read a doctor’s handwriting. You may even want to use a label with the address printed on it, just to be clear.
Why does this matter so much? Well, do you want to cause a delay in delivery (Royal Mail received nearly 70,000 complaints for delays in 2018/19), or do you want to help make the postal worker’s life easier and reduce the risk of your letter getting lost (Royal Mail received over 237,000 loss complaints in 2018/19)?
While not always necessary, it is good practice to include a return address on the envelope, just in case the letter is undeliverable; maybe from damage, insufficient postage, or an invalid destination. This will ensure it will be returned to you, rather than discarded with you left wondering if your recipient ignored your letter or if it just never made it to them. Without a return address, you will never know.
Include your name and address on the top left corner on the front, in the same format as the recipient address. Alternatively, you could write the return address on the back of the envelope at the top.
While Australian Post and USPS mail-sending guidelines both suggest to write the sender’s address in the top-left corner, Royal Mail decided to be different and advises to write ‘return address’ on the back of the envelope with the actual return address underneath this line.
Meanwhile, Canada Post decided to be neutral between their neighbour and their sovereign, by saying it should be placed in the top-left corner of the envelope, but adding in brackets at the end “or on the back of the item at the top”.
So, in conclusion, always refer to your country’s online guidelines for help.
Fun fact: the first adhesive stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in England in the year 1840, with Queen Victoria’s head engraved on all British stamps for the next sixty years.
Unfortunately for us, these stamps no longer cost just one penny.
Figuring out the right postage may be the trickiest part of sending a letter. How do you know how many stamps to stick on? Or which type of stamp? Where does it even go? What in the world is a first-class stamp?
Well, the stamp should always be placed on the top-right corner on the front of the envelope. That’s easy.
What gets more complicated is how to choose which stamp goes in that spot. If you want to take the path of least difficulty, just head to your nearest post office and get them to sort it out for you. Otherwise…
Stamps are the currency of the letter universe and are available at any post office, online at USPS.com, or canadapost.ca, or royalmail.com, or auspost.com.au, or… you get it, again. Go to your country’s postal service website and order them there. Or, many various retail stores such as grocery and drug stores also carry stamps.
If you have stamps on hand, but haven’t sent any letters in quite some time, you may want to go online and check they still cover the full cost. Yes, sadly, the price of stamps rises periodically too. Dang inflation.
Many countries now offer services where you pay postage online, then print it off yourself and mail it. This saves you needing to go buy stamps and is often cheaper than buying postage at a post office. But alas, you still need to go drop the letter off at a box or post office, and you’ll require the use of a printer.
There are often discounts/offers associated with paying for postage online. For example, Stamps.com will even send a free postal scale out with every new account, which will accurately weigh your letter and print out the exact postage amount. PayPal customers with online stores benefit from Royal Mail postage discounts – found here.
Although standard designs on stamps are just fine, you may want to get creative and purchase a decorative or commemorative stamp to jazz up your envelope. It really doesn’t matter what the design is; as long as it has the right postage amount. You can find these special stamps at a post office near you.
To answer the question of what is a First Class stamp:
In the UK, First Class Stamps: cost slightly more (9p), but will be delivered the next working day, including Saturdays. And they’re red.
Second Class Stamps: cheaper than First Class, but will (obviously) take longer to deliver; typically 2-3 days. And they’re blue.
Other postage options in the UK include:
UK Guaranteed: for valuable or important items that have to be there tomorrow.
UK Signed: for a signature on delivery.
UK Standard: for a range of delivery options for non-valuable items.
Parcelforce Worldwide: for a range of guaranteed UK services with different delivery speeds.
In Canada, there is just the one type of stamp; no first- or second-class options (props to Canada for trying to keep it simple). However, you are able to get your mail to its destination quicker by purchasing a prepaid envelope or using the Registered Mail service.
Prepaid envelope options are available on the Canada Post site on this page or at your local post office. These envelopes can be bought in advance and shipped anytime, to not only Canadian destinations, but also to the U.S. and international destinations. They include:
A) On-time delivery guarantee
B) Delivery confirmation with the ability to track your items online
C) Up to $100 liability coverage for loss or damage
For more information on prepaid envelopes and shipping, visit this Canada Post page.
Registered Mail is available at the post office and proves your letter arrived safely by letting you know when your letter arrived as well as who signed for it. You can send letters, documents and small items (such as coins and jewellery) by Registered Mail. When it’s delivered, you will receive:
A) In Canada: a signature of the person who signed when it was delivered, the date it was signed, and a mailing receipt.
B) U.S and international: a date-stamped official receipt, and a signature for Registered Mail sent to the U.S. when combined with Xpresspost – USA.
For more information on Registered Mail, visit this Canada Post page.
Regular: cost effective service with delivery times in the same state between 2-4 days, or interstate between 3-6 days. Prices from $1.10.
Priority: speedier delivery service with delivery times in the same state between 1-2 business days, or interstate between 2-4 business days. Prices from $1.60.
Express: premium service with next day delivery and tracking. Prices from $7.15.
Note these prices are for letters, which are classified as items which:
Weigh less than 500g
Are no thicker than 20mm
Contain flexible items (nothing rigid or inflexible)
Have a rectangular shape
Are no bigger than a B4 envelope (260mm x 360mm x 20mm)
In the U.S. there are quite a few options for stamps/postage. These are the most common types:
First-Class™ Mail – used for postcards, letters, large envelopes and small packages; must weigh 13 ounces or less. Locally delivered in 2-3 days, nationally about 4 days.
Presorted First-Class Mail® - for when you have 500 or more mail pieces; standard delivery time same as first-class mail.
Priority Mail® - for pieces up to 70lbs. Delivers in 1-3 days and includes tracking and insurance.
Priority Mail Express® - USPS fastest shipping service for pieces up to 70lbs with overnight guarantee.
1-cent and 3-cent stamps - commonly used to add postage to older stamps when prices change.
For more information regarding stamps in the U.S. visit this USPS page.
There are several things which you must consider in regards to calculating a postage price.
Destination: international mail will, naturally, cost more than domestic mail.
Speed: You have the option to pay more for quicker service. For example, in the UK, first class service aims for 1 day delivery, where second class aims for 3 day delivery. The difference? 9p.
Size and Shape: As mentioned previously, if the envelope is not flat, or the correct shape, or larger than letter slot, it will cost more. If possible, fold your letter to save a bit of money.
Weight: Yes, you guessed it, a heavier letter will cost you more than a lighter one.
Special Handling and Insurance: You have the option to pay for extra care to keep your fragile mail in one piece. This is useful for parcels, but for letters you can typically just label it with “FRAGILE” or “DO NOT BEND”.
Delivery Confirmation Receipts: You can pay extra for proof of delivery, which confirms the recipient receives the contents from the sender. This requires the recipient to provide a signature.
Tracking: If you want your letter tracked, you can pay more to do so. This means that the item will be scanned at various points along the way, keeping you and your recipient up-to-date with its whereabouts. If you pay for this service, you’ll be given a tracking/reference number to enter online to track your delivery.
Luckily, postal services have online price finders to help you calculate these costs.
Mailing heavy or oversized letters? You may need extra postage to get these letters to their destination. You have a couple of options to complete this task:
Use an accurate postage scale to weigh and measure your mail, then check online at USPS.com or canadapost.ca or royalmail.com or auspost.com.au or whichever country’s website, for rates. Then, stick that postage on the upper right-hand corner of your envelope.
If, unlike many (most?) people, you don’t have an accurate postage scale at home, make a trip to your closest post office to have it weighed. They will then be able to calculate exactly how much postage you’ll need.
There are a few options of how to physically mail your letter.
You can put it in your own mailbox, on or near your home, by simply placing the letter in it. Put the red flag into the upright position in order to alert your mail carrier that it’s there, ready for pickup.
You can place your letter in a collection box; just slip it through the slot and that’s it, job done! If you live in the US, there are blue USPS mailboxes in most cities and suburbs. You can find them using this online tool, Mailbox Locate.
In the UK, you can find red Royal Mail post boxes all over the place, or use localpostbox.co.uk if you’re not sure where the closest one is to you.
In Canada, there are Canada Post boxes, which are usually red but may have different designs on them – just look for the Canada Post logo.
The Canada Post site also has a Post Office Finder for you. And in Australia, the Australia Post boxes are typically red as well.
As always, refer to your country’s online guidelines to give you more specific details about mailing services and prices.
If after reading this you think, well goodness, that’s an awful lot of steps and things to consider (because, in all honesty, it is), you have another option: send your mail online. Yes, you can just evade the envelope choices, sidestep the taste of envelope glue, leave the postage calculations and decisions behind, and choose to use online services such as PostSeal to get your mail to its destination, all while relaxing on your sofa. So, skip the post office – mail your letter online!