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International Shipping Meltdown

US Post Office, what are you doing to me? The USPS Click-n-Ship service has always been cumbersome, but it’s the only practical way to mail packages outside the USA via First Class Mail, which is the only way to send packages economically. Over the weekend the post office revamped the site, and now I’m unable to send any packages by First Class Mail. This leaves me with a choice between increasing my international shipping fee by 2x, or withholding all international shipping until some other solution is found. At the same time, the post office changed the method of address entry for most countries, so it’s no longer a free-form text entry, but a series of drop-down menus. If the city or postal code in your package’s address isn’t one of the choices provided, too bad.

In last month’s rant about international shipping headaches, I mentioned some of the problems I’ve encountered. Addresses must be formatted a particular way, regardless of whether that’s how they’re normally formatted in the destination country. Only numbers or the 26 letters from A to Z are permitted in the address. If the address is supposed to contain an accented letter, or any non-Roman letters like something from the Japanese or Korean alphabets, too bad. This is the US Postal Service. We don’t do accents.

The recent move to drop-down menus for composing the address makes matters even worse. Today I tried to send a package to the UK: destination Uxbridge, London, UB11 1BB. Look at the screenshot above, and you’ll see that I’m required to select a province before I can fill in the rest of the address. I wasn’t aware the UK even had the concept of provinces. So what province is London in? Ummm, England? Nope, that’s not a choice. Let’s see, British geography quiz, this should be fun. According to the post office, the city of London is in the province of… London! But then I had to choose a city (which should be obvious), given a list of 10 choices including “London”, “London West Depot Collection”, “Finchley Road”, and “Westminster”. Ugh. And no matter which one I chose, UB11 1BB was never offered as a choice for postal code. Total failure. I simply cannot mail a package to this address, using this service.

Then I discovered that the interface for choosing the shipping method has also changed. It used to be that you’d enter the package address, then on the next page you’d see a list of shipping methods including First Class, Priority Mail, and Priority Express. Now it’s a Javascript-enabled form that dynamically changes to show you the applicable shipping methods for the address as you type it. At least that’s the theory. In practice, it only ever shows Priority and Priority Express as choices. At first I thought this might reflect a change in policy for international shipping, but then I discovered that the same problem occurs when printing postage for domestic packages. RIP, First Class Mail?

I went to the local post office, waited in line, and spoke to an employee who assured me that First Class International was still a valid shipping method, and she was able to send the package to London UB11 1BB without problems. But it required almost an hour of my time, driving to the post office, waiting in line, and filling out custom declaration forms by hand, and it also cost 10% more than purchasing the same postage online by Click-n-Ship used to.

I’m not sure the best way to get this resolved. I tried Click-n-Ship’s live support feature, but got a generic error asking me to try again later. I spent an hour on hold waiting to talk to tech support before hanging up in frustration. Under the theory that maybe it was a browser bug, I tried Internet Explorer instead of my normal Chrome, but that didn’t help. Maybe there’s something about the address and package details I’ve entered that rules out First Class mail as a choice, so it’s never shown as an option? I don’t think so, though.

At this point, I think my only option is to hope that this is a bug and not a policy change, and hope that it magically gets fixed in the next few days. If not, I may have to start shipping international packages by Priority Mail, and charging substantially more for international shipping than I have been thus far. I sure wish the post office weren’t such an inscrutable bureaucracy, or that any of the other carriers like FedEx offered reasonably-priced options.

Edit: It looks like First Class International postage has been fixed! Thank you, USPS web programmers. My apologies to everyone who suffered through my rant. Now if I can only figure out how to ship to London UB11 1BB…

Edit 2: Choose “other” from the Province drop-down menu, then you can type in whatever you want without needing to follow the post office formatting.

Read 20 comments and join the conversation 

20 Comments so far

  1. Andrew H. - January 27th, 2014 7:49 pm

    Have you tried using

  2. Steve Chamberlin - January 27th, 2014 10:14 pm

    I’ve heard so many negative things about that I’m reluctant to try it, though most of the complaints seem to be from people who didn’t understand there’a a $16/month fee for the service. Endicia is their main competitor, but I’ve not tried either one. Maybe I should, just to save my sanity! 🙂

  3. Bill R. - January 27th, 2014 10:18 pm

    I’ve found that every now and then this feature seems to disappear from PayPal’s multi-order shipping is handy for this in a pinch, though you can’t pay with a credit card, which is annoying.

  4. Steve Chamberlin - January 27th, 2014 10:30 pm

    Hmm, the only reason I’m using in the first place is because PayPal won’t do First Class International postage, or so I thought. Did I overlook it somehow?

  5. John - January 28th, 2014 1:57 am

    Are you sure that that postcode is London?
    Putting in the postcode to the checker on seems to indicate the city is simply Uxbridge. Although it’s close to London, it may not be “london” as far as the postal address in concerned.

  6. Matthew - January 28th, 2014 8:32 am

    UB11 1BB is the postcode for Hayes, Middlesex which is classed as Greater London.
    Just select Middlesex for the ‘Province’ (It should be County, not province).

  7. Steve Chamberlin - January 28th, 2014 10:03 am

    I’ve already mailed that package manually, so it’s more of an academic exercise at this point. I tried Middlesex as province, Hayes and Uxbridge as cities, and while both generated choices for postal code that began with UB, UB11 was not among them. I finally discovered that if I choose Middlesex as province and “London West Depot Collection” as city, then “UB11 1” appears as a choice for postal code. But then where do I enter the final “BB” portion of the postal code?

    I went all the way through the checkout flow, and it generated this address to be printed on my package:

    Joe Sample
    123 Any Street

    After all that, the postal code isn’t even present in the printed address! And the address looks nothing like the “Uxbridge, London, UB11 1BB” address that I was originally given. I doubt if mail addressed to “London West Depot Collection” would even be delivered properly. There must be thousands of packages shipped by USPS from the USA to England every day, and I can’t be the only person using the post office’s Click-n-Ship service to do it. How can it be so broken?

    I discovered that if I leave the the “province” drop-down menu set to “Select…” instead of actually making a choice, and then click the refresh button in the shipping method table, some new fields appear where I can type the province, city, and postal code in plain text. However, whatever I type in the postal code field is not transferred to the printed address, and “Middlesex” is also appended to the address even though I didn’t include it.

    I guess I’ll check out and Endicia. I need to stop ranting about the post office before I lose all my readers!

  8. Felix - January 28th, 2014 10:58 am

    I feel your pain. I was forced to use click and ship recently when paypal shipping was down (for like 1 week?). Looks like the “updates” make it more horrible to use.
    My only other option is Endicia for desktop. I really hate to recommend it because it’s an absolutely horrible piece of software, even more so than paypal (the windows version). BUT … it works for first class international shipping .. just paste the address in a single box on the quick print tab, accepts whatever accents you want, pick First Class, weight, enter Customs info, print to your label printer and get commercial pricing. It’s like $15.95 a month I think… something to consider. I heard the mac version is better so you might have better experience if you try that.

  9. al - February 1st, 2014 10:33 am

    Can I add an additional rant? I use a script to autofill USPS labels for Click-N-Ship and for the 3rd time in several years with this new update, they have “re-designed” the form, which also changes all the field names and breaks the script? There are many others who use similar scripting applications, and this is wreaking havoc on small business mailers. Have these people no idea that business want to try to use USPS, but they are making it impossible?????

  10. Owen Shepherd - February 4th, 2014 12:38 am

    Oh god. As somebody from the UK… I have pity on you. In the UK we have over the last 50 years had a few reorganizations of counties (What the USPS seems to think of as proviences), so there is a high probability that the address somebody gives you contains a county which doesn’t exist and/or is now wrong and probably won’t appear in the USPS’ drop downs.

    Also, they’re NOT printing the post code? *Whimper*. That’s the important part.

  11. charles - February 15th, 2014 9:05 pm

    DUDE. USPS is still screwed up for international shipping.
    i’m not liking the new site.

  12. audrey - February 28th, 2014 4:59 pm

    Here’s a workaround: Select your country from the country drop down. From the next Province drop down, select the same country. At the second Province drop down in the address block, select OTHER. It adds a blank Province field so you can type in the Province name. You should then be able to enter the data you choose.

  13. Adam - March 18th, 2014 4:43 pm

    When you go to Province, select “OTHER,” it lets you type whatever you want 😉

  14. yarnsby - May 23rd, 2014 4:03 pm

    Thanks a lot for your advice to choose “Other” as the province. I came across this article when trying to figure out why USPS wouldn’t let me choose the right postal code for a UK address. And sure enough, it worked!

  15. yarnsby - May 23rd, 2014 4:42 pm

    Oops, I forgot to mention one thing: After doing the “other” province trick, the postal code didn’t appear in the address on the final confirmation page before paying. However, it did appear on the printed shipping label itself, albeit before the city and province instead of after.

  16. yarnsby - May 23rd, 2014 7:42 pm

    As for non-Latin/non-English characters being rejected, Frank’s Compulsive Guide to Postal Addresses says:
    “Obviously if you don’t have a way to write the address in Cyrillic, Hebrew, Greek, etc, it can be transliterated in whatever way is most acceptable at the receiving end. Most countries that use non-Roman writing systems can deliver letters that are addressed in Roman transliteration – Russia, Greece, Israel, most Arab countries, Japan, Korea, and both Chinas among them.”

    Unfortunately, there’s no advice on accomplishing this aside from removing accents and expanding umlauts. There are address-transliteration services and software out there, but AFAIK they’re all paid solutions for large businesses.

    So, what would I do in such a situation?
    – If it’s just one package, I’d ask someone at USPS, the customer, or someone who knows the language.
    – For more than that, how about poor man’s address-transliteration? Search for “[language] transliteration” or “[language] romanization” and test it with an address from Wikipedia’s “Postal address” page to make sure it works.
    – In either case, it wouldn’t hurt to attach an extra address label containing the original, non-English address.

  17. meshguru - June 10th, 2014 8:32 am

    Well, this was the first thing that popped up when I googled “ doesn’t support UK address”. I guess something has changed since the last comment. For the worse….

    I need to send something to Oxfordshire, Banbury, OX16 4SW. Of course nothing like that code is available picking Oxfordshire and Banbury. So the drop down only allows me to select and print INCORRECT postal codes.

    If I use the OTHER province option and then type in “OXFORDSHIRE”, it allows me to enter the correct postal code…

    At which point the system changes “OTHER” to “OXFORDSHIRE” and deletes the manually-entered postal code.

    If I use the OTHER province option to type in the UK Post abbreviation, “OXON”, then the system deletes that AND the postal code I entered manually entirely.


  18. Steve Chamberlin - June 10th, 2014 8:44 am

    The USPS web page for international mail is just horribly flawed.

    I’ve had bad luck entering anything in the postal code field. It seems to end up disappearing. I just type the city name *and* postal code into the city field.

  19. yarnsby - June 10th, 2014 7:15 pm

    @meshguru: I just tried that on the USPS site to see it for myself and it didn’t happen (although I didn’t confirm payment).

    Are we talking about the same page, then? I started on the page and put in a fake destination address with Province:”Other” OXFORDSHIRE, City:Banbury, and the same postal code. Then I did Priority shipping and made it all the way to the Billing page without issues.

    @Steve: I haven’t had this problem because although the postal code disappears, it still appears on the final printed label (albeit before the city, but it seems to get there fine). Maybe there’s something specific that causes this behavior, then. If it makes any difference, I use Firefox and all my shipping labels are First Class shipping.

  20. meshguru - June 11th, 2014 7:19 am

    I ended up shipping to the business owner’s residential address. still wouldn’t allow me to select a “complete” postal code with all seven characters, but the first five characters were present and correct and, most importantly, matched the very British “street address” that consisted of the cottage name, lane name, and city sub-district. The recipient assured me that this was sufficient.

    I was using Priority Mail International. Yes, subsequent to sign-in an selecting ship/print postage, that’s where I started, too.

    I was using Chrome. The site wouldn’t work in IE at all.

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