The United States Postal Service, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
Public Services I
Letters and Packages

The Post Office
The U.S. Postal Service is run by the federal government. Post offices are located in every town and neighborhood and are usually open from 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. weekdays, and until noon or 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Some large city post offices have a section that never closes where you can buy stamps and deposit mail at any hour. The postal service delivers mail to homes and business six days a week, though no business is conducted and no mail delivered on official national holidays.

Postage stamps are available at the post office, either from a service window or from a vending machine in the lobby. Many supermarkets and other establishments now sell postage stamps at the same rate as the government. You should be aware, however, that small vending machines in some stores, particularly drugstores, may offer stamps for an extra charge.

United States mailboxes are blue, and are found on street corners. Sometimes several mailboxes will be side by side, especially in front of post offices. One of the mailboxes may be especially for express mail or for mail to the local area only. Should you accidentally put mail in the wrong box, it may be delayed, but it will still be delivered.

The Clerk Will Help. If you don't know what a package or letter will cost you to mail, the clerk at the post office will weigh the item, sell you the postage right at the counter, and take the item from you for processing. You can also buy U.S. Postal Money Orders at the post office, for a small extra fee.

Postal Boxes. In addition, you can rent a box at the post office that you can use for delivery of mail to you; you'll be given a key. There is a waiting period of up to 30 days before you will be able to use your box. If you need a box right away, you can rent one at a private mail center, but it will cost more.

Mail Holding and Forwarding. Should you move or go on vacation, the post office can either hold your mail (for up to 30 days) or send it to the new address (for up to 18 months). You'll have to fill out and sign a special form. The clerk will be happy to help you fill it out properly.

The Zip Code System. The postal service delivers mail according to a system of “zip” codes. These are five digit numbers that are placed after the address on all mail. Some nine digit zip codes are also in use. Most local branch post offices have their own zip codes. Some large office buildings that receive a great deal of mail also have their own codes. Don't forget to use the proper zip code. If you don't know it, the post office will have a directory where you can look it up.

Classes of Mail. American mail is divided into four classes. You'll probably only use first and fourth class, since second and third class mail are for business and advertising use. First class is the fastest and most expensive. It is for the average letter and some matter sent in larger envelopes. If the item weighs more than 12 ounces, you'll be sending Priority Mail. Fourth class (parcel post) is for packages and is relatively inexpensive. It also can be slow. The price depends on the weight and also on how far you are sending the package.

International Packages. If you are sending an important item out of the country, the best strategy is to wrap or package it, label it very clearly, then ask the post office clerk how you should send it. The clerk will weigh the package, tell you how much each type of service will cost, and how long it will take to arrive.

Mail Security. If you send important documents, or anything valuable, you'll want to use some of the post office's services that provide insurance, documentation and receipts. These are registered, certified and insured mail. The post office prints useful free booklets on how to use these and other services. Just ask the post office clerk.

Express Mail. The post office competes with private express mail services like Federal Express by offering express mail service. With some limitations, this ensures next day delivery of your item with the regular mail.


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