Tips for working with the US Postal Service

Consistently working with the US Post Office is definitely not the most fun part of being a stationer, and over the years I’ve my fair share of things going awry once USPS gets involved. I’ve also dealt with some truly helpful and charming employees there who go out of their way to be helpful.  The critical mindset in dealing with USPS successfully is knowing what to expect, to plan accordingly, and to respond to adversity with patient determination. To help you navigate the Post Office, here are my top tips for painless interaction with the mail system.

What factors actually trigger a stamp surcharge?

Most of my clients come in to working with me knowing that the Post Office charges a surcharge for heavy envelopes.  However, that’s just one of many factors that might trigger an increase – the others are:

  • if an envelope is too thick, or has a lump in it (like from a ribbon, or wax seal)
  • if the envelope is an unusual shape, like square
  • if the envelope is overly rigid

These factors all trigger additional surcharges for the piece of mail being deemed “non-machinable,” which means that it will have to be sorted by hand.


All about hand cancelling

So why does “non-machinable” trigger a surcharge if my envelopes are going to be hand-cancelled anyway?

A common misconception is that if you hand cancel your envelopes, they won’t get sorted by machine, and will arrive in pristine condition to your recipient.  I wish this were the case, but all hand cancelling does is remove one machine in the process – the one that “cancels” the stamp, preventing it from being reused.

Here’s what else you should know about hand-cancelling:

  • Some Post Offices give you more grief than others if you ask to hand-cancel a stack of envelopes. If the first Post Office you try tells you no, you can either try another location or to come back another time and hope for a different employee.
  • You should expect to stamp each envelope yourself.
  • This is where being unfailingly polite comes in handy.  Do wait in line, and after telling them you have a stack of envelopes you would like to hand cancel be sure to ask where it is most convenient for you to stand and do that.  Also ask for a tray for your stamped envelopes.
  • Once you have the datestamp and the tray, stamp each envelope so that the ink touches the left side of the stamp, but doesn’t cover it completely.  This keeps the text of the cancelling stamper visible should the Post Office need it.
  • The stamp ink does stay wet for a little while, so I try and work in batches (depending on how much counter I have available!) to give freshly inked envelopes some time to dry before I pile them with the other envelopes in the tray.

How your invitations are sorted, and why it matters

So now that we’ve covered hand-cancelling, I can introduce you to the next item to know about: how your envelopes are sorted. Like we’ve already mentioned, unless your envelopes are non-machinable (square, rigid, or thick/lumpy) they will be sorted by machine after you hand cancel them. This machine’s very simple job is to ready the lowest zip code on your envelope, and send it in that direction.

Why is this important? Because it is standard to place the return address on the back flap of the envelope for wedding invitations, which means that if the envelope is flipped going into the sorting machine, it will think the return address is the one you want the envelope sent to. There is no good way around this (except to carefully line up your envelopes in the tray and hope for the best) but it generally affects 1-2 envelopes at most.

Order your stamps online

This is a simple tip – order your stamps online if you can.  Shipping is free from USPS, and this way you’re much more likely to get the design you really want.

When it comes to stamps, don’t be afraid to think outside the 2-3 designs they have in their wedding category.  They generally have several good nature stamps available, and as I mentioned on Instagram stories a few weeks ago I think that these cherry blossom stamps are the most perfect for a DC spring wedding.

Speaking of stamps, let’s talk about international mail! USPS made things a little simpler a few years ago with the introduction of the Global stamp, which has set a flat cost for outgoing international mail.  What you should not do is waste $0.50 per envelope by pre-stamping RSVP envelopes for your international guests. They will need to add a stamp from whatever country they live in for their outgoing mail.


I hope you find these tips helpful in making working with the Post Office pain-free!

If you didn’t get to this post through my Stationery 101 guest posts with Emily Alyssa, you can visit that here.


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