Friday, January 23, 2015

Getting Mail Overseas

One of the questions that comes up a lot (usually from family members) about living overseas is what sort of mail service and support we receive. There are several methods available to members of the US Foreign Service, and each has their pros and cons.

APO/DPO
This is probably the most familiar option to anyone with friends or families in the military. Except for the customs form, it's practically the same as sending something to somewhere else in the US. An APO or DPO uses the military routing system to get stuff from the US to the overseas location. It's also usually the right mix of speed and cost, usually 10-14 days but sometimes faster or slower. It requires a customs declaration PS Form 2976 from the USPS.

The PS Form 2976
Here's the USPS information about APO/DPO.

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So, now the question is, who will ship to APO? Amazon ships to APO, so that probably covers 95% of your needs right there. If you wanted to order straight from a company's  website, here's a list of companies that will ship to APO. For those companies that won't ship to APO, there's a middle-man service provided by Ship it APO or APO Box that will receive your packages and forward them on to you overseas.
APO/DPO shipments are subject to inspection
Diplomatic Pouch
One of the benefits of being on a diplomatic assignment is the use of the Diplomatic Pouch system. It's slower than APO/DPO, but it has a unique benefit: as long as it is externally marked to show its status, the package has diplomatic immunity from search or seizure, as codified in article 27 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Because of this, it may only contain articles intended for official use, so personal items in the pouch are highly regulated and we've already had one shipment rejected. The State Department has an official page with the details for sending things by diplomatic pouch.

   As a practical matter, we can ship some stuff in what is called "Personal Pouch" as well.  It's for common things that might normally get confiscated by strict customs restrictions (not to be confused with prohibited) in regular mail like prescription medicine, or National Geographic Magazine with a naked tribesman on the cover, or maybe even DVDs and music CDs. These packages must not exceed 6 cubic feet, as the Department will consider it a bulk shipment and you’ll have to pay fees to get it shipped to you. For reference, 6 cubic feet is exactly 32” x 18” x 18”. And that's per shipment, not per box...a guy I know pouched 10 boxes that were individually under the 6 cubic feet limit, but since they all happened to end up on the same shipment, they were collectively considered to be roughly 60 cubic feet. Ouch.

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International Mail
All of the international cargo companies (Fed Ex, DHL, UPS, etc) have some way to get packages to a delivery center somewhere in the country. The problem is that those delivery centers might be inconvenient, and the shipping cost is often rather expensive. They are also subject to inspection/confiscation by the local authorities, so your package might make it into country but not past customs. Amazon also ships to a number of countries.
Which is worse?
That's about it. As far as I know, most folks overseas use the APO as their primary delivery method, but there are other options out there as well.

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