Sending a letter in the US is more challenging than you expect…

The Safeway cashier smiled at me: “of course m’dam you can buy a stamp book right here…”.

In San Francisco bay area they sell everything in the supermarkets: from food (as you would expect) and flowers to pre-paid bank cards, drugs and even stamps.

In Europe the supermarkets don’t sell stamps, so it doesn’t matter if you are in Barcelona or in Berlin, you need to go to a post office, to a tobacconist or to a newsagent stand to get your letter stamped. But here, you can buy them in Safeway. Great isn’t it?…

No, actually it’s not, because they sell you the stamp book but they are unable to give you any advice on how to mail the letter itself. So in the end you always need to go to a US post office.

Screen shot of the US postal service official site

Screen shot of the US postal service official site

And what happens once you actually arrive in a US post office? Let me tell you about my experience:

Last week we had to post a letter to our former landlord in Munich and one to our bank in Germany. I drove to the US postal service branch in Mountain View and waited in line for 15 minutes. I was there at the rush hour because I’ve never seen so many people standing in line to send anything by post since the 90’s. 15 minutes later when I was just going to be called to the counter, an employee came out of nowhere and started managing the customers in the line. He then came to me.

While you wait: how can I help you m’dam?

I said I wanted to send my letters to Germany. He looked at me a little odd and so I clarified that I was new to the US and needed help with how many stamps I needed to send my letters to Germany. He then smiled and explained:

Ok m’dam, that’s quite simple:are you mailing a letter or a large envelope? And are you mailing it within the US or international?

I paused… and then I said again that I wanted to send my letter to Germany, so the mailing was international. He then responded:

A letter is max. 6-1/8 inches high, 11-1/2 inches long and 1/4 inch thick.

In this very moment, I remembered again that they don’t use the metric system here in the USA… how much was an inch again?

I looked at my envelope and back at the guy… but this time I must have had panic in my eyes ’cause then he said:

Is this your letter to Germany? Then it’s a large envelope and it’s an international mailing m’dam. Now you need to decide how you want to send this letter: priority, first class, standard or media. If you go for the first two options, the maximum weight is 70 lbs or 13 onces. You pay $0.46 per ounce, so let me see…

At this point the guy was holding my letter and making a move up and down like he’s weighting it and then he finally said:

I believe your letter is going to need three to four stamps. But just to confirm you have a scale and full instructions over there. Please go and do the measuring yourself. You can then post your letter in the postbox outside this branch.

And with a smile and a:

is there something else I can help you with?

he left me standing there and moved to the next customer behind me.

I spent another 15 minutes reading the instructions (ounces, why do they use ounces?); trying to figure out the scale and weightehening my letters. I ended up adding extra stamps (just in case) to make sure that they arrive safe and sound in Munich. (we’ll see…)

What’s your experience with the US post office?

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