How does mail get from the US to Canada?

Just curious. I’m on the western part of the US, and sent a letter to Ontario, Canada.

How coordinated are the US & Canadian mail systems?

Is my letter going to go north, then east across Canada, or is it going to go east across the US, then north into Canada?

Does Canada treat mail from the US as international mail that goes through some central international mail center before making its way around Canada, or would it just go through the closest mail distribution center to its destination?

If my experience is any guide, the answer is “very slowly”.

I gather (from US Postal employees, so this may not be an unbiased opinion) that the mail gets from a US Post Office to the border station in about as much time as it would take to get to a big-city address, but that, once it is in the hands of Canada Post, it can take a week or more to get from there to its final address.

Thus, sending a letter from Vermont to Montreal can take two weeks, of which only a day or two is used to send the letter to the border.

They also tell me that the time to go from the border to final destination is typical of delivery times from any two addresses entirely within Canada. Again, this is the US Snail talking, so I don’t know how much weight this deserves.

I think any mail crossing the border between two different postal systems, run by different postal authorities, will have to go through an international clearing center just to allow for the proper settlement of the costs of international mail transport (Cecil explains this intricate system in some detail here. The relations of the U.S. to Canada might be closer than to other nations, but the Canadian mail is still a different body and would probably not want to carry American letters for free.

So to sum it up, I’d say that there is a number of designated hand-over points for mail to cross the border. If you mail a letter in the U.S., the USPS will probably bring it to the nearest of these points, but they won’t simply bring it to the closest Canadian distribution center.

Here’s an old CBC article noting that the USPS ships mail to one of three “clearance centres” in Canada, in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal (having closed down their centres in Calgary and Winnipeg in 2004.) However, it’s not clear from the article how the USPS chooses which centre to send a given letter to. Given how similar Canadian and American address formats are, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the USPS pre-sorts Canada-bound mail (something like BC, AB, YK, and NT to Vancouver; SK, MB, ON, and NU to Toronto; and the rest to Montreal.) However, I kind of doubt it; more likely it’s just shipped to whichever facility is closest to its point of origin in the US.

If I’m reading this document correctly (PDF, 1562 pages, in French), the US sends letters to Canada from New York, Chicago, and San Francisco to the three centres I mentioned above. However, it’s still not clear whether USPS does any sorting before sending the letters to Canada.

There’s a ridiculous amount of information in that document, BTW. Want to know how many mail dispatches per week there are between Yerevan, Armenia and Dushanbe, Tajikistan? Now you can find out (answer: four.)

There’s also a possible requirement for customs clearance, depending on the type of mail.

Canada Post doesn’t always do things in the most logical way, it should be noted. I discovered a number of years ago that the bill payments I mailed in the post office downstairs from my office at work, addressed to a location about a mile away, made a round trip of some 650 (air) miles in between the two locations. Why? Because the destination was in Ottawa, Ontario, and my office is in Hull, Quebec, Ottawa’s sister city acrioss the river. This maid the letter interprovincial mail, which had to go to the outbound inter-provincial mail clearing centre in Montreal, Quebec, then to the inbound inter-provincial mail clearing centre in Toronto, Ontario, before being sent to Ottawa for delivery. (It’s since been changed so that “local” overrides “inter-provincial” for stuff like this, but they did it the stupid way for years.)