How does the Post Office know?

Recently I have been getting a number of postcards from my friends that are travelling around the globe. One from Japan, one from Prague, another from Chile. And I got to thinking: How does the post office in a foreign country recognize the language on a letter/postcard? Often the name of a country does not correspond to it’s name in foreign countries (Suomi(sp?)/Finland for example). I understand that English is fairly well recognized around the world, but what if a Japaneese tourist mailed a postcard from Saudi Arabia? Would it get through? Are tourists expected to know the language of the country they are mailing letters in? Does the post office scour the halls of the UN picking up translators? Gah! How does it all work???

Your spelling is correct and so is calling the country Finland as that is the name of it in the other official language: Swedish.


If you had an Indian mailing a letter home from China, or a Japanese mailing a letter from Saudi, you’d go to the local post office and get assistance. They would probably code the country name in their native script, which is the only thing that is relevant in the country of origin.

Then you’d have the rest of the address coded in whatever script the destination country uses.

I would think that internation mail worked much like internation telephone. Sine most of the world uses arabic numerals primarily, wouldn’t the post office just be able to glance at any international mail, and see ******** at the bottom and know it is going to Japan? Kinda similar to zip codes. You could send a letter to “Shithead Arizona”, and as long as you have the zip for Phoenix, then it will get through, they don’t even look at the city names.

I believe the mail would be handled by a human somewhere along the line, and that person would have to decide which country it was going to. I’m sure they have a list of countries with all of the names for each country on it.

That’s kind of what I was thinking. But if I know tourists (and my friends), many of them would be too lazy to do that. But I guess you have to get stamps from somewhere. Maybe hotel desk staff at the multi-lingual support network of the postal service.

I used to work at Foreign Section of the Post Office in London. One of my duties was to deal with missorts- letters that couldn’t be easily sorted. I could deciper Greek and Cyrillic alphabets and so would write the City name and Country in Roman alphabet and then sort it onwards. I worked with colleagues from the Indian sub-continent who could read major ‘Indian’ texts and we also had colleagues who could read Japanese and Chinese and other south-east Asian scripts. You couldn’t just relay on the script because London FS dealt with mail from anywhere to anywhere, so the script did not give a clue to the destination. Very few letters were not sent on to the appropriate place. If in doubt we would send them for clarification to the appropriate country for re-direction- sometimes internal mail found its way into the international system.

As far as badly addressed items- most people working in that department could re-direct items without country names by their knowledge of geography and previous experience.

Typical English-speakers again…:slight_smile:

If always address my letters in the language of the country I am sending from. I always thought this was the sender’s responsibility, not the Post Office’s. If you do not, and it is still delivered, in principle they have done you a favour, haven’t they?

My favorite mail story has to do with a Christmas card sent to me by a car rental company to thank me for my business, yadda yadda yadda. Said rental company was in Australia; I’m in the US. My university address got badly mangled, having more lines than the label-generating program was set for - the full label never made it beyond my name, my building, and part of the university’s name. The card still made it to me in about a week’s time, the usual amount of time for air mail transit. ::round of applause to all the postal employees who dealt with the card::

There isn’t any standard number system that identifies countries for international post (not that I’m aware of anyway). In any case, wouldn’t the sender still have to know what number to write to identify their target country? ZIP codes only work for internal US mail - other countries have their own internal codes, and they aren’t the same as ZIP.

Whenever I send a postcard from outside my home country I follow Mjollnir’s advice and find out how the UK is written in the local language. I usually have some tourist guide like a Lonely Planet book or something, otherwise I’d ask at the hotel or Post Office. Easiest was sending from Denmark - they spell it “England” :).

Good story BTW, Fillet. The Royal Mail here often boasts about its ability to find obscure addresses from badly-addressed mail, or dealing with letters from five-year-olds to Santa.

A friend of mine was living in Viennea, Austria. Her mother sent a care package which took longer than normal to receive. The reason ? Well, looking at the postmark on the box, the package first went to Australia - so I suppose its possible that not every postcard does get sent to the correct address originally, but maybe somewhere along the line somebody figures it out ?

I posted this in another thread recently:
The rule for international mailing is quite simple -country name in the official language of place of posting, rest of the address in the official language of place of delivery. It makes sense if you think about it. The post office isn’t the place to show off your foreign language skills.

To answer the OP more directly, every postal administration in the world gets letters which don’t adhere to the rule described above. They get there! That is the postal mind for you: most things will get there. but it might take a little extra time if the sender hasn’t made it easy.

The Austria/Australia thing is covered in the link in my above post, but I can give you an even freakier example of postal incompetence: as a postal worker in Sydney, New South Wales (Sydney, NSW), we get lots of mis-sorted mail for Sydney, Nova Scotia**(Sydney, NS)**. Anyhow, one day I see a letter posted from within the United States to a place called “Sidney” (not even the same spelling) in Ohio, USA. At first glance, the destination was obvious - “Sidney OH”, and a US style zip code. But it had obviously been through the hands of several Canadian and Australian doofusses -the thing had been posted months before and was literally covered in official looking stamps saying “NOT AUSTRALIA”, “NOT CANADA”, NOT AUSTRALIA, “NOT CANADA”, etc.
Geez I love my job…


:smiley: Love it ! Remember when Bobby Knight accidentally shot his friend while hunting. For the next few games, the fans on the opposing team wore shirts that said “NOT A DEER” - sometimes you just have to forget about being subtle.

How does it get there?

It’s possible that a citizen of Vietnam would be better off bringing his postcards from his trip to Somalia home in his luggage.

I would expect a rather large percentage of that type of mail disappears.

But, then, what do I know.

I have a story of postal incompetence that’s just as bad as the above. I was in line in a post office in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. Ahead of me in line was my Polish friend Bogdan. I saw he had a large manila envelope very clearly addressed, in English, to the Embassy of Poland in Kuala Lumpur (about 10 miles away). Bogdan couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the huge amount of postage the clerk charged him—for sending the letter all the way to WARSAW!!! He said, Look, you fool, I wrote Kuala Lumpur!