The US postal service

You probably know that there are a variety of mail and package carriers in the United States. You might have had something delivered to your door by FedEx, or sent a gift to a loved one via UPS (United Parcel Service). One of the biggest postal services in the United States is USPS (United States Postal Service). As a service run by the federal government, USPS ensures that all American citizens, even those in remote areas, can receive mail efficiently. Here, we'll look at the history of USPS, as well as how to track packages you've ordered or sent.

How Do I Track My Package?

If you're the seller of an item, chances are that you want to make sure your product arrives safely at its destination. If you're a buyer, you probably want to ensure that your purchase is safely on its way, and that it's still on schedule to arrive on time.

Luckily, USPS has kept up with the speed of modern technology. There are several ways you can keep track of a package in transit, whether you're the one who sent it or the one expecting it. Here's how you can track your package:

1. By tracking number online. If you mail something from a US Post Office, you'll be given a receipt with your 16-digit tracking number. You can visit the USPS website or any number of online services that offer tracking information. When you type in this number, all available tracking information will appear. However, it may take some time for the number to be entered into the USPS system, so don't panic if no information shows up at first.

2. By text. If you aren't near a computer, you can simply send a text to 28777 (USPS2). The content of your text needs to be your tracking number. You'll get an automated text back with your most recent tracking information (you also can sign up for automated text updates, which makes it so you don't have to repeatedly type in and send your tracking number).

3. By app. Whether you have an iPhone or an Android, you can download the USPS app in order to track packages you're sending or expecting. The app is free and easy to install. It also can send notifications when your package is delivered, or once it's scanned at a new destination.

Of course, if you're busy throughout the day or just don't want to constantly check for updates, you can also sign up for text and e-mail notifications on the USPS website. The site allows you to choose which updates you want to receive. Whether you only want to know when your package is delivered or want to know each time it's scanned at a new destination, signing up for notifications may be able to save you some time and worry.

What's the USPS Tracking Number Format?

To the uninitiated, tracking numbers often just look like a nonsensical jumble. But there's a definite method to this number madness. One of the most important parts of the tracking number is the first four or five digits. This can tell you what type of tracking the package has. For example, your standard USPS Tracking number begins with 9400. If the package sender has chosen Priority Mail, the tracking number will start with 9205. Most tracking numbers are 20 digits, although some tracking options have more or fewer digits.

What is the USPS, Exactly?

While it isn't the only postal carrier out there, USPS is the only postal carrier associated with the US government. FedEx and UPS, which we mentioned in the first paragraph, are privately owned parcel carriers. These carriers are competitors of USPS.

You might be surprised to hear that the USPS was formed fairly recently. This nationwide mail service was founded in 1971. However, its predecessor, the Post Office Department, was founded much earlier. After Benjamin Franklin became the nation's first postmaster general, Franklin and his colleagues started the Post Office Department in 1792.

This organization ended up gaining more independence from direct government control when it was reorganized in 1970. Then, in 1971, the USPS as we know it was formed. This reorganization was partially caused by a strike of postal workers. In 1970, workers in the Post Office Department in New York went on strike. Their reason? Low wages, undesirable working conditions, and sub-par benefits. Soon, workers in different states heard news of the strike, and it began to spread across the country. In total, over 200,000 postal workers participated. Once the USPS was formed, workers were given the right to unionize. The new USPS complied with most of the union demands.

Is the USPS a Big Operation?

Since it's responsible for delivering mail to just about every United States citizen, the USPS is a fairly sizable organization. Currently, it has well over half a million employees. And since many of these employees have to transport mail, USPS also owns over 200,000 vehicles. In fact, this organization is the third-largest civilian employer in the nation. (The largest civilian employer is the federal government, and the second-largest is Walmart.) For the sake of comparison, FedEx and UPS have fewer employees than USPS, with each having under 500,000.

In terms of organization and layout, USPS is somewhat like a web. There are over 250 distribution centers in the US, and each center is responsible for sorting and sending out all mail from a given region. Usually, each center covers a radius of a few hundred miles. These interconnected centers allow mail to be sent efficiently, whether you're mailing something across the country or just a few miles away. Much of mail sorting at distribution centers is done by machines. This is especially true of business reply mail and other types of mail with a barcode. In some cases, a machine cannot read handwritten addresses. When this happens, the unreadable piece of mail is sent to a human employee to decode. In total, once it reaches a mail carrier, 95% of mail has been successfully pre-sorted by machine. USPS is working to improve sorting mechanisms to increase that percentage and cut down on labor costs.

In order to cut down on mail being sent to the wrong address, large USPS centers have a Computerized Forwarding Service. When a customer moves and files a change of address card, their new information goes into a database. Then, if a piece of mail has the person's name with the old address, a machine re-labels the mail and sends it to the correct address.

While it's true that much of the mail handled by USPS is sent within the United States, the organization also handles international mail. However, in order to make sure it can handle the volume of international mail, the USPS contracts with FedEx to ship much of its mail overseas. FedEx has a large fleet of planes designed to deliver mail internationally, while most USPS vehicles are vans and small trucks designed for land delivery.

How Does USPS Keep Track of Parcels and Letters?

Given that each piece of mail travels through several distribution centers, mail could easily be lost in a less-organized system. USPS gives each piece of mail either a label or a receipt number, making it possible to track the location and estimated delivery date.

However, not all tracking is created equally. Depending on the level of tracking selected, you may be able to get more detailed information on the status of a package. Generally, more detailed tracking costs more. The USPS offers Priority Mail Express for those who want detailed information on the package whereabouts at all times. Certified mail and Registered Mail also offer similar benefits.

It wouldn't be practical for USPS to keep package data forever, but depending on the tracking service you choose, they'll store package data for a certain period of time. Basic tracking items have their information stored for 120 days, while most other services keep data for two years. Different services may be needed depending on the type of mail being sent. If you aren't sure which shipping and tracking method is best, local post office employees may be able to help you select one.

In short, while its workings may be complex, and its tracking numbers may be somewhat confusing, the USPS is an organized system designed to deliver letters and packages quickly. Buyers and sellers alike can keep track of their mailings.