What’s in an address – part 3

If you didn’t get a chance to take a peek at the high-speed optical letter sorting machine  in our last post about addresses ..you might want to click the link here  and take in the short video before we get started.

While you may not be familiar with one of these and how it works. Your letters are going to end up with more than a passing acquaintance.



Used the world over, sorting machines of one type or another have been in common use for forty years in major postal systems. They all function pretty much the same way even though advances in technology have made them faster and more efficient.  Above all, it’s important to always keep in mind that these things can process 30,000 – 50,000 pieces of mail per hour.

When we say process, we’re not joking. Each letter is fed into the machine in roughly a tenth of a second. It can be weighed, checked for postage, have the stamps cancelled, a barcode printed, the required information found in the address, and sorted into the right bin for the next stage of delivery. At a tenth of a second for each event  ..the whole chain of events might last a second in total.

You want to think about that. All of the effort you’ve put into your envelope may be lost in a literal tenth of a second flash.

And if it doesn’t fit or is incoherent or unreadable by the processor, it’s shunted to join any number of others, that will be examined by hand to discover what the problem is and find a way to solve it. As it’s is both time-consuming and costly to do this, it’s become less of a priority to the postal authorities who have massive amounts of mail to handle every day. To make up for it there are often surcharges and returns to the sender, not to mention the amount of mail just plain languishing lost.




As many people have mentioned, the right way to address international mail is like trying to hit a fast-moving target. Standards about written language, grammar, names, politics, pricing, sorting and delivery practices vary.

Establishing a standard in one country can conflict with the those of destination countries. As soon as one country changes its standards, everyone else is affected.

And it’s not just the addresses. Coordinating international mail often involves disasters, hostilities, storms and social disruption. Being able to reroute the flow quickly and efficiently is a real necessity.



At its heart, an address needs to accomplish two things. First, it should have a good chance of working.

Secondly it needs to be consistent and inoffensive.

This second point is often overlooked and can often be terribly important.

Who gets to decide when a place is a country  ..what the official name and language is  ..and what can and cannot cross its borders while in transit to a third country?

To be effective, an address has to meet the requirements of both the country of origin and the country it’s being sent to. In addition, you don’t want it confusing or irritating people who could purposely delay it on its way.

As a result we have arrived at some pretty reliable International standards.


  1. The country name must be understood worldwide
  2. The city must be understood by the destination country
  3. The street address must be understood by the destination post office.


It’s interesting to note that all mail is sorted from the bottom of the envelope upwards through the address to the top.

You start looking for a single piece of information and as soon as you find it, it’s immediately on it’s way to the next round of sorting. It always starts with the name of the country, followed by a populated centre and finally the house. The name of the person is the last thing you need to know.


Many national postal services now offer ‘pre-sorting’ of mail for destination countries so questions of language and consistency are important.

Once a letter arrives in a country, it’s sent to a major population centre to be sorted a second time. In order to get there, the name and location of the city or town must be understood by everyone in the national postal system. Often the postal code, which contains very specific information, is included along with the city or political region.

Extra characters, punctuation and especially symbols can wreak havoc with these first two stages of delivery.

In amazing contrast, the current state of optical character recognition is astounding. Handwritten cursive, printed, typed, Garamond or comic sans, they all get sent on their way.

The question of consistent structure for addresses is only going to become more critical and valuable given the changes in the postal industry over the past three to five years and information is already rapidly disappearing behind the paywalls of various private companies.

Often the postal system is no longer seen as a national service by the countries involved. Instead, more and more governments and private companies view it as a potential licence to print money. World-wide, this is a huge area of contention.

The value of an organization with that has an immense infrastructure capable of reaching every person in the country in a timely fashion, provide reliable communication, information, monetary transactions, disaster relief, and emergency goods and services shouldn’t be overlooked.

There are few people know and understand an area as well as a letter-carrier.  Not to mention that the local post-office is often seen as trustworthy, central, reliable and staffed by understanding neighbours.

Unfortunately in contrast, there are many parties that regard a national postal system as a poor, deficient cousin to the immensely profitable private courier companies. But we digress.


Once your letter arrives at the local post office, it may be the first time it’s handled individually by human hands.

All the information at the top of the address needs to be understood by the local population who will be sending it out for delivery. For this reason it’s generally not a good idea to change any language, punctuation, order, or even system of writing that you’ve been given by the person you’re writing to. It may have to conform to some very local directions to get to the recipient.

Three things we know for sure. Pencil is never acceptable for an address. Ink should be waterproof (rubbing some paraffin wax over the address will work). And never write anything ( especially ‘attention’ or an apartment numbers )  below the city or country line of the address.

From a simplified non technical way your address should break down into three sections and mostly resemble the following from the top down.

The Local Post Office:

  • the most specific information     -usually the person’s name
  • less specific information              -usually information about the building
  • less specific information              -usually information about the street
  • less specific information              -usually information about the area of the city

The City Line:

  • the most specific information     -usually the city name
  • less specific information              -usually the regional designation
  • the postal code                               -this may be extremely specific information

The Country Line:

  • the name of the country
    • this must be in an internationally recognized language
    • this must be in an a language recognized by the sending country


The actual formats recognized by various national postal systems, cities and regions can vary substantially but they all follow this general pattern.

We spend a great deal of time verifying the information and formatting the addresses in order that your letters have the best chance of getting to their destination successfully.

While we are not foolproof, especially at the very local level in developing or rural areas, we think we’re pretty good.

If in doubt we confirm what we know with several sources including various local institutions and correspondence with the postal system(s) involved. It’s bit on the nerdy side, but it’s a fascinating and fast changing corner of the universe that we feel strongly needs to be protected for handwritten mail.








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