Post offices in the US: a guide for Australians

This holiday season I’ve had a few Australian friends travelling in the US, and something I’ve seen repeatedly on Twitter is, basically, this:

So, here is a guide for US post offices, aimed at Australians. I’m qualified to write this because I had exactly this experience when I moved there. It went something like this.

Me, to office manager: “Hey, where’s the nearest post office?”

Office manager: “Uh… I think there might be one at [distant location]. Or you could take the bus to [other distant location] I guess.”

Me: “Isn’t there one closer? Like, walking distances? This is a busy urban area, after all!”

Office manager: *puzzled look* “No, you have to take the bus…”

Me: *boggled*

Then I caught a bus out to some forsaken quasi-industrial wasteland and found a grey-painted bunker with a USPS logo on it, where one poor worker stood behind a screen and a queue of dejected people lined up to collect or mail parcels.

A sad change from the Australia Post outlets I’m used to, which are in convenient retail locations no more than a few minutes’ walk away, have bright decor, and try and sell you things like calendars and gifts and travel whatsits and office supplies and generally are quite upbeat. Not to mention fairly quick service — I was in and out of my local one in 5 minutes, right before Christmas.

Compare:

Australia Post retail outlet at Sydney international airport

Australia Post retail outlet at Sydney international airport

USPS

US post office, location unknown.

And let’s talk about how many post offices there are. Each map, showing search results for “post office near…”, shows approximately the same area — they were all taken at the same zoom level on Google Maps.

Here’s where I used to live, in one of the most densely populated urban areas in the US:

Map showing post offices in San Francisco

San Francisco, population density 17,160 people per square mile (6,632/km2)

Here’s where I currently live, in a country town in Australia:

map showing ballarat post offices

Ballarat, population density 1,957.5 people per square mile (755.8/km2)

Here’s what most Australians, living in capital cities, would be used to:

Map showing Melbourne post offices

Melbourne, 4,058 people per square mile (1,567/km2)

In case you can’t make it out, every small dot on that map is a post office, too, albeit sometimes a licensed Australia Post outlet combined with another business; Google only puts full sized pins for a few of them.

Actually, I fudged the search a little bit, and when I explain why you’ll understand something about the US postal system. See, when I searched for “post office near san francisco” I got lots of small dots, too, which made it look like there were lots of post offices. But when I dug deeper it turned out that most of them weren’t actually post offices, but were “mailing offices” or UPS or other courier shops, or other retail outlets that just sold stamps. I had to specify “USPS post office near san francisco” to get the actual official ones, and I’m still not sure it’s accurate; the USPS locator gives me 34 hits for within 5 miles of 94105 (the zipcode of where I used to work in SF), some of which don’t seem to show up on Google Maps — but note that this is a larger area than is shown on the map above, and that Melbourne still has far more, despite 1/4 the population density.

However, the proliferation of non-post-office hits on the Google map is the key to understanding why Australians get confused when trying to find a post office in America. The point is: most of the services an Australian thinks you’d get at a post office — buying stamps, sending mail, packaging parcels, etc — happens elsewhere. You simply don’t need to go to a post office except in extraordinary circumstances. At least, not if you’re affluent and have good Internet and technology at hand; like so many crappy, underfunded, inconvenient US government services, people buy their way out of using them if they can.

So, here’s the actual advice for Australian travellers looking for a post office in the US.

  1. First things first: don’t ask, “Where can I find a post office?” Ask what you really want: “How can I mail this thing?” The answer is generally not “at the post office”, but some other way.
  2. Buying stamps: in San Francisco, buy them at Walgreens. I’m not sure how widespread Walgreens are, but wherever you are, some major retail chain probably stocks stamps at the counter, and will be more accessible, open longer hours, and easier to find than a post office.
  3. Finding out how much it costs to mail a letter overseas: usps.com — don’t rely on Walgreens staff to know this, but do your research ahead and just ask them for the monetary value you need.
  4. Sending letters: mailboxes are painted dark blue and are low-set compared to Australian or British ones, so they’re hard to spot on the street, and USPS’s website doesn’t have a locator. However, you can generally leave your mail at the front desk of anywhere where the post office would deliver mail, eg. the reception desk at an office, or the front desk of a hotel, and they’ll hand it to the mail carrier. (In some places, mail carriers pick up mail from residential mailboxes — that’s what those red flags are all about, which was always bewildering to me back when I used Eudora for email in the 1990s. If you’re staying somewhere with a mail flag on the box, you can leave mail in it, and raise the flag to tell the carrier to collect it.)
  5. Sending parcels: as above for letters, but you can do your own weighing and buy the postage online at postcalc.usps.com. You can print out a label and tape it to your parcel, which is valid postage, and you don’t have to visit a post office at all. Most hotels, offices, etc should have a scale you can borrow to weigh a parcel.
  6. Buying mailing materials (envelopes, boxes, bubble wrap): the same place you buy stamps, or an office supply store like Office Depot or Staples.
  7. Another option: in the US they rely much more heavily on courier services like UPS and FedEx. If you’re sending a parcel, it may work better to use them. Check their websites and you should be able to calculate shipping prices, print a label, and arrange a pickup. There are also retail outlets for these services, which will also sell packing materials and print the mailing label for you, and are generally easier to find and get to than an actual post office.
  8. If you’re trying to mail parcels internationally, you’ll probably have discovered how ridiculously expensive it is from the US (around $100 to send a small, 1kg package to Australia, for instance). So in fact, it’s probably cheaper to get an extra suitcase and pay excess baggage fees for your flight back. Sad but true.

So in short: ask “where can I buy stamps/packaging?” or “where can I mail this letter/parcel”, and the answer will be something other than a post office. Hope that helps!

“Utopia Girls”: I’m disappointed

Me, elsewhere: this is a crosspost of something I wrote for the Australian feminist blog Hoyden About Town. If you’re interested in comments, you should check there as well as here.

About a week ago, the ABC aired Utopia Girls: How Women Won the Vote, a documentary about women’s suffrage in Australia. I’d seen a few positive mentions on Twitter and Facebook, so this afternoon I went and hunted it down on iView and watched it.

The documentary opens with the narrator, Dr. Clare Wright, stating that:

These days, we all enjoy equal rights and seemingly endless choices. But just one hundred and fifty years ago, women were far from equal.

It’s nice that she thinks inequality is in the past, but she’s deluding herself. It would be facile to list all the groups who don’t enjoy equal rights in Australia (same-sex couples who want to marry being just one current and obvious example) but even if we limit ourselves to women’s rights and choices, it’s far from true. Women still earn about 15% less than men for the same work; abortion is still illegal or effectively so in Queensland; and take a look at the sort of misogynist crap that’s flung at Julia Gillard, Gina Rinehart, or the latest victim of a popular footballer’s rape if you want to see what attitudes to women in our country are really like.

So, no, Utopia Girls, the smug “we all live in a 21st century feminist wonderland” attitude doesn’t exactly fly with me. It’s not just inaccurate, it’s dangerous. Should we really be telling women there’s nothing left to work or fight for, or giving anti-feminists reassurance that women’s current concerns are unnecessary?

If that was all that Utopia Girls had wrong with it I’d be annoyed enough, but it just gets worse. The main focus of the documentary are the stories of a handful of middle class, white Anglo- and Irish-Australian women and their work for women’s suffrage in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia. I can’t claim an exhaustive knowledge of the subject matter or the period, but it’s obvious even to me that there are voices missing here.
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