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!

Travels: SFO for the weekend, PDX for Open Source Bridge

Hey, I am massively disorganised this week, but I figured I should probably mention that I’m going to be travelling and would like to catch up with people.

Saturday 15th to Monday 17th June, I will be in San Francisco, mostly in the Castro/Mission/ish area. Social activities planned so far include:

  • Saturday afternoon: hanging out on Liz Henry’s patio in Bernal Heights, with laptops and snacks and generally socialising. Likely to be a hackerish/feminist crowd. If you know Liz and where she lives, just show up. If you don’t, then she says to email her and she’ll give you directions.
  • Saturday evening: drinks and foods at The Liberties, corner of Guerrero and 23rd. My old local. I believe that a space has been booked for a group in either the back or side room. Not sure what time this’ll go to, but just a warning that I’m not likely to make a very late night of it what with jetlag and stuff.
  • Sunday morning: brunch at Erica’s, and again, if you know her then you know the drill.

Sunday afternoon/evening are unscheduled, but I would expect that we’ll probably have some kind of dinner plans, so let me know if you’d like to be part of them.

Monday I’m hoping to have lunch with the Metaweb crew at Google (I’d better email them about that, huh?), meet up with some other folks (yipe, gotta email them too), and then off to PDX in the evening.

PDX: mostly I’m just gonna be at OSBridge. I’ll be keynoting Wednesday morning, and splitting my time between talks and the hack lounge. I think there has been talk of an outing to yarn and/or fabric stores at some point. Yes? Then, the weekend afterwards, some Growstuff folks are going to carpool and head out into the country to visit some farms and community gardens and stuff like that.

I would love to catch up with as many people as possible, so please, drop me a line if you’d like to have tea or burritos or go yarn shopping or whatever. See you soon!

Fresh links for June 20th through July 11th

  • Cities and Citizenship: Anti-Graffiti, Part 1: Aesthetics – An interesting take on the aesthetics of the anti-graffiti movement, and how it often co-opts graffiti to its own ends. Lots of interesting example pics from Sydney.
  • Revising The Revisionists – Excellent article about the 1898 armed coup and massacre of black residents of Wilmington, North Carolina. Reminds me of the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me", and of course Australia's own "history wars".
  • The Strongest Woman In America Lives In Poverty – This top weightlifter, on her way to the Olympics, can't afford to eat. She needs 3000-4000 calories a day while she's training, and relies on food banks. No sponsorships because of sizeism — they don't think she's hot enough, or something. She has an indiegogo fundraiser here if you want to help her out: http://www.indiegogo.com/loveforanolympian
  • Adaptation by Remix: Vidding Feminist Science Fiction – My friend Alexis writes about Chaila's Wiscon premiere vid, taking visual sources and creating a video for Octavia Butler's "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents" that draws from the genres of book trailer, fanvid, and political remix.

Fresh links for May 16th through May 17th

  • Ravelry API – Wait, what? How did I miss this. Ravelry has an API now, and they've been using it internally since Feb 2012, so it isn't just an unloved add-on. (You probably can't follow the link, which is to the Rav API forum, unless you're a member. But anyone who might be interested in this probably is already, so…)
  • Our real first gay president – Newsweek says Obama's the US's "first gay president", ignoring James Buchanan, who was openly gay in the 19th century. This article has some great context and thoughts on the ideology of progress. "Remembering that James Buchanan was homosexual complexifies our national narrative, to be sure, but it is a complexity that we need."
  • The world’s hottest digital markets: a music map – Interesting… this map is trying to show you digital music services' market share worldwide, but it also lets you see which digital music services are available in which countries.
  • Welcome to Life « Tom Scott – A science fiction story about what you see when you die. Or: the Singularity, ruined by lawyers.
  • The Bombay Royale – Karle Pyar Karle – Check out The Bombay Royale. They're a Melbourne band (including some recent graduates from my school) who play surf/disco/funk/Bollywood fusion, and apparently they've got a gig at the HiFi Bar on Swanston Street this Saturday. I'm planning on going.

Fresh links for May 14th through May 15th

  • Mitt Romney, Bully In Chief? – s.e. smith brings a solid analysis of Mitt Romney's school "pranks" (read: homophobic bullying) and what it could mean for his possible presidency.
  • Chumbawamba – The Diggers’ Song – YouTube – Who knew that Chumbawumba had recorded an album of songs of political rebellion from 1381-1914? Not me for sure. This is their rendition of "The Digger's Song", a 17th century song by the same group that Billy Bragg sings about in "The World Turned Upside Down".
  • MOTU 4pre – Really nice looking 4-channel mixer/analog-digital converter from MOTU. I've got the Ultralite Mk2, but if this had been around when I was shopping, I would have bought it for sure. The two "Hi-Z" inputs so you can plug in an instrument without a DI look particularly handy.
  • What’s behind the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece? – A good overview of what's going on with Greece and the neo-Nazi party "Golden Dawn", who won a surprising number of seats in the country's recent election.
  • Mapping hacks for the 17th-18th centuries – Say you're an early modern historian with a bunch of data about 18th century Paris. How do you display it using modern mapping tools, given that old streets may have changed or disappeared?