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USPS Mail Shipping Classes Explained

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USPS Mail TrucksOver the course of the last few weeks, I’ve been mailing a bunch of documents and packages back and forth between my parents and myself. Some of these packages have been important from a sentimental perspective, some have been important from a financial perspective, and some were just some routine things that weren’t important at all. While my faith in the United States Postal Service is a little shaky, they’ve had a good enough track record that I’d trust them as long as I didn’t test them by mailing too much! In all those instances, we had to decide on how we were going to mail it – certified, registered, express, priority or regular? What’s the difference? The differences are actually pretty substantial and it’s important to understand what each is trying to accomplish so you don’t overpay.

Certified Mail

The package is trackable and a signature is required on delivery. The point of certified is if you can’t completely trust your recipient or you need a timestamp of when a package is accepted. This makes it perfectly suited for official letters because the post office will track when the letter was delivered along with a signature by the person who accepted it. If you don’t need either of these things, certified mail is a completely waste of money.

Registered Mail

Registered mail is the only one that guarantees delivery and they claim to put it under “tight security from the point of mailing to the point of delivery,” plus insurance of up to $25k against loss and damage. If what you’re shipping is over $5,000 (that’s the normal insurance limit) and you want USPS shipping insurance, registered mail is the one for you. If the thought of having to mail your item or letter scares you, you’ll probably want this insurance.

Express Mail

The package is trackable (if you print the label online) though no signature is required on delivery. Guaranteed to get there as promised or your money back. If you want speed, this is your best bet. The guarantee is a money-back guarantee, it’s possible that the package will never get there.

Priority Mail

The package is trackable (if you print the label online) though no signature is required on delivery. An interesting tidbit, any package over a pound is automatically considered priority mail even if you want to do it first class. Both are transported together and it is not treated any differently than regular mail. The 2-3 day delivery timeline is an estimate and not a guarantee, you’ll need Express Mail for a money-back guarantee.

First Class Mail

This is essentially everything else and is what I call regular mail. It’s called First Class because it’s the “best” of the shipment options that aren’t Express or Priority. Some examples of other classes are Media Mail and Parcel Post… both are slooooowwwww.


I think two things confuse people the most about shipping with the USPS:

  • People think Priority Mail means it’s guaranteed to get there in 2-3 days, it really gets there as quickly as it would’ve if you shipped it First Class. If you have something that is less than 16 oz. and you ask for Priority Mail, you’re paying more for the sticker.
  • People mistake Certified Mail for Registered Mail. If you’re filing some document, certified mail is what you want. If you’re mailing a $25,000 necklace, then registered mail is what you want.

(Photo by icanchangethisright)

{ 37 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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37 Responses to “USPS Mail Shipping Classes Explained”

  1. S. Johnson says:

    Also, with registered, you have to go into the Post Office, or branch thereof. You can do the rest of these from the comfort of your desk.

  2. Richard says:

    OK, now I’m confused.

    You say this: “any package over a pound is automatically considered priority mail even if you want to do it first class”…

    But then you say this: “If you have something that less than 16 oz. and you ask for Priority Mail, you’re paying more for the sticker”.

    Are you saying then that First Class and Priority Mail travel together REGARDLESS of weight?

  3. jim says:

    Richard: According to what the post office worker told me, Priority Mail packages that are under 16 oz will travel with the 1st Class packages marked 1st Class, everything over 16 oz. will travel together as Priority. There’s honestly nothing special about priority mail over 1st class.

  4. Kimberly says:

    Priority Mail is not the same thing as first class. The reason I say this is because first class letters take 3 or more days to make it from me in Denver to my parents in South Florida (or coming the opposite way), but if I use Priority Mail it gets there in 2 days every time. I understand that Priority is not guaranteed, but it’s always been faster for me for that distance.

  5. Richard says:

    Hmm.. so Jim, you’re saying that if over 16oz, they ALL go as Priority. If under 16oz, they ALL go as 1st class.

    So no matter how heavy they are, they ALL go together, right?

  6. jim says:

    Yep, except the under 16 oz packages that are marked as Priority cost more and have a Priority Mail sticker. 🙂

  7. Poolis says:

    I worked as a USPS carrier for a summer.

    1. Priority Mail is justly named, as carriers and post masters treat it differently than First Class, Parcel Post, Media Mail, etc.

    2. First Class mail over 1 lb does not exist, so saying they travel together is misleading.

    • Sergio says:

      Well, I just came from the the post office here in Lincoln, NE, and shipped a ‘large envelope’ (letter sized) to Texas weighing 1 lb 7.4 oz as ‘First-Class Mail’ for $2.07 using the mailing machine at the post office. Funny things is I checked at USPS website and there is no way to mail it thru First-Class using their online resources. I’d have had to use ‘Priority Mail’ and pay $4,75 for the same envelope. This is more than twice as much so, what’s the catch? Any insights? Thanks.

      • Sergio says:

        disregard this comment. the actual weight was 0 lbs 7.4 oz, price matches perfectly the one online. Sorry.

  8. saladdin says:

    All I know is that my best friend drives for UPS and says that writing Fragile on a box only pisses them off and will guarantee the guys sorting packages will try to make a 30 yard field goal with your box.


    • Sandor Kassar says:

      >saladdin, that makes it sound like a VERY good reason for never sending anything but a cast iron bed-frame via UPS. I think I will stick with the Post Office. At least they are responsible. I think UPS hires anyone off the street, but the Post Office carriers have to pass Civil Service.

      • Morgan says:

        Just wanted to comment on this because the UPS worker that delivers packages to my work, where we ship packages regularly, is amazing. I don’t think ‘anyone off the street’ would go above and beyond like he has for us many times. Crappy people and awesome people probably work for both places. UPS and USPS are great, depending on what you need it for.

        Great article by the way!

  9. USPS Certified Mail provides the mailer two receipts. The first is proof of mailing or acceptance by USPS and the second is proof of letter delivery. USPS Certified Mail is used primarily as business mail and is commonly used when a receipt or ‘proof’ of mailing is required by State Law or mandate.

  10. Ellen braggenheim schneider says:

    What the heck is Media Mail. Post office employees put these in separate boxes. Delivery is about ten to fourteen days.

    sent my application for a job to the post office in White plains NY. Never heard from them again. If they are short handed maybe they can contact me. I would love a Federal Job.

    • Sandor Kassar says:

      The only consider you if you have passed the Civil Service exam. (My older brother was a mail carrier, and that is how he had to get the job.)

  11. Ana says:

    I wish I had read this before sending some things…

    Out of the last four times (within a time frame of 2 months) that I’ve sent something priority, this is what happened:

    One envelope took 5 days to reach its destination.
    Another envelope made it within 2 days.
    Another envelope took 12 days to reach the destination.
    The last one still hasn’t reached the destination (a 3 hour drive from me) and it’s been 21 days.

    Priority has proven to be a waste of money to me.

    Let me not get started on USPS’s customer service…

    Author, thanks for the useful information.

    • ANXIETY says:

      i must say this post has relieved some anxiety. i sent a registered box 50lbs and its taking almost 2 weeks, priority mail.

    • Morgan says:

      I send a lot of stuff Priority, and have usually things arrive in the estimated 2-3 days, however there are the occasional times when something takes 2-3 weeks to go and I can’t understand why.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I sent a big box priority via usps from NJ to PA and Janauary 21st (last Wednesday) and my daughter still have not received it as of to date January 27th.

  13. Jenna says:

    I don’t know how old this article is, but the USPS changed their regulations in 2007. Anything over 13 oz. cannot be 1st class. 16 oz. is the old regulations. So basically, if you need to send a letter or card to a friend, priority is the same as first class, with the exception that priority gives you tracking info. Anything over 13 oz. needs to be brought to the post office directly and delivered as a “package” which can be which ever method you choose. You can send a package first class, and it will be delivered with the normal mail. Priority is guarenteed within 2-3 business days, which could be the same length of time for regular mail, depending on where you send it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    it takes me longer and time off work to go to PO to pick the letter up

  15. Ava Wilson says:

    Lesson to remember always: When buying internationally, be willing to invest and pay, for official tracking services. Don’t buy from a seller who refuses to take the trouble to obtain tracking, and insurance coverage if you wish.

    USPS is very reliable and quite honest, but in my own opinion, once mail matter leaves its hands overseas, it loses control of whatever happens next…..or what doesn’t happen, such as delivery.

  16. Sandor Kassar says:

    I have had reasonably good luck from Hong Kong, but their postal service confuses me. Two identical packages can be sent the same day to the same address in the US; one might get there
    by the next day (actually a day and a half travel because of time zones) while the other may take ten days. This has happened.

    It almost makes me wonder if you need to tape a small envelope with money in it to your package and label it “a bribe in appreciation for your expediting my package.” Ha ha -just kidding about that, but the delivery time does vary greatly. (Could it be random Customs Inspections?

  17. Hi,
    I have been shipping packages with USPS for over 12 years in my business. Shipping classes have changed over the years, and costs have risen, however, you need to correct a couple of points. You can ship items weighing 13 ounces or less by First Class Mail. Items weighing OVER 13 ounces go by Priority Mail. There is no “break” at 16 ounces.

    You need to understand that the number assigned by USPS for shipping on-line is NOT a tracking number…it is only a delivery confirmation number. That’s a HUGE difference…while sometimes you can see package movement by “tracking” the package, it’s not consistent, and doesn’t mean very much. For overseas shipments, I’ve lost enough
    First Class Mail packages to now have eliminating it from my mail selections…

    Finally, First Class Mail items MAY end up being delivered at the same time as a Priority Box, but having spoken to a number of postal workers, there is no consolidation of shipping that includes First Class and Priority Mail in the same shipment.

    I started using Endicia as my shipping program, and ALWAYS get a confirmation number for First Class, Priority and Express in the US and Priority and Express for International. Good Luck!

    • John Hubel says:

      I have also shipped usps priority for many years., We also used UPS for ground between 1994-1999.Then we switched to fedex..

      In 2006 we started using the scan form (form 5630) with all our usps daily shipment lots. From that day forward all packages using the online shipping labels were trackable via track&confirm. This included all our priority mail,parcels and media mail that had the e-delivery confirmation. I have shipped almost 3000 packages in this manner and all had tracking, all but 2 boxes were delivered in the 3 day time limit, the last 2 took 4 days.I did have 1 that took a few days after delivery to show the delivery scan online, this was a situation were several notices were left at a po box.

      UPS, yes they handle packages very poorly, their sort facility in Wyoming Michigan would remind someone of a kick-bailer tossing hay bails into a cage-wagon.Packages are routinely dropped 12+ feet into bins on top of other packages.

      I have shipped with fedex since late 1999 and had no damage issues.Most of my ground packages are 40 to 125 pounds each.

  18. Matt says:

    UPS is horrible with packages. They say use both hands on package until you reach the surface but when you get to the trucks your lucky if your package isn’t stepped on spit on and torn apart by the loader or unloader. Not to mention what the sorters do to them.

    FEDEX seems to handle their packages a little better but not by far.

    USPS seems to take better care of your packages than both the other guys.

  19. John says:

    My confusion is this.

    If you mail a package that is over a pound with a first class label, and it gets treated as priority, how do they get the extra cost from the shipper? Do they?

  20. Al says:

    How many days usually take shipping from east coast to west coast (new York to Seattle ) via USPS registered mail?

  21. alienmurphy says:

    There is a lot of misinformation here and that is a sign of ignorance.

    First Class is 0-13 ounces. Anything over 13 ounces cannot be sent first class.

    Anything over 13 ounces can be sent a number of ways. Not automatically priority mail.

    1) Priority mail. Rates differ; can be flat rate boxes or by weight

    2) Parcel post, usually cheaper than priority but delivery time is longer.

    3) Media mail. This is cheaper than priority and parcel but has to meet the medial mail criteria.

  22. geoff says:

    What I want to know is how first class and priority are treated different during the delivery process. I read from a former usps worker that usps now has a contract with fedex that allows priority mail to be delivered on fedex planes so the shipping process is in fact different for first class vs priority.

  23. roberto says:

    Does registered mail require a signature on EITHER end? Is there a way to guarantee that the package will get there and be compensated for its stated value if lost WITHOUT a signature? Thanks.

  24. angel says:

    what about over night ? I didn’t see anything in there or maybe I missed it…

  25. I came because that’s my Flickr pic of the mail truck, I stayed for the great info on USPS shipping classes. Thanks!

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