Thursday, January 10, 2008

APO/FPO

As a kind of postscript to my comments about international packages, I might as well mention APO/FPO addresses. It's the system the US uses to get mail to members of the military. Basically it's a hybrid of the regular US mail and you address it just like regular domestic mail and pay for it just like regular domestic mail but the customs gets wacky because it still has to be imported into a host country. And you may not necessarily know where it is, or be allowed to know where it is, but you still can't break any custom rules. Fun, huh? Well, it's actually no big deal as we'll see.

So with the actual addressing the only difference is instead of

John Smith
123 Main Street,
Whittier, CA, 90604


It will be more like
John Smith
Often a unit or box # or something
APO AE, AE 09705

Well, the post office gets this and there's a fake state which will be AA, AE, AP. I believe AP ends up getting routed to San Francisco. And the zip code will be in the general ballpark of the real city's zip code so that the mail will just flow naturally to the right location. Then it's the military's problem and they get it to the right place... eventually.

If you have any kind of tracking, you'll see it go to the right city and then you'll get some status saying it's been handed off and that's it - you can't really tell after that point.

So really the only hitch is that maybe you're sending a picture of a naked woman, and if they are at a European base they don't care, and if they're in Iraq or whatever local law prohibits it. Now, if you're just sending a gift to a loved one probably it will get through, but imagine you send a lot of packages and the last thing you need is customs hassles.

Well, there's a few lookup sites on the web, including if you use the post office site to do the postage they'll show the regulations for that zip code. There's a useful site Onconus.com where you can look them up. So let's compare 09334 to 09705. 09705 is great - there's hardly any regulations for 09705. 09334 isn't so fun - look at that. No pork, no alcohol, no obscene materials, and oh, E2, that's my nemesis. "Any matter depicting nude or seminude persons" - now, I've never gotten a good description of seminude for this purpose, but I bet I'm included. Note there's nothing in there about it being sexy or art being excluded - if you're seminude you're done.

So once you've packaged it up, you address it as above and you pay normal US postage you just have to do a customs form. There are forms of different lengths and complexity depending on details like how valuable the item is, but usually you can just do a 2976 form which is simple. If you use the USPS website to print the label they'll actually include the customs info right on the label. Easy.

You could probably write a book about this stuff - people who use the system often seem to have a lot of little tricks to make it work for them - but that's the gist. It's not scary, it's not expensive, it's just worth double checking the customs rules if you don't want to risk it and then filling out a short customs form. It's amazing how many small stores won't ship to these addresses because they don't want the hassle. They say they don't want to have to hire people to fill out customs forms, but Amazon ships to APO/FPO addresses and they get by somehow even though you would think with their business model it would be a big hassle for them. The only excuse I'll kind of sort of buy is if they have a bulk deal with UPS/FedEx and don't ever use regular US mail... but if that's true they'd better not be shipping to PO boxes either because it's exactly the same.

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